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.”
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.
S is a 21-year-old Filipino woman. She is currently majoring in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. She grew up in the Philippines and therefore identifies as Filipino, however, she also identifies as Chinese. S speaks English, Mandarin, Tagalog and Hokkien, the last being two of many languages specific to the Philippines.
S: So for like the Chinese culture there is so many, like it’s so crazy, but I guess, like the most popular ones, like would wearing red for like a birthday count as folklore?
Me: Yeah. But why wold you wear red for a birthday?
S: So like, so it’s the belief of the Chinese that red is like the ultimate like color for luckiness, and just like power and everything, so for your birthday you want everyone to be wearing red. And if anyone comes in wearing black, like that’s a big no no, ’cause black would mean like death or just like negative things, and like wearing black to a birthday or like any happy celebration would be like, it’s a sign of like disrespect and like wish that person like that bad luck. so never do that.
Me: Is it something that you do even now that you’re here? Like now that you live in the U.S.?
S: Um, no, not here, but if I’m with like family, or if I know that it’s a Chinese family, it’s like a more common known thing. So like even all around the world, you know. Yeah, so, but like you can wear other colors actually, as long as it’s not black though.
S talks about the Chinese culture in which it is customary to wear red on birthdays because the color red symbolizes luckiness, power, and in general just has good connotations. She says that it is okay to wear other colors as well, though it isn’t the same thing as wearing red, as long as you don’t wear black. Black symbolizes death and has other bad connotations so black is not to be worn on happy occasions, and it is considered disrespectful if people do wear black on happy occasions. Though she does not follow the practice so much now that she lives in Los Angeles, she still does when she is with family or other Chinese people.
The informant, LF, is a medievalist from Panama. She comes from an agricultural family that largely lived in the countryside. LF recounts a family story involving a curse transmitted by a snakebite:
“So in my family- in the part of my family that lived in the countryside- my relatives earned their livelihood through the raising of animals and crops. Everyone participated. Even in our home closer to the city we had a chicken coop and a little bit of corns and tomatoes. We have a deeply-rooted agricultural tradition in our family.
So my great-great aunt had her own farm in the country. She was working on the farm and there was this snake. She didn’t see the snake and it bit her on the hand, and she had to be taken to the doctor- she was very close to dying but miraculously she recovered. When she went back to her farm, it was after the harvest and it was time to plant again. But when she planted the seeds, the plants never came up. So she went to tend to the trees that had been growing on the farm for generations, but according to the family story, the trees withered and died after she tried to prune them.
No one in the family knew how to explain it. The only thing they could come up with was that after the snakebite, she couldn’t touch plants because she had been damned. It was like something from the garden of Eden- if you get bitten by a snake, you cannot have a beautiful garden. You cannot touch a plant, because you will kill it. Upon contact, you kill the plants because you have been cursed by the snake’s poison.”
Was this a common belief, or was it exclusively told within your family?
“No, I think it was something my family came up with because they couldn’t explain what had happened to their relative. It was like a family superstition.”
Who did you learn this story from?
“I think I learned it from my mother. It supposedly happened to her great aunt. I never met this person and I don’t even know if it’s true. I heard it when I was a little kid. It came up actually when we were all watching a documentary about snakes, my mom suddenly goes- “Do you know what happened to your great aunt?”- It was just a casual thing.
It means that people come up with explanations for things that are unexplainable. It could have been that it didn’t rain that year, or that it rained too much, and the plants died naturally. But it was such a drastic change- this farm had been in the family for generations and it had always been successful until that year.”
My thoughts: I agree with the informant when she says that folk beliefs often arise when people want to explain strange events. It’s a way of rationalizing things we can’t explain otherwise, like a sudden lack of crops. I think it’s interesting that the informant makes a connection with Christian religion when she mentions the Garden of Eden- perhaps folk beliefs sometimes subconsciously reflect aspects of organized religion.
