USC Digital Folklore Archives / Old age
Folk speech
Old age

Italian Folk Saying

The following folk belief is a saying that my family friend G often heard from her mother in 1950s-60s San Francisco. Her mother was an Irish woman but G believes this is an Italian and global saying.

Text: It’s amazing that 1 mother can take care of 8 children but 8 children can’t take care of 1 mother.

Context: G told me this folksaying when I was meeting her for coffee, asking her about folklore she has heard. G described that this was a common saying in Italian and Irish families in San Francisco. G emphasises that she believes this folklore describes how a mother always takes care of her children and does anything for them while they are growing up. She is always there for her children when they need her throughout their lives. However, when a mother needs help, which is most often the occurrence towards the end of her life, all her children are absent. The children always claim they are to busy, have to work, or don’t have enough money to take care of the mother. G also said that throughout her lifetime, she has seen this folk saying come to fruition many times, and often see mothers be ignored or not given enough attention when they need help from their children.

Analysis: I think G’s interpretation of this folklore is completely accurate. This folk saying is clearly representing the belief that mothers should be cared for later in life, and often aren’t by their children. It demonstrates how our society is obsessed with wealth and capitalism, and not focused enough on family. Often times people don’t want to take care of their mothers later in life because it might limit the advancement of their careers. Another aspect of the folk belief is that it seems to personify older women to be in needing of care, which could show small sexism in society, as it is assumed that older men don’t need any help or resist it. However I do not belief that there is any true meaning to be sexist in this folksaying. In my research of this folk belief however, I found it interesting that this folk belief also occurrs in other cultures throughout the world, and exists in Muslim culture as well. Showing the importance of mothers throughout the world and the belief that children often neglect their mothers as they get older. Why this particular folk saying names 8 children, and others I found online have differing numbers of children, seems to be arbitrary and there is no meaning behind the specific number of children.

general
Humor
Old age

Old Man and Well Joke

Context: The informant told me this joke at a party where they were trying to tell some of their best jokes.

Piece: 

“Why did the old man fall into a well? Because he couldn’t see that well.”

Background: The informant is a 20 year old college student at Harvard. He really enjoys telling jokes and found this piece on Reddit. They enjoy finding jokes on Reddit to use in everyday life or tell to friends. They like this joke because it is short and witty, and consider it one of their best jokes.

Analysis: 

This piece is is a joke that touches on themes of old age and double entendre. The humor is created by unexpected switch in the punch line of the meaning of “well” from the water hole definition to the usage as a synonymous to good. The other humorous quality is poking fun at the nature of old age and how older people have weaker eyesight. This joke reflects how American culture has a pattern of joking about the elderly and this is part of American ideology that champions youth. There is also a trend in jokes where people find falling funny and this plays into that

Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic
Old age
Signs

White Headbands – A Chinese Folk Belief

Item:

Q: Why can’t you wear white headbands?

H: 嗰啲 (go2 di1) white 係人地死咗人地 先戴白色吖嗎(hai6 jan4 dei6  sei2 zo2 jan4 dei6  sin1 daai3 baak6 sik1 aa1 maa3)

[Translation: People only wear white when people die, right.]

Q: 白色件衫定係 白色喺個 頭(baak6 sik1 gin6 saam1 ding6 hai6 baak6 sik1 hai2 go3 tau4)

[Translation: White clothes or white on the head?]

H: 個頭 (go3 tau4)  Like when the parents, like the- your upper generation, like your parents or your grandparents or something, yeah.  When they pass away, so wearing the white [gesturing a headband]. So Asians nope, not gonna wear the white headbands.

[Translation: The head.] (Rest of line remains the same)

Q: So the person who dies wears the white or when you have someone who passed away?

H: Mhmm. So the younger generation will need to put the white thing on their heads, so that’s why no Asians wearing white headbands.

 

Context:

I collected this folk belief as part of a conversation in both Cantonese and English about Chinese traditions and customs.  The informant, denoted by ‘H’ in the exchange above, is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  It should also be noted that the informant likely meant East and Southeast Asians when referring to Asians in the text because these are the cultures that are most similar to her own.  She didn’t mention specifically where she learned about white headbands from when asked but only said that you just know this kind of thing growing up because you would see it all the time in Vietnam.  She also told me about how one of her daughters unknowingly wore a white scrunchie once and thus had to explain the symbolism behind it before making her take it off.  White headbands as a funeral custom is an inherent part of the culture in which she grew up, and as such, she will never forget about it and will always stay away from wearing one out of proper context herself.

