USC Digital Folklore Archives / Customs
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Gestures
Signs

Deadly Chopsticks

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM gave me some insight on chopstick etiquette that was passed down from her Japanese parents:

“So in Japan, when you’re eating rice with chopsticks, or really anything which chopsticks, you NEVER rest them by sticking them straight up in your food. It looks like the number 4 spelled out, and in Japanese culture 4 is a very unlucky number – it means death. If you go to Japan you’ll never find anything grouped or sold in 4s, it’s just superstition, like how in America people are scared of the number 13. Also, you never point your chopsticks at people, like if you’re talking at the dinner table. It’s rude, and a little threatening.”

My analysis:

Many cultures have different traditions surrounding food and table etiquette, and this folk belief offers insight into utensil practices many American might not be familiar with. While Asian cuisine is not absent here, it’s often transformed over time by the influence of other places, or even other Asian cultures (like common Japanese-Korean fusion). People from all over use chopsticks, but it’s important to be aware of protocol observed by those whose heritage is more authoritative.

Apparently, chopsticks stuck straight-up in rice also imitate incense sticks on the altar at a funeral, another symbol of death or bad luck. Oftentimes people avoid mixing their foodways with death imagery, compounded by the prevalence of rice in Japanese meals.

I also think it’s interesting that the subject is Japanese-American, and three generations removed at that. Seeing which customs are continued when a family emigrates shows both their cultural and individual values, or superstitions that for some reason or another “stick” in places where they’re not observed.

Customs
Foodways
Holidays

Japanese New Year’s Ozoni

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM described to me some of the basic traditions her family has for New Years Day, especially the cooking of “ozoni”:

“Ozoni is just a soup made with chicken broth, green onion, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, chicken and mochi. My Auntie Kazuko would make it for us every year when we were growing up, and it’s always the first course of a New Year’s Day meal. All of [my mom's] siblings and my cousins would get together at [Auntie Kazuko's] house and while most of the day would be, you know, just a family gathering, we would all sit down together to eat the ozoni. It’s only cooked on New Year’s and you have to go to special Japanese markets to find the ingredients.

“Now with my siblings and kids and nieces and nephews, we get together at my sister’s place – she’s married to a Japanese man, and his mother makes the ozoni. The holiday is pretty similar to how it was for me, where everyone just gathers at someone’s house to watch football and eat food, but the making of the soup and eating it together is like one concrete tradition we do every year. I’m not sure who will keep making it after [my sister's mother-in-law] passes away though…”

My analysis:

The most interesting part of this food tradition for me is the shared background of the family members who actively carry it out – KH told me her Auntie Kazuko was most connected to their Japanese heritage, which is why she insisted on making the soup every year. Similarly, her sister’s mother-in-law is from Japan, and she is the one who facilitates the tradition. It really reveals how certain customs make it overseas when families would move to America, but also how fragile they are. KH isn’t sure anyone else in her family is motivated enough by their Japanese traditions to continue the laborious process of making this particular food. Traditional holidays tend to become more Americanized (in this case) over the years they’re observed away from their roots, and unless enough people are committed to certain customs, they can easily die out.

For more information about ozoni, see:

“Ozoni (Zoni) Recipe.” Japanese Cooking 101. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.japanesecooking101.com/ozoni-zoni-recipe/.
Customs
Foodways
Proverbs

Lazy Grace

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM was raised in a Christian household, where her family said “grace” before dinner every night:

“I have four siblings and we always ate dinner together with our parents. We’d sit around this big round table and every night, we would take turns saying grace before eating…we were supposed to come up with something original, like something that had to do with the day or different events going on in our lives, but usually my siblings just defaulted to ‘God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” I always tried to have an interesting one, but I think everyone else just wanted to eat.”

I asked KH if she still says grace in her family, or if she and her siblings carried their religious traditions on in their new nuclear families:

“Ultimately I was unsuccessful in getting my kids to go to church. My husband grew up in a Catholic family and now wants nothing to do with the church, and I couldn’t get my kids to show much interest either. I don’t think anyone else in my family still goes to church…except my parents. They’ve been going to the same church since they met.”

