Category Archives: Customs

Customs, conventions, and traditions of a group

A Modern Quinceañera

Abstract: The Quinceañera also known as quince is a huge milestone in Hispanic culture as it is the right of passage for a girl to become a woman. This is the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday and the meaning behind it has been adapted as time goes on. Initially, it was a ceremony to show that a girl is ready for marriage and to travel the path of motherhood but the ceremony now is more of a transition to dating. The ceremony consists of a few customs such as the girl attending a mass with their godparents and family witness the transition. Later at the dinner, a waltz is performed as a formality and the changing of the girl’s shoes into heels.

Background: H is a student at the University of Southern California who’s experienced this traditional ceremony from her transition into womanhood. She’s lived in California her entire life and is a first-generation American and her family keeps many of their traditions from Mexico alive in her life.  She believes that the way her Quince was conducted is very traditional but also has a few twists that are uncommon to the format. The topic was brought up during lunch while discussing our family roots.

Transcript:

P: So tell me about an event that you think defines your culture and has influenced your growth.

H: My Quince! It was so much fun but it definitely wasn’t as traditional as some would have one of those was I didn’t wear the big dress because my parents wanted to surprise me with a large celebration so that would’ve ruined it and also because of this I didn’t have a chamberlain or a court but we did do a dance my family and myself and it was a lot of fun. Some of the traditions we did follow were we have a mariachi come to my house and play in the backyard and we did attend a mass to stick with the traditions of a quince. We also had a beautiful cake and we had a small ceremony where I put on heels to show that I’m growing up. It was so much fun being with my family. 

Interpretation:This seems to be a fun example of the modernization of a popular tradition where some of the key distinctions are preserved but some of the more outdated elements are omitted from the day. For example, the big dress which is meant to show that a girl is flowering out into a woman wasn’t required for her party since she went with a more mature modern dress which still has the same effect of showing a girl growing up. Second, she didn’t have a small court but rather she spend her time with her family which just shows that women being escorted by men is a bit outdated, and rather the party should show the enjoyment of being in the company of your family. However, the essence of her culture was maintained since she had her whole family with her and they ate a traditional Hispanic dinner while listening to cultural music. For more information of Quinceanera visit this source: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Quinceañera.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 12 Aug. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/quinceanera.

Chinese Red Eggs

Piece
H: Because the infant death rate was so high, people used to celebrate the baby’s birth after one month, so one month is actually their birthday. If they can, there is a big party and everyone gets red eggs. Ah-ma’s family was too poor to have a big party, but they give red eggs to the neighbors instead.
J: Why red eggs?
H: They’re a symbol of good luck and fortune. Also chicken eggs and chicken are a special treat in Taiwan. So the eggs are chicken eggs and red is for good things. [pause] You give them to people for other birthdays too, particularly for older people. Grandparents. Parents. Like 50 or 60. You give them red eggs too. You make red rice cakes stuffed with red bean. Anything with red bean paste. Mold it and make it the shape of, umm, the word doesn’t come out, a, a turtle! The rice cake in the shape of a turtle to symbolize long life. And if the person is older than you, you bow to them. When it’s their birthday, you bow to them.

Context
The informant learned this traditon from their mother who was born in Taiwan where this was a practice in their village and aided in throwing the red egg party for their neice.
This story was shared upon request by the collector when asking about various cultural traditions.

My Thoughts
I vaguely remember a red egg party for one of my first cousins. We dressed in red, fancy clothes and brought gifts. We ate red eggs and many other delicious foods and treats. Everything was red from the paper banners to the tablecloths to the food.
While red being a good color in Chinese culture is nothing new to me, I was surprised to hear at least some of the reasoning behind the eggs. In America, chicken is pretty cheap and easily available. Yet, for the informant, having chicken or chicken eggs was special and for celebratory occasions only.

