USC Digital Folklore Archives / March, 2012
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Game
Magic

“Step on a crack, and break your mother’s back.”

“Step on a crack, and break your mother’s back.”

My informant first heard this rhyme while he was walking home with his friend Amy after school.  He was a seventh or eighth grader in middle school that was located in Downey, CA.  To pass the time away and to forget about the fatigue from walking in the blazing sun with their heavy backpacks, they began to play a game.  The game started when Amy noticed that David kept stepping on the cracks of the sidewalk.  She chanted, “Step on a crack, and break your mother’s back.”  They skipped over the lines all the way home.  If one of them would accidentally step on a line, the other would shrug and say, “Oh well.  Your mother just broke her back.”

I have heard this rhyme myself many times from elementary school to middle school.  There is another variation: “Step on a line and break your mother’s spine.”  It would be a fun game to play while walking home from school or when we played hopscotch, a game in which you would have to jump over boxes and not touch the lines, someone would always chant this rhyme.  I believe the rhyme stemmed from how “crack” and “back” rhymes and since the point of the game was to not step on the crack, kids would warn that in doing so you would break your mother’s back.  That would keep you within the rules of the game of not stepping on the crack.

Folk speech
Proverbs

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

 

My informant who is currently a first-year college student first heard this proverb in his elementary school in Downey, CA from his teacher in third grade.  There had been a problem with certain kids being targets for bullies in class.  The teacher decided to address this issue to the class.  She told everyone to remember that even though physical pain cannot be helped, you can always choose how to take words from others.  The only way words have power is when the person allows them to hurt him or her.

This proverb is not usually used on adults but mostly on children.  I do not think this proverb can apply to adults as well because the circumstances are different.  When children taunt, the taunting consists of silly rhymes, sticking out the tongue and such whereas when adults exchange harsh words with each other, those words are personal and have the ability to hit someone at a vulnerable spot.  Parents and teachers teach young children about not allowing words to hurt them because many children tend to pick on others not for any legitimate reasons of dislike but from mere prejudice.  I believe this proverb can apply very well to children but not to adults.

Customs
Game
Humor
Kinesthetic

M A S H = Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House

M A S H = Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House

This is a grid for the children's game, MASH

 

My informant first learned how to play this fortune-telling game in her middle school in Downey, CA from one of her girlfriends during lunch time.  In MASH, on each side and corner of the square, you write a list up to four items you desire or absolutely hate.  For example, one side of the square can have four names of potential husbands.  On another side, there could be four names of the cars you may have in the future.  MASH is at the top of the square indicating if you will live in a mansion, apartment, shack, or a house.  The girl whose fortune is being told must close her eyes and at any time says, “Stop!” while the fortune teller would be drawing sticks.  When the fortune teller stops, she counts how many sticks she has drawn.  Then she counts from the “M” on the square around the square counting to however many sticks she had drawn.  Whenever her count ends, she crosses out whatever item she lands on, and continues with her count again until only one item from each category is left.  In the end, the girl will discover who she will marry, what kind of compartment she would reside in, what her job would be, how many kids she’ll have, what the color of her car will be, what her car will be, and where she will live.

I have also played this game several times as the fortune teller and as the person whose fortune is being told.  It can take up a lot of time when needed and is quite entertaining.  It is especially fun for girls because most girls typically like to daydream about who their husbands will be or where they will live in the next ten years and so on.  Favorable results can be exciting and unfavorable results can be funny.

Folk speech
Humor
Riddle

Joke – What’s Black and White and Re(a)d All Over?

Q: What’s black and white and red all over?

A: A newspaper.

My informant first heard this riddle in third grade during a show and tell in her elementary school in Downey, CA.  Some of her classmates that did not have anything to show could just tell a joke they knew.  One of her classmates gave this riddle, and no one had been able to figure it out in her class.  A newspaper is certainly black and white, and it is “read” all over.  The children persistently thought what object could be the colors black, white, and “red,” so they were stumped.

Riddles like these are handy for entertainment purposes.  I believe that people tell such riddles because they would like to engage a crowd big or small.  When told a riddle, people are naturally inclined to solve it, and if they give up, they are eager to know the answer.  Usually the answer is a very simple one whereas people trying to solve the riddle looked too deeply into it.  That is also very entertaining when the answer turns out to be something that was so obvious, but they never thought it would be that easy.

 

Annotation: This riddle was in the 1995 movie “Batman Forever” in which the villain, the Riddler, played by actor Jim Carey asks this riddle.

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Magic
Old age
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Korean Superstition – The Ill at Funerals

“The physically ill in Korea do not attend funerals in fear that death will find them.”

 

My informant first heard about this superstition when about a decade ago, she was puzzled by her mother-in-law’s unwillingness to attend her (as in the mother-in-law’s) brother’s funeral.  When Gwi questioned her opposition to attending, her mother-in-law who is from the rural city of Daegu in Korea, explained that she was already ill.  Spirits at the funeral could sense an ill person’s presence and would follow her home.  She was afraid of the spirits following her after the funeral to take her with them, so she avoided going.  This kind of superstition is wide spread among the country folks in Korea.  They would never attend a funeral no matter how beloved the deceased was to them if they are ill because they believed the spirits would mark them as the next to die.

If I were battling a fatal disease, I would feel too vulnerable to go to such a gloomy and morbid ceremony.  Not necessarily that I believe spirits would follow me home, but I would be afraid to watch a funeral because death would just seem so real and closer to me.  However, I would still find the courage to attend a beloved’s funeral because perhaps I may find consolation in that death does not have to be so scary and remote as many people make it out to be.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Korean Dream Superstition – Pigs

“A dream about a pig is a very good sign promising riches.”