My analysis:

Religion is one of those things that can either define a family, or be irreconcilable when two families come together. In KH’s case, religion’s importance started to waver amongst her and her siblings, despite the traditions of their parents. The “grace” prayer in her family shows one generation trying to pass on their beliefs through a ritual, and the next generation participating half-heartedly, or just to please authority. Eventually as they started their own families, her siblings decided the tradition wasn’t particularly important to them, and refrained from instilling it in their own family. More broadly it seems to symbolize the diminishing importance of their religion, and maybe a certain progressive movement amongst families to not force it on their children.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Lead Shapes to Determine Your Luck

Background: A.J. is a 65-year-old woman who was born and raised in Poprad, Slovakia. She relocated to the United States from Slovakia 20 years ago, while her son was attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A.J. holds a degree in child development and since coming to the United States has worked as a nanny. She is married to her lifelong sweetheart and has one son and three grandchildren. She often talks about her home and family in Slovakia – about the beautiful mountains and the culture. Although she is now a US citizen, she incorporates many Slovak traditions into everyday life, and enjoys telling stories about her family and her family traditions.

 

Main piece:

A.J.: On December 13, we met all girls in one house and we melted PB, how call that – lead – on the stove and was like liquid, we took on the spoon and pour to the bowl cold water.  What kind of shape was made in this water we would decided what was that.  If you have heart you will be happy. You will have good luck. If it was some different shape we always was thinking what it can be. Was like snake, you have bad luck or was some witch or something you were always thinking about your next year how will be look.

 

Q: So how old were you when you did this?

 

A.J.: We were 13, 14, 15 like that.

 

Q: Who did you learn it from?

 

A.J.: From parents or some other girls or older girls what we have in the village.  Always this oldest girls invite youngest girls and go like tradition you know from one girl to another and then.

 

Q: Did all the girls in the one village go to one house or were there multiple?

 

A.J.: Multi – were like 10 girls or 12 girls in one house and other go to other.  We always meet in different houses every year

 

Performance Context: This ritual would be done in Slovakia on December 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, by a large group of teenage girls.

 

My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how many of the traditions done by teenage girls in Slovakia surround their future luck and happiness. Additionally, many of these traditions happen on December 13, or St. Lucy’s Day. This is also known as the “witch day.” It is possible that this day was seen as a day of magic, which is why girls believe that they would be able to predict some of their future on this day.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Magic

Hilots in Filipino Culture

Background: Y.G.M. is a 49-year-old Filipino woman who works at Nye Partners in Women’s Health as the office manager. She was born and raised in Quezon City in the Philippines, and lived there until she was 25 years old. Y.G.M. self-identifies as Filipino, and as a result of her upbringing, Filipino culture is very engrained into her personal beliefs. She attended college at Mirian College, and received a bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts. Y.G.M. then immigrated to Chicago, Illinois with her family in 1997, and got her first job working at Citibank in River Forest, Illinois. She now lives with her husband in a suburb of Chicago.

 

Main piece:

Y.G.M.: So Filipinos also have superstitious beliefs like um a person called Hilot [hee-loht] which is an expert woman who can deliver um deliver a mother in labor so they are supposed to have supernatural powers to just deliver a woman without any problems and they are blessed you know to be in to help women in labor without any problems – kinda like midwives.  So it’s like they have supernatural powers to do that instead of taking women to the hospital.

 

Q: How are the Hilots chosen?

 

Y.G.M.: They say, like “oh I have that special gift from above to perform such a miracle,” like a special gift from God.

 

Q: Is it from a specific God or just all the gods?

 

Y.G.M.: All the gods. And up to this moment, they still believe in that.

 

Q: So they just self-proclaim themselves as Hilots?

 

Y.G.M.: Yes yes – uh huh.

 

Performance Context: Hilots would be used to help women during childbirth in the Philippines.