Waving/Beckoning Cat

R: Well, we gave him a cat for luck.
C: Why? And why is it waving
R: I’ve actually heard two stories for that. One, was a long time ago, there was an emperor who was a good man. He would always greet everyone he saw as he went about his walks. One day, he saw a cat waving at him and so he stopped to wave back. Then, right in front of him, whoooosh, a horse galloped by and would have hit him!
The other one I’ve heard is that the cat is actually beckoning you. So there was an emperor who was sitting under a tree and enjoying his day when he saw a cat beckoning him to come. So he did and then right after he was out from under the tree, lightning struck it and would have killed him had he not gone to the cat.
So now when someone is starting a new business, you give them a waving cat.
Context
The informant gave their brother-in-law a waving cat when he opened a new business and shared that story to those present when prompted to by his children. To the informant, it was a way of honoring their brother-in-law’s culture and sharing stories (the informant enjoys storytelling) that they had heard from their parents when growing up.
My Thoughts
I have heard several versions of this story besides the two shared here and have seen many different waving cats in Japanese stores. This shows the cultural desire to be able to influence things such as luck and to honor the things and people that bring good fortune: a good turn for a good turn. In another version of the story [see link below] the samurai is the one saved by the cat and he then goes on to give much wealth to the temple that the cat belonged to and honor the cat upon its death.
https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/maneki-neko-temple-tokyo/index.html

Penny for a Clock

Piece
“You cannot give time”
Context
In Chinese culture, you cannot give someone a clock, watch, or any other time-keeping device as it is seen as giving the person time or highlighting how much time they have left on earth. It is especially insulting if given to someone older than you. So instead of giving someone a clock or other time-keeping device, you sell it to them. The person you are “gifting” the clock to will then give you a penny (or the lowest form of currency of that region) so that they are instead purchasing it from you.
My Thoughts
Death is terrifying for most people and thus their culture will reflect that fear of the uncertainty. This practice shows the desire to ignore the passing time, or at least not acknowledge that there time may be coming to close. It also showcases a level of respect shown to ones elders in Asian culture that is not seen in American culture.
Scholar Annamma Joy writes about this in Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties where on page 250, she reports on a field study where a participant said, “I did buy a clock for a friend, but in Chinese culture clocks are never given as gifts because they are associated with death. But before I gave the gift, I asked her for a small amount of money, so that it appeared as if she had bought it for herself.”
Joy, Annamma. “Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 28, no. 2, 2001, pp. 239–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/322900. Accessed 1 May 2020.

Dragon Boats Legend

Piece
It was originally a native tribe holiday. A dragon boat competition. Rowboat? Like rowboats competition, in the beginning of summer and you had lots of special food. After the festival, the weather stays warm.
In the old days, China was always a kingdom. This was before China unified to one kingdom. At that time, there were several kingdoms and there was always war, it was not very peaceful. There was a king, back before… it was called the three kingdom era. There were more than three kingdoms but that must have been the three major ones. There was a test to see who had the most knowledge, every year, and the winner would get to advise the king. The poets were very knowledgeable in literature, and there was one poet, Qu Yuan, who was very loyal to his king, but another king was trying to lure him with his daughter to marry. Qu Yuan was a very good advisor, but his king did not listen to him, so Qu Yuan worried that his kingdom would be swallowed by the others. So at the end, he gives up on the king and was so sad that he jumped into the river and die. The people of the kingdom tried to find his body and that is where the dragon boat competition started. They also made a lot of bout-zons and threw them in the river in hope that the fishes would not eat him.
Context
The informant heard this story from their mother during a childhood celebration. The informant does not practice any of the described activities nor celebrate the holiday as an adult with a family.
This story was shared during a family gathering as it related to another story told that specifically focused on the tradition of throwing bout-zons into a river after a person has died in those waters.
My Thoughts
This story highlights a lot of the attributes important to Taiwanese culture: Chiyan is loyal to his king, even when he is not heard. He cares for his people and works for their benefit. And he is honored after his death by the people that he served. He is not tempted away from his duty by the offer of a princess’ hand in marriage, but instead seeks knowledge and to do what is good for the people of his kingdom. This idea of self-sacrifice and the pursuit of knowledge is perpetuated in many Asian cultures even now. While Americans may find his death pointless, the intended audience of Taiwanese people see his death as a statement of his care for the kingdom and its people.
Scholar Huang Zheng wrote that the Dragon Boat Festival was to commemorate two individuals: Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu, and that the festival sought to exorcise evil. This version introduces another character and attempts to explain the dragon figureheads of the boats.
Zheng, Huang. “A Review and the Expectation of the Dragon Boat Festival Culture.” Journal of Hunan Agricultural University, 2010.

Zoom Parties

This interview was conducted over a video chat between me and interviewee, hereby further referred to as NC.

NC: I’m going to a zoom party tonight. You wanna come?

Me: What’s that?

