USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘ancestors’
Customs
Holidays
Homeopathic
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cutting Hair for Chinese New Year

[The subject is MW. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

ME: Can you tell me about a Chinese New Year tradition?

MW: Chinese New Year, or Chinese New Year eve, we will put the whole table. Mother cook, or have the servant cook, all kinds of goodies, but we cannot eat first. But they still put the wine and the chopstick, and the whole table, but that’s let the ancestor come, ancestor, I mean we don’t see them- the people already pass away like my grandma, or grandma, you know? My mother always, we cannot- the kids eat later, just have to let them, still, put the best food, all warm, but we cannot touch the chair. It’s grand-grandpa, and grand-grandma, let them eat first. And after the time, bring the food back to the kitchen, and then bring it back and then we can eat.

And then also, in Chinese New Year, we have to go to have a haircut, the kids all have to go have a haircut.

ME: Why is that?

MW: It’s like for a new year, then you have to clean up the whole thing. And the next day, we have to go to, for our auntie, and grandma, those kowtow. And then they give us a red envelope.

Context: MW is my grandmother, who was born in Shanghai and then lived in Hong Kong later on in her youth. She moved to San Francisco as a young adult and has lived in the Bay Area for the last six decades. She is a native Mandarin speaker, but is also fluent in English. I sat down with her and asked her to talk about some traditions and stories she remembers from living in China.

Thoughts: I am half-Chinese and have lived in the United States for my entire life, so while the tradition of eating a big dinner on Chinese New Year is familiar to me, but the less common tradition of getting a haircut for the new year was not. I believe that this tradition could be associated with Frazer’s concept of homeopathic magic, because the chopping of the hair seems to represent chopping off what you no longer want to hold onto from the last year, and creates good luck going forward.

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Placing Cutlery for the Dead- A Korean New Years Tradition

Main Text

Collector: I know the your family does special acts for the Korean New Year. Would you mind telling me a few of these and what you think is the most important part for the celebration?

HK: “The most important part is that every male family member has to have a different spoon and chopstick. The spoon and chopstick represent the dead person’s utensils so that they can eat the offering of food. What my dad would do is place the spoon and chopstick to each of the dishes that he made each time so that the dead person has time to eat it.”

Context: 

I was in a conversation with Hk in order to solicit information about how her family celebrates the Korean New Year. Before I collected this piece from her she had listed out at least five other customary acts that they perform at the Korean New Year celebration at her house and to narrow it down I asked her what she believes the most important act out of the day is and she provided me with this piece. She said that she remembers this piece because it is a very emotional part in her family and since her dad is a chef, he likes to prepare traditional food and it is of great importance to him that members of his past family can relish in this meal as well to have some happiness and enjoyment after life. HK said that she likes seeing how happy this makes her father so it is a very joyful moment to share with her family which is why it sticks with her. When I asked her if she would share it with her future family she responded that it was a guarantee because she wants to teach her kids the importance of family and sharing these kinds of emotional experiences with each other, especially over a good traditional Korean meal.

Analysis: 

One of the main reasons for celebration of the Korean New Year is not just to celebrate the passage into the new year but as a way to spend time catching up with your family members as well as paying respect to your dead ancestors. Understanding that a large part of the Korean New Year celebration revolves around family and paying respect to one’s ancestors, it makes sense that the custom of setting out utensils for one’s deceased ancestors would be passed down, taught to new generations and vary between family.

Another large part of this piece that needs to be analyzed is why this part of the honoring of the ancestor is centered around food. In Korean culture, food is a way of getting one’s family together and sharing a Korean style meal keeps the family close. Traditionally, eating in Korea is done family style, where main dishes are shared and eating is considered a major social activity for friends and families. The social setting of eating such as exchanging food, taking pictures of food and even talking about food all brings people and family together, especially when eating at a restaurant. I have known many people from China and Korea who all say that a two hour wait at a restaurant is worth it because they get to spend two hours or more there catching up and socializing as a large familial group. In this explanation I have argued the fact that the tradition of placing eating utensils out for ancestors as a way to honor them on Korean New Years is culturally centered around the belief that food really brings family together in a very close and personal setting.