 

My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how the Filipinos relate childbirth to a religious and magical process with the use of Hilots’ god-given powers to help women in labor. Instead of using “medicine” in the general sense to help with childbirth, this practice shows that Filipino culture believes more in religion and magic to assist with everyday life.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Red Envelopes and Marriage to a Ghost

Background: M.S. is a 18-year-old student at the University of Southern California studying Business Administration. While she was born in the United States near San Jose, California, both of her parents are from Taiwan, and Taiwanese culture is thoroughly engrained into her character. M.S.’s family believes in many of the superstitions and legends typical of Taiwan, and they have been passed down in her family from generation to generation.

 

Main piece:

M.S.: If there’s a girl who dies before she gets married or before she has a chance to get married, the parents or the family will often times still hope that she will still get married so they will leave a red envelope full of money on the ground somewhere or in the streets on the girl’s birthday and then they like wills stay there to see who picks it up and if it’s a guy who picks it up then they will like go up to the guy and say “you picked up our daughter’s red envelope, you have to marry her” – yeah – so the concept is like – ok because in traditional or ancient like – so basically in traditional Chinese culture – even now – the women, um, are basically in the family records or family tree like history almost, the women are put under their husband’s family they wouldn’t – because they don’t carry their birth family’s name – right –  it’s like their maiden name – they take on their husband’s name  – they are part of their husband’s family so the parents like because there is also a tradition to I wouldn’t say like worship…there’s a better word… but basically like worship your ancestors – honor – like when they pass – you would still go to the temple or you would have a little shrine to honor your ancestors and like remember them.

 

So basically what parents and/or families would be worried about is that if their daughters don’t get a chance to marry and they pass away, they’re not going to have anyone who would honor them in the future because they wouldn’t be included in their family’s history – in their records.  They are supposed to be in like – technically – her husband’s.  So which is why they want to find a husband for their daughter and so the guy who picks up that red envelope would have to go through this whole process to like marry her even thought she is obviously like dead and have her included in his family records so that in the future like that his family line – someone will still honor her.  Basically it’s the idea that if she weren’t included in one of those family histories and weren’t honored, she would just be this wild, they call it a “wild ghost” and she’s like just floating there on her own without a family or without anyone to remember her basically.  So this is why they want to have this guy like marry her in a sense.  But technically this guy – even though he is forced to marry this ghost girl in the future he is still allowed to marry someone in the future – for real.  But basically the whole purpose is to get the girl in the family tree so that she can be honored in the future and not just forgotten and if the guy who picks up the red envelope disagrees – like doesn’t agree to marry – like go through this whole process, it is said that he will have bad luck for the rest of his life.

 

Q: What happens on the man’s family tree? Is the dead wife and the living wife both written under his family tree?

 

M.S.: Yes – put together.

 

Q: And this has no effect on the living wife?

 

M.S.: Yes – it wouldn’t because it’s not like they would officially go to the government and register that he’s married to this ghost wife – it’s just like going through the actions and then like having her included in the family tree.

 

Q: What would the “actions” be?

 

M.S.: It’s not as like set but it’s like some of the marriage customs like going to the girl’s house and bringing her to his home – but something that would represent her.  This guy would go to the girl’s house and take her spirit to his home. Just whatever they choose to do but the point is that they would just include her in the family book but you wouldn’t formally register that I am married to this ghost girl.

 

But this is superstitious, it is not as common anymore.  It is only certain parents – most parents nowadays would just forget about it.  If this girl has like siblings – like brothers – have the brother’s kids honor her instead.  So nowadays people wouldn’t necessarily be like…So she’s saying the majority of people wouldn’t do this anymore but there would still be a minority of people who were superstitious that would do this if the situation.  Moral of the story is if you were walking along the streets and saw a red envelope or pouch full of money – don’t pick it up.

 

Q: What happens if a woman picks it up?

 

M.S.: If a woman picked it up, the family would say – this is not yours – we are looking for a man and they would take it and put it back on the ground.

 

Performance Context: The placement of a red envelope would be done by the family of a girl who had died before she had the chance to get married. This practice would occur in Taiwan, typically in small villages, and by superstitious families.

 

My Thoughts: This practice of finding a husband for a daughter, even after she has died, shows the importance in Taiwan of honoring your ancestors and also having future generations to honor you. For families who are superstitious, it is vital for them to find a “husband” for their deceased daughter to make sure that she will be honored in the future. Taiwanese society is also clearly patriarchal, given the fact that women’s names are written under the man’s name and on the man’s family tree.