NC: A zoom party?

Me: Yeah

NC: It’s like a get-together or gathering of people, like a real party, except it’s all virtual through zoom. 

Me: Wait, but how does that work?

NC: Well basically someone hosts the meeting like hosting the party, invites all of their friends with the link and everyone can log on and talk or send chats, etc. It’s nothing like a real party but it’s still social interaction. 

Me: Cool, so do people get dressed up nicely like when they’re going to a party or is everyone still in pajamas and sweats?

NC: It depends who’s in the party. Like if it’s your close friends, everyone is just casual and in PJ’s but if it’s a big party with some people you don’t know you obviously don’t wanna look like shit on camera. 

Me: Ok, thanks.

Background: 

Interviewee is a friend of mine who has been picking up on a lot of slang from other friends and classmates. She is a senior at an East-Coast University, but has since moved back to the west since COVID-19.

Context:

This piece of folklore was collected during a video call between me and interviewee during the Coronavirus Pandemic. I have known the interviewee for many years, so the conversation was casual. 

Thoughts:

This is a new custom that has only begun because of the pandemic. Something like this, people meeting up online or even considering a “party” online would’ve been looked at as something almost uncool before the pandemic. However, now there is a big cultural shift into supporting and promoting technological meetups and even gaming. I think it is good that we are learning the possibilities of the tech world to bring us together and, maybe, we can change the way we socialize and interact from this.

Oliebollen

Context:

NS, my father, is a 55-year-old Dutch immigrant to the US. He grew up in the small town of Delft. He told me about this new year’s eve food tradition that is observed where he grew up.

Text:

NS: New years is one of the most important holidays for the Dutch. On new years’ eve, we would gather together, there would be on the TV a comedian doing a run-down of the year, and we would have oliebollen (oil balls). They are a food you only eat during new years and you can get them from a stand on the street in late December. My mom used to make them. To make them, you put some flour and yeast together in a bowl with some sugar to let the mixture rise. Then you add all kinds of stuff in it: nuts, apple, raisins, cranberries, other dried fruits. You plop them into balls and fry them in oil. Then once you’re done you can put some powdered sugar on them.

Thoughts:

The informant, even though he now lives in San Francisco, makes this treat every year as a member of a global nationality. He likes oliebollen because he associates the taste with childhood memories and festivities. He told me that the new year is one of the most important and elaborate celebrations for the Dutch, so it makes sense that he wants to keep this foodway alive as he carries out his identity as a Dutch-American. I have eaten them every new year as well, the informant is my dad, and I have to say that the taste definitely reminds me of that particular time. Since they are only consumed once a year for this event, they take on a special significance and anticipation which leads me to savor each bite when I get the chance. The food tradition is a way for my dad to keep his sense of Dutch-ness alive as he lives abroad in a foreign land.

Pannenkouken

Context:

Pannenkoeken (pun-nĕ-koo-ken) are a traditional Dutch meal. They are large and flat pancakes with the thinness of crepes. In my family, we enjoy them for dinner on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. I collected this piece from my father, who emigrated to the US from the Netherlands as an adult and grew up in the town of Delft. I asked him to show me how to make the recipe one night at our home in San Francisco.

Text:

NS: “Alright first you start by putting on some vegetable soup, I do some bouillon cubes and whatever vegetables you have lying around. Then you start the pannenkoeken by putting flour in a big bowl.

JS: “how much flour do you use?”

NS: “Just some flower, as much as you want. (laughs) and some salt. mix it up a bit to get rid of the clumps… there, perfect! Then crack an egg into it and mix it up, add two eggs or so mixing in between.”

JS: (I add three eggs absentmindedly)

NS: “Haha, perfect, you want to get it nicely mixed… then add some milk gradually. You want to mix it all the while so that it stays smooth.”

(I mix vigorously, adding milk little by little until we have a soupy batter)

NS: “Then we heat up the pan. You want to move the bowl over here near the stove. Rub butter around in the pan and then pour in a spoonful of the batter, and you want to start moving the pan to spread the batter almost as soon as you start pouring.”

(I pour in the batter. the pan is not hot enough, so the batter just sits at the bottom.)

NS: “Ok yeah we tried a little too soon. Just wait until the pan heats up a bit.”