Okay, so in the Oronoco Delta, which is in the Eastern part of Venezuela that borders Guyana, there’s um, it’s hard to pronounce but it’s the Juaguaro Indians, and they’re this indigenous people that live in basically like stilted houses above the river, and navigate around the channels in canoes, they’re very untouched by what’s going on in the rest of Venezuela and western culture. There’s huge amounts of jungle there. And one of their superstitions is that it’s bad luck to see or to have a jaguar living near them. And they call them tigers, well, “tigres,” but they’re actually jaguars. So as it goes, whenever they see a jaguar they have to kill it, otherwise they’ll have bad luck and bad karma, or there will be sickness and death. So whenever they see a jaguar it’s like part of their culture to kill it. And the way that I heard about this was, there was this Sirian guy that was raised in America after the age of 9, so I guess I’ll just call him American…he moved down there and he had a camp type thing where tourists would come and stay and camp in the jungle. And there weren’t really any other foreigners living there at the time, so people would bring him animals from the jungle, to raise them, if they got separated from their mother or were sick or something. He had all kinds of bizarre animals over the years, like monkeys, and otters, and caiman or crocodile, and when I saw him he had a mountain lion, but before that he had a jaguar. And he got it as a tiny baby kitten, and raised it himself, and his children grew up with it, and it was really tame because it was used to being around people. And he said one day, some indigenous guys came over, and took his jaguar cause they said it was bringing them bad luck. So they killed it, and one guy wore the skin, the bloody skin around for 3 days to clear the area of bad luck. And he went to the officials but it’s this thing that’s so rooted in their culture that even the Venezuelan officials can’t really do anything about it.
How long ago was this? When the incident happened?
Probably about, I’d say 10 years ago. So it’s still going on.
This is a folk belief / superstition / custom that has clearly very established and embedded in this society’s culture, that even the government is aware that it is still practiced but can’t or wont do anything about it. This shows that it is a very strong and seriously considered belief. It seems as though this society is largely isolated from other societies, but clearly clashes with other Venezuelan’s beliefs, especially the subject of the informant’s story. The act of donning the skin of the “enemy” or the threat to their society is a kind of empowerment, or domination, and shows the rest of that community that they can rest assured they are safe from bad luck and that they have triumphed over the enemy. Taking away the enemy’s skin is like taking their identity away, disembodying them from their power.
I collected this piece of folklore from my dad while he was visiting. We ended up just sitting in the car in a parking lot while he shared some more Chilean folklore with me.
Dad: “When we were little, my mom and my dad were very busy, so they left the Nana with us. The empleada.
Dad: “And she used to sit with us and tell us all these scary happenings, like, she used to say there were sometimes babies abandoned in the middle of the road at night, and you walk and you hear this noise, a crying baby, and if you hold the baby, the baby is so sweet, and you get, ‘Oh! Poor little baby!’ But in reality, it was the Diablo (devil). The Diablo, who became a baby, to catch your attention and get out goodness out of you, and you feel compassion and then, a lot of bad things start happen to you if you hold that baby. Then the baby disappear and you cannot explain what happened, and then in one way, the baby choose, make you fall down in that trap, and because you became good with the baby, but the baby was bad. Then a lot of bad things start happen to you like, you can lose your job, your income, some relative dies, you know, all of this stuffs.”
Me: “It’s a bad omen. Can you reverse the omen?”
Dad: “The omen?”
Me: “Can you reverse the bad luck?”
Dad: “Ah, I guess, you know, the religious mentality show you that if you carry a cross with you, you are free of this devil, bad things that can happen to you.”
Me: “Oh, so the point is to try to get everyone to wear crosses.” (laugh)
Dad: “Exactly, well that is the idea.” (laugh) “Kind of. So in reality, a lot of Chileans without education, well even with education, you believe that a cross, that mean Jesus Christ, keep all this bad energy far away from you.”