Another reason that this tradition will continue to be passed down is that there is a lot of history behind each dish that Korea has. Food has a distinct impact on the culture itself because of all the history and meaning behind the food that is eaten and the food that gets eaten and cooked even when away from the motherland. Korean food plays a huge part for me because not only they are rich in value and nutrients also because of their taste which is unique and the traditional foods that traced back to Korea arguably all are extremely nutritious. In a way, serving this traditional food to the dead a a way to honor them provides the dead with a sense of connection tho their family and their culture as well as a way to nourish them in the afterlife. The nutrition value of the food and the uniqueness of the textures and flavor that are employed in Korean cooking act as a way to unify one’s family and help them to continue to identify and even preserve their culture when they are away from their homeland. This cultural significance that is put on Korean dishes  in the end plays a large part in why these individuals who celebrate Korean New Years and perform this ritual continue to do so.

The final way that I am going to analyze this ritual performed on the Korean New year is through a religious lens. The main religion in Korea is Buddhism. In Buddhism, ghosts are fairly common and fully accepted, unlike what is allowed for Christians. Because many Koreans have this religious belief that entertains the existence and acceptance of ghosts, it is not so strange or out of the question that folklore involving the placement of utensils for one’s dead ancestors would be passed along and practiced today by Korean families.

In summary, the cultural stance that many Koreans share in family and in food as well as the religion practiced by many Korean individuals serve as an explanation to why the act of placing a spoon and chopsticks out for one’s ancestors is an important ritual that takes place on Korean New Years.

Customs
Festival
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Vietnamese “Day of the Dead”

Context:

My informant is a 20 year old student at the University of Southern California (USC). This conversation took place one night at Cafe 84, a place where many students at USC go to study at night. The informant and I sat alone at our own table, but were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, he talks about a Vietnamese tradition, similar to the Day of the Dead, that his family practices every year in order to honor and respect his family’s ancestors. My informant says he never officially learned this folklore, but rather that his mom “just started doing it… One day I woke up and there’s just this altar in the middle of my house.” This is a transcription of his folklore, where he is identified as N and I am identified as K.

 

Text:

N: Hello, so um, this is really similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead—I don’t really know what it’s called to be honest—but it’s kind of like an ancestral worship thing, so like…

 

K: But specific only to Vietnamese?

 

N: Yeah for Vietnamese people! So we have a bunch of pictures of our ancestors, and then we have a bunch of food that we put on the table… Honestly we didn’t do much more than that. I’m pretty there’s a whole other tradition that went along with it…

 

K: Okay but why did you do it?

 

N: Just to like worship your ancestors and stuff. Like, “pay respect to your ancestors” kind of thing, and we’d just have pictures of a bunch on them on our table and we’d like offer them, like, Vietnamese food offerings.

 

K: Were they supposed to, like, come back and visit you or something?

 

N: No… well, maybe, I don’t know! Yeah… so that’s it.

 

Thoughts:

In this account, it was clear that my informant didn’t know a lot about the tradition and was even slightly unenthusiastic about it. This may be attributed to the fact that he’s uncomfortable because he feels that he should know more about the tradition because his family has been doing it every year ever since he can remember. During our conversation, it seemed like he felt a little ashamed or guilty that he wasn’t as informed, especially when he knows it’s so important to his family.

In a separate conversation, my informant told me that his parents were immigrants to this country, but that he was born in Los Angeles, California. Sometimes, people can be embarrassed or shy when they tell cultural stories, especially if they don’t have strong connections to their culture, which seems to be the case with my informant. Even though he gets the gist of it, my informant seems disconnected from this practice because he was never the one to set up the altar, pull out the photos of his ancestors, or cook the food that his family offered. In this case, my informant seems to only be a passive bearer of this tradition: he can recognize the folklore when it’s performed or being created, but he doesn’t seem capable of replicating it. His parents, on the other hand, have clearly been the active bearers of this tradition in his family. This could be due to the fact that they are immigrants, and thus are much more strongly connected to its purpose.

This tradition speaks to immigrant status and identity; my informant is in a liminal state of being a part of a Vietnamese identity because he was born to Vietnamese parents, but also being American because of the fact that he was born and raised in America. Because of this, he loses a lot of the authenticity of his Vietnamese identity. Even from the very start, we can see that he introduces this tradition not by it’s Vietnamese name, but as a tradition that is “similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead.” Perhaps this is because in America, Day of the Dead is much more well-known and integrated into American culture than most other ethnic holidays. For example, when I took Spanish in high school, we would celebrate Day of the Dead every year as a way to immerse ourselves into the culture. As a child, it’s possible that he came to understand his own family’s folklore in the context of America. Thus, rather than thinking that Day of the Dead is similar to this Vietnamese tradition that his family practices, his mind was instead wired to notice that this tradition is similar to the popular holiday of Day of the Dead.

