Category Archives: Folk Beliefs

Color Green Protects Eyes

Background: The transcribed conversation between me and the informant shows folk belief on how to protect eyesight. 

Informant: My mom bought a cactus for me… she says it absorbs radiation from computers and cellphones…

Me: Does it really? I’ve heard of it before but I don’t think it actually works.

Informant: I’m not sure, but I fell like it’s just a misconception. Mom says it protects your eyesight…maybe because it’s green?

Me: Oh that kind of makes sense. I’ve heard a million times that green protects your eyes, not sure if it’s true. Where did you first hear that? 

Informant: I don’t know but I’d guess it’s because green is the color of nature and we’re supposed to look at nature more hahaha

Analysis: Cactus or other things can absorb radiation; color green protects eyes. These two are fairly common folk beliefs. They reflect that while we are surrounded by technologies, people can still be suspicious of the constant progress and existence of certain technologies. The association between color green and nature shows that nature is still regarded as healing, healthy, and in control.

Brown sugar in the bathtub – a treatment for rashes

Main piece:

AW: When I was little, I would get eczema––you have it too, you probably get it from me. Our side of the family has all the allergies, haha. Well, so, my mom, your grandma, would put me in the bathtub with a little block of brown sugar. It’s like, that Chinese brown sugar block that is brown and has a white stripe through the middle. So she would put me in the bathtub and tell me not to eat the brown sugar, and I’d have to sit there and not eat it, and apparently it helped my eczema. I don’t know if it actually did though, haha. But sometimes I would eat it anyways. It was very delicious, of course. That was probably my favorite Chinese medicine that my mom ever gave me. A very fond memory, too.

Context:

The informant, AW, is my father. Our family is ethnically from Shanghai and Guangdong, China. This story was collected over a phone call about when I was little.

Thoughts:

I agree with AW. When I did this brown sugar treatment when I was little, I also don’t know that it truly yielded any results––I still have eczema to this day and I don’t think brown sugar ever made it any better. My assumption when I was small was that the sweet taste was supposed to distract you from how itchy you were, and I think in that sense, it did work. I think it’s important to realize that, especially when you are that little and you have an ailment that’s not that serious, sometimes it doesn’t take that much to make you feel better. And there’s nothing less valid about that kind of a treatment.

Saraswati – The reason not to step on paper and books

Main piece:

AI: So there’s a Hindu goddess named Saraswati who represents, like, knowledge, and a folk thing is that she lives inside all, like, books and paper and shit. So anytime you step on paper and cardboard you have to like, ask for her forgiveness for stepping on her. It was literally so annoying when I was little. It was a thing I was taught to do growing up. Whenever I stepped on paper my parents would be like, don’t piss off Saraswati!

Context:

The informant, AI, was born in the US, but her parents are from India. Both parents grew up in North India but are culturally tamil brahmin (South India.) She learned this tradition from her parents, and even now, she still avoids stepping on books and paper. This story was collected through a phone call.

Thoughts:

I met the informant in high school. We attended a school in Silicon Valley which had a big focus on STEM, and the general culture there was quite academically competitive. I think that this story, while obviously not originating from the Silicon Valley, has a great similarity to the reverence of wisdom and intellect present in SV (although, minus the snootiness). The informant, AI, is still in high school and still in that culture herself––I think the fact that she chose this story is a reflection of the similarities between both cultures.

The usage of “FOB” and “ABG” to describe Asians

Context: 

The informant, MG, went to high school in New Hampshire and now attends college at the University of Seattle in Washington. This story was collected when asked about her experiences of being Asian American in college over the phone.

Main piece:

MG: Since going to school in the west coast I found it very difficult to acclimate to a college in the west coast because I’ve never had to utilize code switching before. The type of personalities…and the goals, and lifestyles, were so completely different it was difficult socializing when I had no idea how to relate to anyone….and that’s the thing…even the other asians…like, usually on the east coast, the other asian americans just find each other, you know? They just find each other and form a group. But on the west coast, it was just different. They had these two terms for asians that I didn’t know what they meant: fob and abg.

Interviewer: And what do those mean?

MG: haha you sound dumb asking that now. “Fresh off the boat”, bitch. And abg is “Asian baby girl.”

Interviewer: And how do those make you feel?

MG: Umm…well I’m not an FOB. And I’m not cute or small enough to be an ABG, but I also wouldn’t wanna be one. It’s just weird that people use those on the east coast so much.

Thoughts:

I went to middle school with the informant, but she went to the East coast for high school and I stayed on the West. Staying in California, I knew these words that she was talking about and it was something that was propagated throughout all the groups of Asians that were our age. It’s interesting to me now that she didn’t have any particularly strong feelings about the words when asked. Rather, she just tried to categorize herself into them. It goes to show that as a West coast Asian American, we feel like we have to categorize to try to make friends with other Asians–like letting out a signal to let people know who you are so that you can make friends more easily.