He puts a plate on top of the simmering pot of soup and explains that this is where we will put the finished pannenkoeken to stay hot. I pour more batter once the pan is hotter and then tilt the pan back and forth to spread the runny batter all the way around the pan. This takes some practice, but I eventually work out a way to make nice, even, golden brown pannenkoeken and set them on the plate. My dad shows me how to fill the last few with Gouda cheese and fold them over on top of each other. I heft the pot of soup along with the full plate on top and set it on the dinner table. We eat the soup first and then start on the cheese pancakes, topping them with cumin and nutmeg. They are rich and creamy. We then set ourselves upon the “sweet” pancakes underneath, topping them with maple syrup, brown sugar, walnut pieces, and cinnamon. In the past, we have used berries and Nutella as well. I ask my dad where he learned this recipe and what it means for him.

NS: “My mom used to make them for the family, it was always an exciting treat for the kids. I like them, sometimes I just get the craving.”

JS: “Are there any differences between the way you make them and the way your mom used to make them?”

NS: “No not really. The soup is essentially the same and the batter too. The one thing I changed was folding them over onto the cheese, putting it in the middle. I think my mom put the cheese on top. That was my contribution to the tradition. (laughs)”

Thoughts:

Eating pannenkoeken is one of the cherished traditions in my household. It is one of the few Dutch recipes that we continue to perform. A recently naturalized US citizen, this piece of folklore helps my dad to remember his family from the country from which he emigrated, many of whom have since passed away and some of whom he keeps in touch with long-distance. The environment in which he grew up, the small town of Delft, is radically different from the American city of San Francisco, and I think traditions like these help him to maintain his sense of identity as an expatriate. For me, who grew up in San Francisco, this tradition gives me a sense of my dad’s history as well as my own Dutch heritage, a means of holding on to what makes one special in a country of immigrants from all over the world. The task of making the pannenkoeken requires some practice, and while the recipe is simple and often approximated, one must have a feeling for how the batter flows, what temperature the pan should be, how to store the finished cakes so that they stay hot, when to add butter, and how much batter to add per pannekoek. The process is like an elaborate choreography in the kitchen so it feels much more special to make them well since doing so requires practice and instruction. The differences between my dad’s and his mother’s pannenkoeken are dependent on the available ingredients: my dad might make the soup differently, and my grandmother might have used different kinds of cheese and, as my dad mentions, a different technique for making the cheese pancakes The cheese we use at home is imported from Holland.

Food has an intimate relation with memory and identity. What we consume is what we are made up of, and tastes can connect us intimately to a community and way of life. Making pennenkoeken is one way my father retains his identity as a Dutch-American immigrant, and a way in which he transmits this identity to his American-raised children, passing down a memory of warm family dinners.

Sinter Klaas

Context:

The informant is a Dutch immigrant to the United States in his fifties. He emigrated from the Netherlands in his thirties and lives in San Francsico. He experienced this holiday tradition every year on December 5h in the town of Lochem, with a population of 10,000 people who would gather in the market square. He told me about the tradition in a face-to-face interview. I am his son and we would practice some aspects of this tradition when I was younger, before celebrating Christmas.

Text:

Sinter Klaas would come every year, early December, he would arrive on a steam ship from Spain, he looked like santa claus, but he was slimmer, not as fat, had a long white beard. He would come and he had these svaarte pieten, black petes. It was usually women who would play them, they were often athletic and do handstands. Svaarte piet would come through the chimney, you would put your shoe out in front of the chimney, put out a carrot for Sinter klaas’ white horse, you would get a present.

There were lots of inconsistencies in the story. He would also go with his horse on the roof to deliver the presents. Where I grew up there was an actual ship that would come in with people dressed up as Sinter Klaas and svaarte piet. Svaarte piet would throw candy at everyone. One was pepernoten, these baked round things with spices, you would pick them from the floor and eat them, they weren’t packaged or anything. Later you had to do these things yourself, part of it was writing poems, teasing poems, you would lay bare someone else’s hurtful or embarrassing details. The one getting the present had to read the poem aloud and the more embarrassing the better. There would be “surprises,” – not the English meaning – which were elaborate built things. My dad built a model train after the train my sister took to school, there was some present inside. It’s not just opening the present but there’s more elaborate things going on. It needed a lot of involvement on the part of the parents. I guess people had more time in those days (laughs).

