Tag Archives: American

Meaning Behind The Proverb “In The Land of The Blind, The One Eyed Man is King.”

Main Piece:

Original Text (Latin): “In regione caecorum rex est luscus.”

Translation: “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.” 

Meaning as told by my informant:

“It means that if everything is bad, and one thing is less bad, then it’s automatically the best. It plays on the idea of ‘best’ being a relative term. So literally speaking, someone who has sight in one eye can see more than someone who is blind. Therefore, he’s the best. He rules. In life, if you’re better than people at something, even if you’re not even good at it, you’ll be the best. It’s winning by default. If you were playing a game and the other team forfeited, your team won just because it didn’t quit. You didn’t do anything, but you still did more than the other kids.” 

Background: 

My informant is my mother, who grew up hearing this phrase and doesn’t remember learning it. When I asked her if she knew the saying’s origin, she said “it must’ve come somewhere with a king, so it’s probably European.” She likes the saying because it puts things in perspective: “Once you enter the real world, nothing is perfect. A lot of life is just getting things done the best you can. It’s not like in school where there are grades. Many times, the things that are best aren’t even very good. That can be very comforting or very concerning, depending on your belief system. I think it’s kind of beautiful.” 

Context: 

I am currently in quarantine at my informant/mother’s house, and this piece was collected while we were eating dinner at the kitchen table. 

Thoughts: 

I had always heard this saying in the context of someone getting something by default; they didn’t work hard for it, but they worked harder than others. However, after some research, I learned this specific phrasing is taken from an Erasmus quote in Latin that dates back to 1500, which is likely based off of a Hebrew excerpt from Genesis in the Old Testament “בשוק סמייא צווחין לעווירא סגי נהור”, which translates to “In the street of the blind, the one eyed man is called the Guiding Light.” Once I saw that this proverb is Biblical, it gave me a new perspective on my mother’s idea that it’s “kind of beautiful.” In the Bible, Jesus always says people are perfectly imperfect. While the English proverb in particular is competitive, it also shows that sometimes, even the best people aren’t perfect. I think this saying is a good example of how a proverb can change over time. Biblically, it means that we are all human, and we shouldn’t be so hard on each other. But today, it generally means someone wasn’t good, they were just better. While I don’t imagine myself using this proverb in its original context, it does give me a new appreciation for the saying itself. 

For more information on the proverb’s origin:

Wiktionary. “In-the-Land-of-the-Blind-the-One-Eyed-Man-Is-King.” 

Not Eating the Last Bit: An American Superstition

Background: The informant is my mother, who is a third generation Irish immigrant from Bridgeport, CT. She learned the superstition from her mother and has vehemently abided by it ever since. 

Context: The following piece was collected in a casual, in-person interview at the informant’s home in San Diego, CA. 

Piece: 

Informant: “I can’t eat or drink the last bit or piece of anything.”

Collector: “Why?”

Informant: “Because then I will become an old maid.”

Collector: “I don’t know why that’s just the way it is you know that’s what my mother taught me.”

Analysis: I grew up hearing my mother refuse the last drop of wine or last piece of food at nearly every meal. I believe that it is entrenched in American gender roles and concepts of femininity from the mid 20th century. The words “old maid” imply that the practice is gendered, although it is worth noting I have witnessed my uncle practice this superstition. I interpret the piece as perpetuating the idea that women should be selfless and thus offer the last of their food to others and not consume it themselves. Throughout my life, I questioned my mother’s practice and particularly what was implied by the words “old maid.” Continuously, my mother interpreted becoming an “old maid” as dying old and alone. This is particularly dire to her as she grew up in 1960s America, a time in which a woman’s self-worth was still largely tied to her relationship status and the wealth of her husband. Although this concept has been largely contested in American culture today, my mother and her mother who value family and marriage considered being old and alone a fate worse than death, the ultimate symbol of being unwanted and unloved. By controlling the tangible, they attempt to control and quell these fears.

The Tradition Surrounding Mary Draper Ingles in Virginia

Main piece:

“There’s this story from my hometown of Bradford, Virginia about this woman named Mary Draper Ingles who, during the 1750s, was kidnapped by a group of Native Americans. She might have had a child at the time, but she was kidnapped by these Natives and then eventually escaped and then followed the rivers from Ohio back to Virginia where she lived in Bradford for a while until she died but there’s several parts of the town that remember her including an annual theater production.” 