The Aswang – Filipino Demon

Main piece:

BR: My grandmother is very religious and even more superstitious, and she was raised in the northern part of the Philippines. And one bit of folklore that she always talked about when I was a kid was the concept of the Aswang, a creature who appears human during the day but becomes a hideous beast during the night. And the Aswang brings bad luck and death wherever it goes, and is considered to be one of the stealthiest demons in Filipino culture, cause it can shapeshift, and usually slips by unnoticed. So my grandma always brought up the Aswang whenever anything bad happened, and it terrified me because she seemed dead serious about it. 

Context:

The informant, BR, was born and raised in the Bay Area. His father is from Hawaii, and their family immigrated there when he was very little from the Philippines. BR was always scared by this story when he was little, and even to this day he is still afraid of the dark. This story was collected over a phone call.

Thoughts:

We talked about in class how there are always a lot of stories that are meant for scaring children, and I think this one is interesting because it appears human during the day as a normal human. This not only encourages children to be on their best behavior (as most other children’s tales that we talked about) but also brings into question your relationships with other people, which is very important. It kind of seems like a metaphor for if you’re in a toxic relationship, or someone is giving you trouble. And that’s an important thing to be scared of, and so it makes all the more sense to scare children of that when they are young because young children have those same issues.

Scissors on the bed during pregnancy

HK: When I was pregnant my mother in law said that I shouldn’t have scissors on the bed because then that will make you have a miscarriage. So don’t cut anything on the bed, don’t put anything that can cut on the bed. Related but not the same, it also means no remodeling, no hammering, no knocking down walls or anything. 

MW: And what did you think of this?

HK: Well…you don’t wanna believe it but when they tell you stupid shit like that…it’s like walking under a ladder. You know nothing’s gonna happen probably, but now you wonder about it. And then it leaves this little scab in your heart when you do do it, because now you’re like, ah, well, what’s gonna happen to me? It just always makes you wonder, you know? So annoying.

Context:

The informant, HK, was born in New York but has parents who are from China. She married and has three children. This story was collected over a Zoom call when she was talking to my mom.

Thoughts:

The “little scab on your heart” that the informant mentioned is interesting because it makes me think that that must be how superstitions get perpetuated. While people might not believe on an intellectual level that it will happen, if you do it it will still stick with you, like a residual fear that clings to your mind; so because of that, it’s easier to just not do it in the first place. I think that’s important to realize, because sometimes the negative effect of the superstition might just come from your own guilt (or at least be related to it).

黄历 – The Yellow Calendar

Main piece:

You have to get married on a certain date, and it depends on your birth time, your birth year, your birth hour. There’s a thing called a “huang li,” which literally translates to yellow calendar, and it details for each zodiac person. You research it, and it’s a book that’s like a quarter inch thick and you look up your birth time and dates and you figure out which day is the most auspicious to get married. And it also tells you who to get married to––like, which zodiac animals. And that’s why I got married to to my husband on Saint Patrick’s day.

Background:

The informant, HK, was born in New York but has parents who are from China. She married and has three children. She now lives in texas.

Context:

HK now lives in Texas––I collected this story over a Zoom call. She has been one of my mother’s closest friends since college, and often, they would commiserate together with all of my other Chinese aunties about certain things their Chinese parents would make them do, or general annoyance over Chinese tradition. This was one of those calls.

Thoughts:

I had never heard of the huang li before, and I think it’s interesting because the day which you get married can be so nebulous in American culture––people generally want to get married in June (which we talked about in class), but sometimes it takes years for people to finally work up the energy to get married. I think it goes to show how much more relaxed people are in America not just about the actual wedding day, but just about marriage in general. The divorce rate in this country is something near 50%, whereas when my dad’s parents got divorced (both from China) it was a really big deal and most people couldn’t even believe it. In Chinese culture, usually even if you don’t like the person you’re with, you’re supposed to just stick it out (or at least, that used to be the rhetoric). The huang li is just one example of the traditions that make Chinese marriage more rigid, maybe even more of a commitment, thand American marriage.

Naming your children with things like water for good personalities

HK: Chinese people are really superstitious about how you name your child––so all the Chinese children have like, names that are made up of Chinese characters, right? And within those characters, there are characters that mean certain things.

MW: What’s your name?

HK: Well, let’s just say that basically my name has a lot of fire character in it. Too much probably, that’s probably why I’m such a bitch.

MW: Haha. So then what did you name your kids?