 

Analysis:

This folk belief can be tied to a belief in sympathetic magic: since white headbands are worn as part of funeral custom when a member of your family has died, you could potentially cause death in the family by wearing them if no one has actually passed away.  The likeness of performing the custom during a particular event may evoke the event itself to happen.  Here we can also see an example of the difference in color symbolism between cultures, a difference that becomes apparent when one is removed from the immediate environment of their own culture.  The informant grew up around this symbolism, taking it as a given, and as such never recognized it as significant until coming to the United States.  In the United States and other western countries, white is often a symbol of innocence and purity.  On the other hand, in Vietnam and other eastern countries, white is a symbol of death and thus only worn during funerary rights.  This is likely why the informant’s daughter did not initially realize the bad omen of wearing a white scrunchie because she did not have the background of having grown up in Vietnam where white headbands were only worn for funerals.  Now with another example of the symbolism in the color white in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, I can understand why it is also a bad omen to wear white during the lunar new year.  Since it represents death, you may bring death upon yourself.  All in all, this folk belief outlines the symbolism of the color white in East and Southeast Asian cultures and furthermore, it proves how one’s own culture is not immediately recognizable until taken out of its initial context.

Legends
Magic
Narrative
Old age

An apartment is found haunted by reflection on the window

Context
The informant grew up in Beijing. We were discussing ghost stories when she brought out this story.

Content
A man bought a new apartment. It was on the first floor. Outside the window is the garden, a small grassland in a residential district. He said that when the apartment was being furnished, he often saw an old man staring at him strangely from the window. When he walked outdoors to find the old man, the old man disappeared. When he moved into the house, a friend of his came to visit him. He told his friend that he often saw an old man. He asked his friend to go out and take a look, while he stood indoors to see whether the old man disappeared from the window. The friend went out, and then ran in hurriedly, brought him out and said, “You could not live in the apartment. The old man is a reflection on the window.”

Analysis
Because the old man is a reflection on the window, he is a ghost in the house. The main motif of the story is that mirrors or mirror-like object (window in this story) can show the reflection of ghosts, even though ghosts cannot be seen directly. Notice that the ghost is an old man. The old man must have some unfulfilled wishes that connect with the apartment – he probably lives in the apartment. To me, the story reflects the anxiety of the working force who fail to pay enough attention to their aging parents.

Adulthood
Customs
general
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish Funeral Custom — Cannot Dance

Text

The following piece is a Polish funeral custom that I learned of through my family’s babysitter whose father had recently passed away. The woman is a forty-eight year old Polish native who lives in Chicago now. I had been dancing around and in my attempt to get the Informant to join me, she explained why she was unable to.

Informant: “No, no…Can’t dance, no.”

Collector: “Come on! Why not?”

Informant: “No, no…My father die. I no dance for six months.”

Collector: “You can’t dance for six months because your dad died?”

Informant: “No dance for six months for father and mother. Four months for brother, sister.”

Context

The Informant has understood this Polish funeral custom for as long as she can remember. She remembers not dancing for a while after her grandfather had passed away, and has always understood it to be something she must also partake in. When her father passed, her entire family made the unspoken vow not to dance as a sign of respect to the dead.

Interpretation

While surprised at first, after hearing the Informant’s absolute belief in this funeral custom, I was beginning to also see it as a reasonable practice of mourning. I believe that the reason the Informant and her family undergo such a long process of morning, with such a specific time period, is out of respect for the ones they loved who have passed away. By vowing to not dance for six months, the participants must make a conscious effort everyday to not partake in overly joyful actions, excluding dancing altogether. I believe that commitment to this vow displays a respectful process of mourning, a way of honoring the dead by not moving on quickly after they are gone.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Old age
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Mexican Novenario

The majority of Mexico follows the Catholic religion, and in doing so, the rosary is an integral part of every day life, bringing about the goodness that only Divinity is able to bring. When someone feels that their death is near, family members and friends go to their home every day and say the rosary, praying together for some sort of miracle. If it is perceived that the person is bound to pass, they pray for their peaceful passing. Once a person has actually passed, they participate in what is called the Novenario. Through the Novenario, family and friends bring their rosaries to pray for nine days, as it remains a crucial aspect of that person’s ascension to Heaven. At the end of the nine days, it is customary to eat a final grand meal to thank the life of that particular person and all those who participated in the prayers. Traditional dishes include tamales and mole. Once this is complete, the person is expected to be in the hands of God.


 

The interlocutor has taken part in many Novenarios because of her relationship with her Mexican family members who have passed, mainly extended family members that she was connected to but did not have an intimate relationship with. She mentioned that the most excruciating Novenario she witnessed was the one that was in service of her own mother. The Novenario transpired as usual, but the interlocutor mentioned that this was an especially unique Novenario because the entire house was filled with many more people than it was designed for. Many women cried as they clutched their rosaries, muttering prayers amid the clamor of food preparation. In this aspect, the interlocutor felt immense comfort despite her sorrow. She mentioned that the Novenario, while integral to person who has passed, serves to comfort the living in their sadness.