Background:

The informant for this piece is a man in his early 50s who was raised in a small town called Bradford in southwest Virginia in the New River Valley. This area had broader ties to Appalachian culture as a whole and he lived there throughout his childhood and teens. This story is a local story about a real woman but whose kidnapping and return is sometimes doubted. Regardless, the town uses the story to establish a local identity, especially in the form of an annual theater production.

Context:

This story was shared with me during an encounter with my informant wherein I asked if he had any examples of local Appalachian folk culture. The conversation occurred in his backyard alongside family and friends.

Thoughts:

I find this story fascinating as the figure of the piece is entirely real. Mary Draper Ingles was a real woman who was kidnapped by Native Americas in the 1750s. However, the story of her return has become crucial for the identity of Bradford, Virginia. She is a proud figurehead for the community, which ties the community to their specific place and argues their right to exist. What is even more interesting is how the town still romanticizes the story. As mentioned above, the town hosts an annual theater production about her. While this might veer outside of folklore because it features authored literature, the traditions done around the piece are more folkloric in nature. This places the story in a strange level of liminality. It is both real and fiction, authored and folklore. This binary is interesting and is used by the natives of Bradford to establish identity.

Hans Brinker and the Dam

Piece

One of the stories I heard, growing up as a kid, uhm… whether that be in elementary school or through my parents was the Dutch story about Hans Brinker, uhm… who is not usually named that, it is just his official title in the book. Uhm. And he’s a dutch boy that puts his finger in a damn and saves his entire village from drowning. I’m not sure what it is about this story that has been popularized so much, and I don’t know why it is taught so much in american schools. Uhm. But it is something that is stuck in my mind as the story that’s been passed on from generation to generation. Cause after looking it up I found out it originated in an 1875 book. But yeah, that’s my favorite piece of ferkl- folklore. 

Background

M is a close friend from Minnesota who studies film. He is a really serious guy with strong roots in Minnesota. He told me that he heard this story from his school and his parents and it stuck with him for whatever reason.

Context

He sent me a voice clip over Whatsapp in which he said all of this. I told him to send me a piece of folklore earlier that day. 

Thoughts

The story is an example of a martyr figure, a young boy, that saves his village through self sacrifice. It is probably indicative of values of the community. M mentioned that it was taught a lot throughout american schools and this could be an attempt to instill specific moral values in children, namely those relating to self sacrifice for the good of your community. 

Meaning Behind The Proverb “I Don’t Have to Outrun The Bear”

Main Piece: 

Original Proverb: “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.” 

Meaning as told by my informant:

“So, the story goes like this. Two men are hiking in the woods, and they see a bear. The bear is really mad, so they start running to get away. The first man says ‘how are we going to outrun this bear?’ and the other guy goes ‘I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.’ (laughs) Because think about it. If the bear gets one guy, he’s not going to keep running to get the other. In life, it means that you don’t need to be the best, you just need to be better. I used to like telling you that when you were taking tests that were graded on a curve. If you got a question wrong, but everyone else got two wrong, you didn’t have a perfect score, but you got a hundred percent. You didn’t outrun the bear, but you did outrun the other people.” 

Background: 

My informant is my father, who grew up on a chicken farm in South New Jersey. His parents were holocaust survivors who immigrated from Poland, so growing up, he generally spoke Yiddish at home and English at school. Everyone always calls him the “walking joke book,” and he speaks more in proverbs (in both languages) than he does in normal sentences. While he doesn’t remember where he learned this proverb, he assumes it was at school, since he learned it in English. He says he likes this proverb, and all proverbs, because they’re an easy way to evoke a whole story and moral from just a few words. In addition, he just thinks they’re funny and that the world would be a better place if everyone laughed more. 

Context: 

While I’m not in quarantine with my informant/father, I do call him every day, and this piece was collected during a routine call. 

Thoughts: 

This was likely the first proverb I ever learned (I don’t technically remember learning it), and it evokes a very fond sense of nostalgia for me. I think the beauty of this proverb is its fairly dark sense of humor. The saying itself implies that someone is going to die, but an audience’s response is always laughter. It’s this weird sense of optimism because although you know someone is going to get mauled by a bear, your takeaway is that you’re going to be okay. My analysis is that depending on how you look at life, someone’s success almost always means someone else’s failure. For example, if I got into USC, that inherently means someone else didn’t. This can be even more awkward when you take into account how Americans value being humble and putting others before yourself. Oftentimes, Americans remedy discomfort with humor, which I believe is what makes this proverb transcendent. This proverb is not a joke, yet it masks as one because we choose to hide our self serving agendas under funny sayings. Referencing what my father said about curved tests, he never told me ‘wreck the curve so everyone else does worse than you,’ he just said ‘you don’t have to outrun the bear.’ Much like running from a bear, American humor is a self defense mechanism. 