HK: All my kids, we decided, had to have water in their names. In Chinese you know it as the part of the character, the “radical,” known as san dian shui. It’s basically three dots at the edge of some characters that denotate that the character is related to water. We did that so they would balance me out. Cause now I’m such a bitch, by my kids are pretty cool. Keeps the family balanced.

MW: And how does this make you feel?

HK: Well, again, it’s that superstition feeling where you feel like you should just do it because if you don’t you worry about what might happen, and then otherwise your mother in law can blame everything bad that happens on you because you didn’t name your kids water or whatever. But they all have nice names. I like them.

Background:

The informant, HK, was born in New York but has parents who are from China. She married and has three children. 

Context

HK now lives in Texas––I collected this story over a Zoom call. She has been one of my mother’s closest friends since college, and often, they would commiserate together with all of my other Chinese aunties about certain things their Chinese parents would make them do, or general annoyance over Chinese tradition. This was one of those calls.

Thoughts:

With a lot of other superstitions from any culture, you do it to avoid a consequence; but with names, it’s more fun, especially if you’re born in America. American names generally don’t have any meaning, or at least any meaning that everyone knows. In Chinese, every name means something, and generally, everyone knows that meaning. So of course there will be superstitions surrounding names because the meanings are so clear, but it adds a lot of beauty to the literal title of your identity. It’s something that I feel like a lot of Americans might miss out on.

Banging on Pots Invites Family Tension Superstition

Background: 

My informant, NS, is an eighteen year old student at Tufts University. She was born and raised in Southern California. Her mother was born and raised in the Philippines, and her father is Indian but grew up in Scotland and Southern California. While her mother is the only member of her family to have moved away from the Philippines, much of her father’s family, including his father, siblings, and nieces and nephews, are also in Southern California, meaning lots of family time between NS and her extended family, especially her cousins. Her father’s side of the family continues many traditional Indian and Hindu practices in day to day life, and NS is also greatly influenced by her heritage. (I’ll be referring to myself as SW in the actual performance). 

Performance:

NS: So my mom, when she’s stirring something, a sauce or whatever, she says you should never tap the spoon on the edge of the pot or pan. Apparently it creates some sort of bad energy, like from the friction created, and it basically invites bad spirits into your food. It creates like friction between family or whoever eats it, and creates fights in the family. You’re adding friction to the food, so you’re supposed to use something else to scrape off the extra or whatever. 

SW: Do you know where she heard this?

NS: No, it’s just something she’s always done and believed.

Thoughts: 

I hadn’t heard of this superstition before, but since NS’s mother grew up in the Philippines, I suspected it was because she had picked it up there before coming to the US. I like the literal nature of the superstition, that friction causes friction. I wonder how this superstition came to be, and whether its inception was simply the result of a chef trying to reduce noise in their kitchen. NS’s mother is Catholic, as she was influenced by her surroundings in the Philippines, but things like this show a blurring of lines between religion and spirituality. 

Indian Custom: Hair Cutting on First Birthday

Background: 

My informant, NS, is an eighteen year old student at Tufts University. She was born and raised in Southern California. Her mother was born and raised in the Philippines, and her father is Indian but grew up in Scotland and Southern California. While her mother is the only member of her family to have moved away from the Philippines, much of her father’s family, including his father, siblings, and nieces and nephews, are also in Southern California, meaning lots of family time between NS and her extended family, especially her cousins. Her father’s side of the family continues many traditional Indian and Hindu practices in day to day life, and NS is also greatly influenced by her heritage. (I’ll be referring to myself as SW in the actual performance). 

Performance:

NS: Indian people will shave the head of their baby when they turn 1, on their first birthday, because it’s believed that that means that their hair will come back stronger. My mom didn’t do it to me, but almost all my cousins and my dad did. 

SW: So is there greater significance to that or it’s more aesthetic? 

NS: It’s tradition. Thicker hair makes you beautiful, especially like, long, thick hair on girls. There are hair rituals, like before you go to bed your mom will oil your hair.  It’s like the longer your hair is, the more beautiful you are because it’s associated with wealth. So like if you have super long well-kept hair that’s a sign that you can afford it. I remember when I cut my hair short my grandpa was like devastated and I didn’t understand why until my dad told me about it.

Thoughts:

I think it’s super interesting how we as humans can come to associate different things with beauty for reasons other than pure aesthetics. Sure, long and thick hair looks nice, but the fact that it can be associated with wealth and status as a subconscious trait of beauty or attractiveness is interesting. It reminds of the way that the “ideal” body shape for women has changed over time. Centuries ago, it was not trendy to be thin, as thinner bodies were associated with not being able to afford food. Consequently, people who were a bit more curvy were considered more desirable, such a body type implied a certain level of wealth and status that could afford more than the bare minimum amount of food required to stay alive.