On the other hand, understanding that Day of the Dead is a much more understood and well-known celebration, my informant perhaps uses Day of the Dead to explain his tradition in terms of other peoples folklore to help it be better understood. His way of introducing it as a Vietnamese version of the Day of the Dead could be his way of saying “Day of the Dead is not a mainstream holiday, and neither is mine.”

 

Customs
Festival
Holidays
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Tomb Sweeping Festival

Background:

This piece is a cultural tradition that the subject was introduced to through her family, and that she has done since her childhood.

Piece:

AQ: So… once a month—I mean not once a month, I think it’s once a year… um, I think a lot of Chinese families, what they do is they go to the cemetery.  I think that it’s called Tomb Sweeping Festival, and what happens is you go there and then um you kinda like bring food for your ancestors or whoever has passed away.  You bring incense sticks and you put them in the ground and then you also, um, lay out food for them to eat in their afterlife.  And there’s also like a huge trash can that we have, alright, and what we do is we usually burn a lot of money.  And then, ok it sounds very, like, Satanic but it’s not. But yeah, so you burn money, and it’s supposed to—I think they called it hell money, but I don’t really know—and then it’s supposed to also be for them in the afterlife, and then sometimes you also burn clothing, watches, cellphones, and whatever for them to use.

JM: So all this stuff you’re burning is for them to use?

AQ: Yeah, like, later on—wherever they are now.

JM: And you’ve done this?

AQ: Yeah, I do—like I, well I haven’t done it the past two years because of college, but I’ve done it every year.

Context:

This conversation was recorded during an in-person conversation with the subject, where I asked them if there were any special traditions or customs that their family followed.

Analysis:

The subject seems to have an interesting relationship with the piece of folklore that they are describing—it is evidently something that they are not completely confident about their knowledge of, yet it is still something that they participate in.  As a side note, what is called the ‘Tomb Sweeping Festival’ here seems to be most commonly referred to in English as ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’.  This folk custom does not seem to have any heavy spiritual associations for the subject, though it may have taken on new meanings as a yearly tradition that connects families to their cultural past, both literally through their ancestors and through the traditional practice of ancestor veneration..

For another version of this piece, see:

Song, Li. The Tomb-Sweeping Day. Paths International Ltd., 2015: Pg 138.

general

Adams Family Ancestors

Context:

Leighton Lord is my father. Given this relation to me, I was interested in procuring some folklore that both of us participated in, but obviously from his perspective as he and my mother were the ones who set the traditions that we followed. Another unique perspective he has is being instilled in Southern traditions after twenty two years spent in Columbia, South Carolina following his marriage to my mother, a native South Carolinian. He grew up in Delaware, and was fascinated upon arriving in the South and witnessing the obsession with tradition and particularly talk about ancestors. I collected several pieces of folklore from him during a recent trip he made to Los Angeles. He currently practices law.

Transcript:

When I got to the South, my mother and father in law took me under their wing. They’d take me to all these parties with old South Carolina people. At one party this guy comes up to me, says “oh let’s go sit with so and so”…Oh Weston Adams. So this Adams, he starts telling this story about his ancestors, a few generations back. He starts talking about Uncle Jed or whoever, I don’t know. Then the guy that took me over says “no, no, no. We don’t wanna hear about the good Adams’s, we wanna hear about the bad ones. So he tells a story about someone who killed someone over a land dispute or something. I don’t know. The point the guy was trying to make was that they’d rather talk about the good ones, but as long as they’re talking about their ancestors, they’re happy. I always thought that was the most South Carolina thing.

Interpretation:

This example tells of the general folk speech of Southerners. Southerners do love to speak about their ancestors and tell stories like the one my father vaguely mentions about a man of one family shooting a man of another family over a land dispute. The way my father told this made it sound like the story itself was irrelevant. In fact, that Southern story almost feels like a trope. It is even told in Huckleberry Finn. The truth, of course, is a moot point. What is fascinating is that this man is proud of an ancestor for allegedly defending the family’s honor.