The whole svaarte piet thing… at first I really thought they were black and the relation to slavery never occurred to me. When you look back at it its kind of insane, its insane that nobody thought anything of it. There was a canal, he really came by boat. We would sing sinter klaas songs. He would come into the class at school and you would sing a lot of different songs for him.

If you were bad, they would put you in a bag, hit you with a roe (a switch, a small broom) and take you to Spain.

I think it comes from Saint Nicolas, who was a saint in Spain. He cut his mantle in half and gave it to poor people.

This was THE event for kids. Everyone in the town did it though, it was a social thing. There was always a bit of a scary aspect of it, Sinter klaas and svaarte piet. If you were not good, you would be taken to Spain! They were kind of scary, there were people dressing up as them who could have been drinking or whatever. We would sing a lot of naughty songs.

Thoughts:

Sinter Klaas is a cherished Dutch holiday. This festival mobilizes so many different modalities (sight, smell, taste, sound) that it is hard to know where to start in terms of analysis. A big standout and controversy in recent years is the character Svaarte Piet. He is a black-faced, big-lipped caricature of a Spanish moor, and acts as the slave of Sinter Klaas, the white patriarch. The Netherlands was a substantial dealer in slaves during the expansion into the new world. This dehumanization happened partly by way of representations of the African as a jester, a helper, obedient, athletic, savage, primitive, and so on. This common representation seems to have seeped into the cherished tradition of Sinter Klaas and has been used as a justification for white people to don blackface and act out a caricature every winter. Interestingly and shockingly, this tradition continues today. It has recently come under flak from anti-racism groups as a representation and perpetuation of Dutch slavery and colonization. Svaarte Piet is largely, as we see in my informant’s experience, a way to normalize racist perceptions of Africans and instill in children a casual attitude of extreme otherization in the homogenous white community in which he grew up. My informant had thought the people in blackface were really black (he had not much experience with real black people) and thought of this whole ceremony as a normal, fun tradition, he reflects that “it’s insane that nobody thought anything of it.”

The festival had an immensely positive impact on the informant as a child. Much more excessive, dramatic, and embodied than Sinter Klaas’ American iteration Santa Claus – people would pilot a boat down the canal on which a tall figure dressed in royal red with a long curling white beard would throw out good wishes to the crowd – this tradition is very intricate and at times seems like the staging of an elaborate play. People write teasing poems to each other, parents set up ‘surprises’, elaborate constructions designed to shock and amaze the children, and actors traipse around the town throwing sweets to the people. Much less private and domestic than the American Santa Claus tradition, this celebration pours out into the streets, into the canals, and engages all generations in a communal, public celebration which works to articulate a notion of who the Dutch people are and how they are situated in relation to the rest of the world. The blatant otherization of the African is an integral part of the ceremony in this process of articulating the boundaries of the self.

The Tooth Fairy

Context:

JA is a 20-year-old student from Orinda, California. She recalled this story in an interview.

Text:

JA: I don’t remember when I first learned of it… but the tooth fairy comes to your house the night after you lose a tooth when you’re a kid. You put your baby tooth under your pillow at night and while you’re asleep, the tooth fairy takes it and replaces it with a gift. So, like, in reality, your parents took your tooth and put something there.

But, anyhow, most people use money as the tooth fairy gift, but my parents always gave us these little toys. I think I got a nice marker once. Little toys like that. And I believed it when I was a little kid but I lost my teeth really slowly so by the time I lost my last baby teeth I was pretty old and had my suspicions (laughs.) And then when I lost my last baby tooth that night I felt my dad’s giant hand putting something under my pillow.

I don’t really know what to make of the whole thing, just that it’s a fun game to play to reward your child for the milestone of getting adult teeth. I remember talking about the tooth fairy with my friends in elementary school.

Thoughts:

The tooth fairy is a common legend in America. It is a tradition that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood through the changing of a person’s physiology. As the body changes, the child is rewarded, maybe to allay what Freud calls castration anxiety, or a fear of becoming disincorporated, a fear of alterations in the physical body. The tooth fairy is a way of transitioning kids through that process, celebrating it, and marking it as a significant and positive moment in the life of a child. I remember that my own parents gave me a homemade card for when I had learned how to cut my own nails. This gesture follows the same basic function that the tooth fairy does which is to mark a time of physiological change with a ritual designed to acknowledge mental and spiritual change, to allay the fear of the body being picked apart and to redirect that fear, sublimate it, toward a positive feeling of pride in maturation.