The Ritual of Grad Night

Main Piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my informant (AT). 

AT: For high school graduation, either right before or right after you do your graduation ceremony, it’s usually sometime during that week… There’s this other, more casual ceremony called Grad Night, where you stay up all night with your classmates doing different things. It varies from school to school and year to year and stuff, like I know some schools do DisneyLand, but at my school, we went to LACMA after hours, and they literally took us to a bar! (Laughs) They only had non-alcoholic drinks though. We then went to a bowling alley… and… a comedy club… it’s honestly hard to remember at this point where exactly we went. We just stayed up going different places around LA.

LT: What’s the point of it? 

AT: No matter what you do, the point is it’s just that last time you’re all together as a class. Like ours was after graduation, and I remember watching people get picked up and just thinking “I might never see them again.” 

Background: 

AT is a twenty-three-year-old from Los Angeles, where she attended a private all girls high school. Like most private schools in LA, this school was known for having elaborate events, including Grad Night, so she had been waiting for her own ever since she first attended the school. In addition, AT says that due to the nature of her school being very small and all girls, Grad Night in particular is historically very emotional. She also says that Grad Night felt more ‘real’ than the graduation ceremony because it was more casual and “actually felt like we were just hanging out, and it’s where I said goodbye to a lot of people.” 

Context: 

AT is one of my relatives with whom I’m quarantining. This piece was collected in our living room as we were sitting at our kitchen table. 

Thoughts: 

I think Grad Night speaks to the greater idea Americans have of adolescence. There are countless American movies that take place during a character’s senior year or the summer after high school, symbolizing the end of their childhood. While some societies put an emphasis on aging and wisdom, our society values youth, and it depicts the transition into adulthood as being stark and not gradual, hence the need to fit in as many memories as possible before that youth runs out. Grad Night is a perfect and exaggerated example of this. High school graduation is arguably the most significant milestone in terms of becoming an American adult, and Grad Night is essentially put on by the school so the students can have their last chance at making childhood memories. We hold this belief that you can’t have fun once you grow up, so there’s an added importance to the end of high school to ‘live while you still can.’ 

For more background on the emotional significance of Grad Night:

Spicer, Susan. “12-14 Years: Grad Night.” Today’s Parent, vol. 27, no. 6, 06, 2010, pp. 148-148,151

The Ursuline Casket Girls Of New Orleans

Storyteller:

“Okay, so there’s this convent and off the top of my head I don’t remember it but if you google like “New Orleans Convent Vampires” you’ll find like a version of it. So that’s when New Orleans was being like built into a new city and there were all these traders and fur trappers or whatever. So women, so they has women brought over from Europe who were essentially going to be mail order brides for these men. So there are crude jokes of it being like early human trafficking and the women were like exposed to the sun on the trip over on the boat so they got like severely sun burned so the men like freaked out when the women got off the boat and rejected them. So they took the women in at the local convent and they like turned the top floor into the places for them to stay. But somehow because it’s New Orleans and this is what happens, people started saying that the women up there can’t be exposed to sunlight, they must be vampires…and it turned into this whole legend about the vampires of the convent. So like if you go on the voodoo tour in New Orleans, you will go to this convent and be told the story.

Me: That is so interesting, wow.

Storyteller: It is crazy! I mean the stuff in New Orleans…like who thought that was true and you know…it’s New Orleans so who knows if it’s true…you never know there.

Background: The storyteller is from New Orleans so she had a couple stories to pick from but decided to share this one. She told me that although she couldn’t remember the exact name of the story (I later looked up the real name and titled this post with it), she knew that because of the weird history of New Orleans, an ancient event turned into a creepy legend.

Context: I asked her if I could interview her for this project. I knew that she was from the south and after collecting a couple stories from people who grew up in the south, I was fascinated with them and wanted to hear more. She gave me a few stories…one is this legend. I drove back home to meet her for some coffee before diving into the interview (along with another storyteller who is interviewed in a different post).

Thoughts: I have come to realize that there are many legends and ghost stories that come from the south. The reason for this is probably because of the south’s horrible history especially with slavery and the general mistreatment of black people and women. I think that whether or not this legend is true and the women actually were vampires (even though it seems unlikely), it is interesting to me how easily skewed a simple story can become in New Orleans. It seems like the city has a rich culture and likes to accumulate as many interesting stories as it can. It makes it unique.