Legends
Narrative

Ancestor Mirror Ghost

Main Piece:

 

The following was recorded from the Participant. They are marked as BDV. I am marked as DG.

 

BDV: So my mom thinks that ghosts communicate to her, so after my dad’s mom passed away, and we…we were the ones to clean out her house and pack away her stuff and things like that. And my mom kept insisting that every time she passed this mirror, she would see something behind her, and she thought that it was my dad’s mom and we were like, “ok whatever.” And then coming back to our own house, the same thing would happen to the mirror in our living room, and she was like-it happened for a year for her until, like, the year anniversary of my grandma’s passing.

 

DG: And you heard that from your mom?

 

BDV: Yeah, from my mom. And she says that the same thing happens to other people in her family. Like, after her dad passed away, it happened to her eldest sister. And she thinks that since my grandma didn’t have any daughters-she only had my dad-that it, like, passed to her daughter-in-law, which is, like, my mom.”

 

 

Context:

 

The conversation was recorded while sitting outside of a coffee shop at the University of Southern California. The ghost sighting was seen at the house of the interviewee’s grandmother, as well as at the house of the interviewee.

 

Background:

 

The student was born and raised in Northern California. She is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. She is the fourth generation to grow up in America, but is Filipino. She speaks several languages, with English being her native language.

 

Analysis:

 

I’ve heard about stories like this. There seems to be a lot of folklore concerning mirrors and ghosts, leading me to believe that mirrors are a method of communication to the other side. For example, the Bloody Mary game is played in a mirror. I personally have heard folklore about not looking into a mirror in the dark or the spirits will replace your soul with theirs, leaving you trapped in the mirror. So to me, the idea of seeing the deceased behind you in the mirror seems entirely believable, and also incredibly terrifying.

Customs
general
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Tomb visiting day in Taiwan

Background information:

My friend introduced me to a practice that he and his relatives often perform surrounding the celebration of his ancestors. He is of Taiwanese descent, as he was born in San Francisco, California and both of his parents were born in Taipei, Taiwan. His family moved to California since before he was born and have assimilated into the American lifestyle but still stay very true to their Taiwanese roots and take great pride in their Taiwanese culture.

 

Main piece:

My friend said that throughout his childhood and growing up, he would always celebrate his ancestors with his relatives. He explained that there is a special day in Taiwan where family members all get together and visit the tombs or graves of their ancestors. When they visit their ancestors, they do everything from pray to bring a large amount of food for both them as well as their ancestors to enjoy. He explained this as not being an event of sadness, but rather a celebration where family members are able to reconnect and bond over their unity in their family and eat traditional Taiwanese foods. He said that his family members come from all over Taiwan and therefore all of his family members travel to the location where their ancestors are buried, when they are celebrating this day, showing the importance that people place on this event and how crucial it is that everyone attends.

When I asked if there was any dish in particular that was popular for this event, he responded that fruit is very common to bring, along with other desserts such as red bean desserts and rice cakes, emphasizing that sweets are often preferred in his experience.

 

Personal thoughts:

Upon hearing this tradition, I felt that this was a fantastic way to celebrate relatives that have passed away because everyone in the family is joining in on this event, unifying the family a great deal. In addition to the unifying and memorable factors of this celebration, I feel that the great amounts of food definitely make this event even more successful, as I have always experienced that having food at events usually makes them vastly more successful and memorable.

Customs
Holidays
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Money Burning Ceremony for Chinese New Year

Informant is a Chinese-Cambodian American from San Jose, California, an area known for its large population of people of Asian descent. This tradition is a part of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, which is usually a week of festivities in late January.

“So, on the last Saturday of the week of Chinese New Year, um, my family, including all of my uncles, aunts, and cousins gather around a big metal Chinese pot container thing that is lit up by a flame. We sit around it in silence and say prayers to our ancestors, and wish everyone around us good health and fortune for the new year. Once everyone is done doing that, the oldest family member hands out small stacks of fake paper money with Chinese characters and images on them. We each take turns throwing bills of money into the pit, and doing so is supposed to give our ancestors wealth and fortune in the afterlife. This is supposed to help bring good luck to their living descendants. Then, following the burning of the money, there is a feast for the family, but first some food is set out in front of an altar as an offering to the ancestors. That’s about it.”