 

My informant first heard about this superstition from her mother when she was about eight years old, living in Pusan, Korea.  Her mother told her that pigs were a welcoming sign because it would mean the household would flourish with wealth.  That is why dreams with pigs in it were always a delight in Korea.  Her mother was discussing that if she married a man with the Chinese sign of a pig, she would most likely live in riches.  My informant also told me that many people are carefully strategizing to become pregnant in the year 2007 because this is the year of the Golden Pig in the Chinese calendar.  The Golden Pig is unique to the ordinary pig sign because it only comes once in a thousand years.  People believe that if they are to bear a child in the year of the Golden Pig, that child will bring propitious results.

I am not surprised pigs are considered the signs of wealth in Korea because of the nature of the animal.  Pigs are stereotypically obese, food-grubbing, and filthily self-indulgent.  Having a dream about a pig reminds the dreamer about his or her self-indulgences or greed.  Since most people are in a great desire for more money, the pig’s self-indulgence for food would mean indulgence in money for people.  Pigs also provide very good meat, pork.  Therefore pigs can conjure the image of meatiness, sufficiency, and fullness.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

She’s got her shoes on backwards. – Korean Expression

“She’s got her shoes on backwards.”

 

My informant first heard this saying in her hometown, the urban city of Pusan, Korea.  It is duty in Korea for males to devote two years of their lives to army training.  The training is not optional but mandatory.  As soon as they were called, the boys would have to leave everything they were doing to move into a military base for two years.  “She’s got her shoes on backwards” is a common saying when a young man returns from his army training.  The saying means that his girlfriend before the army training would have married someone else by the time he returns.  She would did not faithfully wait for him.  Gwi heard this saying when she was in high school and her two older brothers were leaving for army training, and their mother warned them that by the time they return they should not expect their girlfriends to be patiently waiting because they would most likely “have their shoes on backwards.”

Apparently it happened quite frequently in Korea that a girl would not wait for her man to return from training, especially if she were faced with proposals from other men.  I can see how the saying originated.  When you have your shoes on backwards, your shoes point to a different direction.  Instead of walking to her man, she would walk the other direction to a different man.  If she has her shoes on backwards, she would walk away from her man.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Material
Protection

Chinese Architectural Superstition

“A house that has a staircase that leads directly to the front door is a cursed house.”

 

My informant first heard about this superstition from her friend Mrs. Jin.  Mrs. Jin had been boasting about how she had been able to rent a beautiful house in Irvine for the cheap price of $1100 when it should have been $1700.  She told my informant that the owner of the house who rented it to her was a Chinese man.  He was aware of the old Chinese superstition that a house with a staircase that runs into the front door is cursed, leading to inevitable death.  Mrs. Jin and my informant laughed about that notion because they were at church function at the time, so as Christians they found the superstition preposterous.  Eerily, Mrs. Jin that same week went in for a bypass surgery that should have been simple enough, but she died from complications.  Now she is uneasy about the superstition.

Mrs. Jin’s death and her renting the “cursed” house could have been a mere coincidence.  A front door that connects directly to the staircase can cause uneasiness because good fortune can fly out the door easily, or perhaps death can easily find you since the stairs are a direct pathway to your room.  I am a Christian, so I should not pay attention to such superstitions about death, but to be on the safe side, I myself would never live in a house like that, especially after hearing about what happened to Mrs. Jin.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Signs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Korean Dream Superstition

“When you have a dream about teeth falling out, that is a very bad omen that brings death.”

 

My informant first heard this superstition from her mother when she was ten years old, living in the city of Pusan in South Korea.  Her mother had a dream that one of her bottom teeth fell out, so she told all her children to be careful.  Her mother was afraid that since her bottom teeth fell out in her dream that would mean someone younger than she would meet his or her death.  In Korea the people are anxious about having dreams of teeth being knocked out because they take that as a sign of death.  The upper row of teeth would mean death for someone older and the lower row of teeth would mean death for someone younger.  She believes that teeth falling out signifies death because once you reach a certain age, your teeth would start to deteriorate.  Teeth were vital in consuming food, so the absence of them were a great discomfort.  Therefore, when someone lost his or her teeth, it was common to believe death was near, especially without the technology of dentures then.

I can see how death and teeth falling out can be linked together.  The sign of youth can be when a baby first grows his or her teeth.  Hence, when someone becomes old enough to lose his or her teeth, that symbolizes a life coming to an end rather than a beginning.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Bringing a girl to a party is like bringing sand to a beach.

“Bringing a girl to a party is like bringing sand to a beach.”

 

My informant, Andrew, is a college student who regularly attends parties as well as throwing them.  He had been debating who to bring as a date to the New Years Party that would ring in the year of 2007 in Huntington Beach, CA.  He also kept in mind of who he would want to kiss at midnight.  When he was hanging out with a guy friend of his, Andrew asked his friend’s opinion of who he should bring.  His friend who was the one throwing the party admonished Andrew for thinking about bringing a date, saying, “Bringing a girl to a party is like brining sand to a beach.”  He meant that there will be plenty of girls at his party, so why should Andrew tie himself down from having as much fun with them as possible because of a date?  His friend assured him that there will definitely be enough girls with whom to kick of the New Year, so hearing the similie, Andrew decided not to bring a date.

As soon as I heard Andrew tell me this, I understood the meaning.  While girls may not appreciate hearing this, guys would catch on quickly.  Just as bringing sand to the beach is futile in that there is already an abundant supply of sand at the beach, bringing a girl to a party is also useless where they will be flocks of girls who are eager to have fun, so there is no need to bring a date.

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