The myriad religious connotations through the Novenario illustrate the reliance on religion during a time of loss and reflection. It is the backbone in which the Novenario is based, proving that many pious Mexicans rely on religion for comfort and peace of mind through their unwavering faith. The nine days spent praying acts as a sort of watch for the spirit, keeping the person company on their difficult journey from the physical to the divine. They protect and help guide the spirit that would otherwise get lost, utilizing prayer and presence to aid their passing.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Indian Funeral and Cremation

Indian funerals generally last 13 days where everyone is expected to wear white to celebrate their sadness over losing their loved one. As they commemorate the life of that person they are also beginning to release them. It is the duty of the man of the house to burn the body because of the Hindu belief in cremation. Once the cremation of the body is complete, the ashes are thrown into the ocean to dissolve the Pancha Maha-Bhoota, or the five elements. Through the dissolution of the elements of earth, water, fire, air, and aether, the spirit and soul of that person is liberated from their physical confines.


 

Though the interlocutor has witnessed various funeral occasions, she has only actively taken part in a funeral celebration a handful of times; because of her residence in India, she has been exposed to the traditions tied to funerals. She mentioned that the idea that celebrating sadness seems like a counter-intuitive sentiment, but in Indian culture it allows the passage of humans beyond earth easier, and those that are left behind are able to embrace their emptiness. As for her own plans regarding her time to pass, she stated that she plans to be cremated as well, and she finds the idea of the Pancha Maha-Bhoota dissolving to be reassuring.

Indian funerals are known to be quite visually striking, especially to those who are accustomed to the tradition of black clothing and solemnity. The white worn by participants and loved ones is pious and peaceful with an established sense of purity. Thus, the meaning of death is revealed as something that is to be rejoiced, simply a time in which one ascends beyond their physical body; this is quite a positive view on death. The number 13 appears quite often with calendrical measures of time, and because the funeral event lasts 13 days it ties one’s death to merely a measure of time. The cremation of the body at the hands of the male in the house also places power in the hands of the men while commemorating the renewing properties of fire as it allows disintegration and regeneration. The involvement of the Pancha Maha-Bhoota and the ocean also tie the funeral to the elements of life and nature, grounding the celebration among the living with the earth, the forces that we all will eventually return to at the time of our own demise.

Adulthood
Childhood
Folk speech
Humor
Narrative
Old age

Call a Wambulance

Main Piece:

“You better call a Wambulance”

Translation: Don’t complain about pain unless you want to go to the hospital

Background: The informant is a senior here at USC. He is my next door neighbor and we conducted this interview in person at his apartment. He is from Manhattan Beach and has lived there for his entire life.

Context: I asked the informant if he knew of any “Dadisms”. Dadisms are usually puns, combining word play with a common saying to covey a new meaning. The informant learned of the saying through his own father saying it and has said this to me multiple times in casual conversation. The informant stated that he likes to use the phrase as it reminds him of his father. The informant said his father will make this joke in response to someone (usually within the family) complaining about getting a minor physical injury, such as stubbing one’s toe. The joke is meant to mean that the person injured should fight through the pain and not let it bother, per the informant.

Analysis: It seems Dads have their own folklore, as does every other social community. I found this piece intriguing because this is actually stated by my own father as well. My Dad will use the exact phrase in the same situation as the informant’s. I asked my father where he learned this phrase and he said he learned it from his own father. Clearly, these “isms” are trans-generational. Like the informant, I also use this joke in passing. And, like the informant, I also learned of and associate this saying with my father. For the more recent generation, I believe this phrase is repeatedly used as a way to continually tie us to our fathers. For the the older generation, I believe the continued use of this joke serves to solidify their own identity as fathers.

Legends
Old age

Biking Grandpa of Kaohsiung

Background: This legend was commonly told in the area around Kaohsiung. The informant did not live in Kaohsiung, but nearby on the mainland.

Context: This story was performed in an Architecture studio, for an audience of two, in order to pass time while working on projects.

“There is a little island adjacent to my hometown called Kaohsiung. There are two ways to get to the island. The first is by ship, and the other is through a tunnel that we built under the sea. Usually the travel time using the tunnel is about half an hour, but for some people it will take up to two hours to get there. During that tunnel traveling people have found that the common thing is they have always met this grandpa biking. When they see that grandpa, it takes a longer time to travel. For some reason when you drive, you may be going 50 miles per hour, but the Grandpa is still biking fast enough to pass you. “

Car rides can be very boring, and in order to pass the time it is common to tell exciting stories. Providing a supernatural explanation to why your trip was is taking so long could be a welcome relief from that same monotonous travel.

Legends
Old age

Rice Ball/ Human Heart.

Background: The Informant was enlisted in Taiwan’s Military for two years, where he heard this story from his fellow soldiers.

Context: This story was performed in an Architecture studio, for an audience of two, in order to pass time while working on projects.

Body: “I learned this in the military in Taiwan. When you are a scout especially at night there are not many residential areas around the base. There are mostly old people around the base, who make money by selling food to the military people. Sometimes when you are scouting you will see a granny with a little cart selling rice balls. When a scout asks to buy a rice ball, the grandma says “OK” and takes out a human heart. ”

This was likely a scary legend told amongst soldiers in order to create a sense of solidarity regarding the eeriness of their situation, considering that many of them relocated from more populous areas.

[geolocation]