Customs
Festival
Gestures
Holidays

The Slovak May Tree

Background: A.J. is a 65-year-old woman who was born and raised in Poprad, Slovakia. She relocated to the United States from Slovakia 20 years ago, while her son was attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A.J. holds a degree in child development and since coming to the United States has worked as a nanny. She is married to her lifelong sweetheart and has one son and three grandchildren. She often talks about her home and family in Slovakia – about the beautiful mountains and the culture. Although she is now a US citizen, she incorporates many Slovak traditions into everyday life, and enjoys telling stories about her family and her family traditions.

 

Main piece:

A.J.: On first May, boys went to the wood, cut, made tree nicely decorate and they built in front of house their girlfriend and then they were singing very nice song like we built May or very nice song.  They were walking during the whole village – they were walking through the whole village with the tree – every boy what her girlfriend built this tree in the front of house they his girlfriend – yeah.  And they have like cart like with horses that was pulling this cart.  This tree was on the cart and they pulling this cart across the village and they build in the front of girlfriend house and they were singing.

 

Q: How did they decorate the tree?

 

A.J.: Decorate with nice colorful ribbon.

 

Q: Did you only do it for girls you were dating or was it somebody you like and you want to date?

 

A.J.: Yeah –  exactly – was when somebody like this girl it was building this tree for her.  If she like him they would start dating.  If not, they would just forget about this tree.

 

Q: And this was in the villages – not in big towns?

 

A.J.: No in big town NO – only in village. In big town we have big houses like apartments you cannot build that.  That was not tradition for towns more for villages.

 

Performance Context: The ritual of creating a May Tree would occur on May 1st in the small villages of Slovakia.

 

My Thoughts: The idea of “May Day” or the celebration of the spring season is common in many cultures. In the United States and Great Britain, for example, many people partake in making a maypole, in which ribbons are braided around a tall, wooden pole to create a pattern. Creating the maypole is usually done by children, which may symbolize the freshness and youth of spring.

Customs
Foodways

Eating All the Rice Out of a Bowl

Background: M.W. is a 18 year old student at USC studying History and Japanese. He was born Tarzana, California and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona as well as Eugene, Oregon. His mother is half Chinese half Japanese, and his father is Russian. M.W.’s grandmother on his mother’s side is Chinese, and his grandfather is Japanese. His upbringing has been composed of a mixture of both European and Asian influence, and he highly values both sides of his family history.

 

Main Piece:

 

M.W.: My grandmother taught me that whenever we had a bowl of rice we had to finish each and every kernel. The running joke amongst the family was that if you didn’t, you’d marry someone ugly or you’d have bad luck. But the truth behind it was that my great grandfather grew up in a very poor village and they were taught that if they didn’t finish the rice, that they would not be allowed anymore for the next meal because they didn’t have enough they didn’t always have enough rice for the next meal. But we do it now because it’s respectful.

 

Q: How often do you practice this?

 

M.W.: Honestly never because rice is way too much to eat usually.

 

Q: Does your mom or grandmother always practice it?

 

M.W.: Not usually. However, they will often joke about it.

 

Performance Context: You would perform this when eating rice. It is particularly prominent in Asian cultures and in poor families.

 

My Thoughts: Rice is an important food in many Asian cultures, as it is abundant, easy to get, and can be eaten with many different dishes. Therefore, it is understandable that a tradition of eating all the rice in a bowl used in the past not to waste food and to save money would be passed down through the generations. Over time, eating all the rice in a bowl has even changed meaning – it is now a familial and cultural tradition done to be respectful, when in the past it was done to conserve food and money.

Customs
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Jumping the Broom

Background: M.M. is a 43-year-old woman who was born and raised in Chicago to an African American family. She works as a pharmaceutical representative, educating and helping physicians and their staff to know more about the proper use, schedule benefits, costs, and uses of medications. M.M. is married, and loves playing with her 2 kids and also enjoys her busy schedule.