How long has your family been doing this tradition?

“At least since I was born. I’ve done it almost every year, and my family from out of town will all come together and go to the temple to pray and perform the ceremony. It’s a very distinct memory from my childhood.”

 

Collector’s Comments:

Being from an Asian-American from San Jose as well, this tradition seems very familiar to me, yet at the same time it is different from the traditions that my family practices. The Lunar New Year celebration is a very big deal in San Jose, and involves a week of prayer at temples, decorations and parades, and feasts to honor the ancestors and bring in the New Year. However, there are many variations in the celebrations, especially between the different ethnic groups. This is an example of one of the many ways in which the holiday is celebrated.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Food For the Ancestors

The Main Piece
“During certain times of the year we would leave out food for our ancestors, the date would very because it would depend on the date they died. So my grandma died on the 18th of September so we would leave food out for her then every year. It wouldn’t be for every relative we had ‘cus that would be excessive, but the ones we were especially close to we would be sure to leave food out for them. They would usually leave out duck, chicken and fruit on a nice porcelain plate, or whatever nice plate they could find around the house (just not any paper plates). For every ancestor it would always be the same food. After a night they would take the chicken and duck back into the house, pray for said ancestor, and eat it. However, they would leave the fruit out, unsure of why they would not eat the fruit exactly, but never questioned it since she was only a child.
Background Information
My informant is Rachel Tan, a current first year undergraduate student and personal friend of mine at USC. Rachel did not understand the practice at first, she was too young to understand. She would spend a lot of time at her grandparents’ house since her family traveled a lot. The practice was more from her Cambodian side, her grandmother being full Cambodian. Rachel would help her grandmother with this practice during her elementary school days before she was old enough to stay home alone. She thinks of it fondly as a time where she was able to “take care of her ancestors” and hoped that her descendants would eventually take care of her as well.
Context
We discussed this in Ronald Tutor Campus Center over lunch as we were talking about our families and life back home.
Personal Thoughts
My grandmother is Cantonese, but is also very connected to her culture, feeling it is extremely important just as Rachel’s grandmother does. Therefore, it was easy for me to relate to growing up with grandparents extremely cultured, but not understanding all of their practices. I honestly thought it was a bit odd that they ate the food that they left overnight, but I suppose every culture has its oddities. Hearing about how this practice gave her more of a connection with her ancestors and hopes to have this practice create some type of relationship with her descendants that she may never meet in the future was very touching and heartwarming.

Folk Beliefs

Haunted Bedroom

Title: Haunted Bedroom

Interviewee: Steven Miao

Ethnicity: Chinese-American

Age: 19

Situation (Location, ambience, gathering of people?): In his room at Webb tower at USC in Los Angeles. Me and the interviewer.

Piece of Folklore:

Interviewee- “Apparently my sister thinks my room back home is haunted. Every time she sleeps in my room, she wakes up in the middle of the night with a heavy chest. She is superstitious and a believer in spirits. She has tried to make me move out of my room once. My parents were worried about me, and asked if I woke up at night with a heavy chest. She said it was the spirits of ancestors that were angry with us.”

Interviewer- “When was the first time you heard about this?”

Interviewee- “Well it kind-of just was, ever since we had moved into that house that we live in now. She never like the house, and for some reason especially me room. She just always has really…weird experiences when she sleeps in that room. I don’t know, it’s seems fine to me. I never had anything wrong with it. I like my room actually, it’s nice.”

Interviewer- “Is this a story you like to tell people about?”

Interviewee- “Not really. I mean I usually tell people that story if they ask if I know of any ghost stories or things like that. But no I don’t particularly like telling people this story. To be honest it creeps me out a little thinking about that fact that my sister could be right…”

Analyzation: The Interviewee seems to recall this story in multiple parts, more coming back to him as he speaks more. It is obvious that this story indeed is not one that he tells often, because he does not remember most of it. But that is how it goes, especially since he said himself that he does not like talking about it much. Perhaps allowing the idea of ghosts or ancestors living in his room unnerves him, as he recently has had trouble with his parents, and worries about what his parents think of his life’s choices. That being said, it makes sense that the sister is worried about the Interviewee, and that she worries that the ancestors of both of them would be unhappy with what the Interviewee is doing with his life, which is contrary to traditional Chinese practices.

Tags: Haunted Room, Haunting, Ancestors

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