Witch in Georgia

Context: The collector is interviewing the informant for tales. The informant (as GL) is a Chinese USC student who went to high school in Georgia. His classmates told him this story in a history class, the content of which was related with witch hunts.

 

GL: The story happened when there was witch hunting.

Collector: In the US?

GL: Yeah probably. So there were too many hares and they ate up all the crops. So hunters wanted to hunt them down. There was one particular hare that was gigantic, very huge. And so they go consult the witch. They cannot catch the hare so they go to the witch for help. The witch is like, “Okay you guys should just go to this place to find it (the giant hare) and don’t let the giant black dog lose and just let it chase after the hare.” The hunters don’t know what that means. They keep that in mind and they find the giant hare. During the process (of pursuing the hare), a giant black dog jumps out of nowhere and takes a bite on the giant hare’s hind leg. The hare ran off. The giant black dog also ran off. The hunters went back to the witch and was like, “We found the hare, but sorry that we couldn’t keep track with the black dog coming out of nowhere.” But what they figured out was, you know, on the hip of the witch, there was a bite mark like where the dog bit the hare. I don’t remember what happened to the witch later. Sorry.

Collector: Do you think this story happens in Georgia?

GL: Yeah I guess so. You know, there was a time in the 17th or 18th century where there were witch trials and people were suspicious about witches causing misfortunes, you know.

Collector: Do you think people view the story as a legend or just a fairy tale?

GL: Apparently witches are not real. They were just unfortunate women accused as witches. I guess it has some sort of authenticity with it. Well it also can be completely made up by people.

 

Collector’s thoughts:

As the informant has mentioned, the legend is probably developed in the time of witch hunt. People of that period of time blamed natural factors that had negative impact on their daily production on witches and transferred their anger to innocent women. I think the tale is interesting, and it makes people remember the dark time of witch hunt.

No Mirror Facing You When You Sleep

Context: The collector interviewed the informant (as XZ) for superstitions. The informant is a USC student from Los Angeles. Her parents are from China. The conversation was in the collector’s dorm room When the informant saw a mirror on the collector’s bookshelf, she came up with the following folk belief.

 

 

Main Piece:

Never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep.

 

XZ: My parents told me never put the mirror where you can see your own reflection when you sleep. Because when you are sleeping, your soul, this is so funny, I don’t really believe it, is above your body and moves around. So if you have a mirror facing you when you are sleeping, your soul will look into the mirror and get confused. So it will, like, not go back to your body.

XZ: My parents just told me the story. They think it’s funny. But some people really believe in this. They never put mirrors where mirrors reflect their bed.

 

The informant doesn’t think it is an Asian folk belief but rather an American one. She said that she didn’t believe the saying, but when asked about whether she would put a mirror against her bed, she answered no.

 

 

Collector’s thoughts:

Reflection of the real world in the mirror is a common topic of folk belief. There seem to be an underlying fear of the other self in the reflection, which threatens the exclusivity of self in the real world.

This folk belief also involves the topic of body and soul separation, and the process of sleeping. In this folklore, the connection between the soul and the body is unstable. The soul can get lost easily.

Right/Left Eye Twitches

Text: “It is believed somewhere I don’t know where that if your left eye twitches that means something good will happen and if your right eye twitches something bad will happen. I never really believed this or looked into it until there have been multiple cases where you could say it is hindsight bias, but to me it is the way this superstition works. After my right eye twitched the first two cases: I played my best volleyball game, I got an A on a test. Some left eye twitches included falling and getting hurt, arguments with my family, and just small things in general that are either positive or negative.”

 

Context: The subject is a Chinese-American female from Palo Alto, California. She is one of my peers at USC and I asked her casually if she had any superstitions. She then proceeded to tell me this one that she believes because she thinks it has successfully predicted whether good or bad things were going to happen to her.

 

Interpretation: I thought this was an interesting superstition that I had never heard before. I don’t necessarily believe it’s true, especially considering what the informant mentioned about “hindsight bias”. Because she had already heard about the superstition, she was actively taking note of good things that happened to her after her right eye twitched. Because she was so eagerly looking for something good to happen, she could have easily missed or ignored any bad things that happened to her that day. The same goes for after her left eye twitched; she was so intent on identifying bad things that happened to her that day that she could have easily ignored the good things. Although getting into an argument could have seemed bad on the day when her left eye was twitching, it could have seemed mundane on the day when her right eye was twitching.