 

Main piece:

M.M.: So you have jumping the broom. So this was um a tradition that was practiced during slavery and it was the – it was when marriages were not performed legitimately and it symbolized a union between slaves.  Now the reason why they jumped the broom – the symbolism of the broom was kind of two fold – you talk about the spray – which is all the stuff you sweep up that part – the straw –  which was the spray which was the house and the handle was holding the union together. So it’s really simple.  The thing about it though is that there were many years where jumping the broom was not practiced by African Americans because of the association with slavery and in recent years it has become much more popular and a lot of African Americans are- jumping the broom again – there was a movie called jumping the broom.

 

Q: How did you learn about this tradition?

 

M.M.: You know, I always have known about it but I didn’t know the actual symbolism – you know why –  you always know about it – why was it was a broom – and I think it was popularized again at the time where Alex Haley wrote Roots and the movie came out so that everyone knew about jumping the broom but you still didn’t know well what did the broom symbolize – you just knew slaves did it so it’s something you grow up and everyone knows “jumping the broom” but you don’t know why you use a broom – so it’s like passed on passed on passed on. Everyone doesn’t do it because probably their probably generations before me – I know my parents didn’t do it and they didn’t jump the broom and they were married.  I know there were generations that did NOT jump the broom at all and then now, I’d say in the last 15-20 years it’s more popularized again. But it’s not the negative association – its more just like ceremonial and it’s more like something to have at your wedding, which is legal, and then you jump the broom which is just symbolic of the union between you now.

 

Q: And then how do you jump? Do you jump with your husband?

 

M.M.: You you jump together. You hold hands and you jump together.

 

Q: What happens if someone trips?

 

M.M.: They don’t trip.  I don’t know anyone that’s ever tripped. I jumped the broom in the sand – barefoot so.  It’s a small broom.  Some people make their own.  So you can make your own or you can order um – whatever so it’s a small broom.

 

Q: Are there special brooms for jumping the broom?

 

M.M.: Yes, it’s a special broom – it’s a special broom. You don’t go to the store and get a broom at Target or Walmart – no it’s small – it’s small.

 

Q: What did you do with the broom after the wedding?

 

M.M.: It’s in the same box with my wedding dress.  It becomes part of your, your collecting – you know, whatever you’re collecting

 

Performance Context: Jumping the broom would be performed primarily by African Americans at the end of a wedding ceremony.

 

My Thoughts: Jumping the broom symbolizes a liminal state. A wedding is a life transformation from being single to being connected with someone, and is known to be one of the most important events in a lifetime in many cultures. During a wedding, the bride and groom are together in a liminal period of change, not single and not yet married. Jumping the broom symbolizes the passage out of that liminal period and into married life.

Customs
Folk speech

Touch Wood

Background: E.N. is a 58-year-old obstetrician gynecologist who was born in Boston, Massachusetts to two attorney parents. She stumbled upon medicine in college as a psychology major when she took a biology class and became aware that she had an affinity for science. E.N. currently practices full time in the Chicagoland area delivering babies and performing gynecological surgery.

 

Main piece: As a surgeon, whenever we do GYNe surgeries in the operating room, I find that all obstetricians gynecologists are pretty superstitious. So after we complete a surgery, we never REALLY complement ourselves and say “that went really well” because that would jinx us, so we always just say, if we DO say anything about how the surgery goes, we have to always add touchwood at the end so, “that surgery went pretty well touch wood,” because we know we’re really not out of the woods for at least 48 hours.

 

Q: Why do you do this?

 

E.N.: I do this as a safeguard against something bad happening.  It’s more of a superstition.

 

Q: Who did you learn it from?

 

E.N.: Have no idea who I learned it from – likely my parents.

 

Performance Context: Gynecological surgeons would perform this after they had completed a surgery.

 

My Thoughts: Medicine and superstitions tie into each other. Though medicine is not typically based on luck and is more based on hard science, I think it is interesting that the phrase “touch wood” is still used. It is used as a preventative measure: it is sometimes believed that if something is said, then it won’t happen. In this scenario, if a doctor explicitly says a surgery went well, it is believed by some that the surgery will not have positive results in the end. Saying “touch wood” is a preventative measure to make sure that what has been said continues to hold true.

[geolocation]