Me: “So it’s to keep people in the religion?”
Dad: “Yeah, well, it’s probably an idea to keep everyone scared, and then if it doesn’t happen…”
Background and Analysis
My dad was raised in Rancagua, Chile, which is a city outside of Santiago in the 1950s and early 1960s. Back then and still today, religion has a very strong presence in Chile. When he was a young boy, my dad’s Nana would tell him and his brothers these stories, and at that age they believed it all, of course.
Going off of the legend, my dad also describes how, as a child, he was always told that when anything bad happened, if you just wore a cross or made a cross, everything would be okay. But to him, it’s all mostly psychological. This is very true, in that if you believe in something, it probably will happen. If you envision bad things happening, they will happen to you. If you envision good things happening, they can occur as well. What the legend is pushing is that religion can save you, even from the devil, but the mind is just as powerful a weapon.
Chainmail is a fairly well-known form of folklore, and has been around for a long time. Chain mail letters can be anything from handwritten letters to emails to texts and are typically sent to a group with some sort of either beneficial or warning message attached, as incentive for the person on the receiving end to pass the message along to more people.
An example of such a message is one my roommate shared with me that had passed around our sorority. The message read:
“You have been visited by the ghost of Helen M. Dodge! Pass this on to ten sisters in the next five minutes and she will give you good luck for the rest of the week!”
Chain mails seem to fit into the category of contagious magic and involve belief a great deal. They are contagious in that in order for the receiver to either alleviate any harm that may come, or to ensure any benefit, from having read the letter, he or she must pass it along to X amount of people. The magic of the letter passes along with it and integrates into the daily lives of those who receive it, or it at least claims to do so.
Chain mail letters are really interesting in their relation to belief because I would bet that if you asked a large group of people if they believe in the power of chain mail letters to affect their lives in either positive or negative ways, the majority would say no. However, these letters are constantly passed around. They can be fit into the category of superstitious as well as contagious magic—perhaps it is the fear that chain mail letters may in fact have some power, some magic, that drives people to continue passing them along.
This particular chain mail letter doesn’t run the risk of being harmful to the person receiving it in any way, but perhaps the receiving individual may feel that they are to be at a loss if they don’t pass it along.
Or, perhaps chain mail letters get passed around as a way of continuing community. They are a means of reaching out to 5, 10, 15 friends who you haven’t talked to in a while. Or the particular chain mail letter you have received is funny so you want to share it with three of your friends you think would find it hilarious. Chain mail gets a pretty bad rap, yet its continued existence makes me think there is some part of its communicative, outreaching nature that people like.
For another example of chain mail letters, see Dan Squier. The Truth About Chain Letters, 1990, Premier Publishers.
Informant: “So, in Sicily, there’s this thing called the Evil Eye, or in Italian ‘Il Malochio’. Someone could give someone the evil eye just by like looking at you, and it’s almost like they’re sending bad… stuff to you. Like, someone would give you the evil eye, and then bad things would happen to you. It was usually older people, I remember there would be these really old men and women, like old widows wearing black, who would give you the evil eye. And it was like they would just look at you or the stuff you have, and them just looking at you would bring you bad luck. Actually, a part of this is why a lot of Sicilians, especially older Sicilians, wouldn’t talk about what they had. Like, if something good happened to you, you weren’t supposed to talk about it because that would bring the evil eye to you, or at least people who would then give you the evil eye. And there were things you could do to protect yourself from the evil eye. Like there was this hand gesture you could do to ward it off
[informant begins making a hand gesture, extending her pointer finger and pinkie, and curling her middle fingers into the palm of her hand using her thumb. The two extended fingers are pointing down, and she is gently waving her hand. It is very reminiscent of the "rock on" hand gesture, except directed downwards]
and you would make this gesture and that would ward off the evil eye. Otherwise, there were charms you could get, like necklaces or pendants in the shape of a horn called ‘Il Corno’ which could protect you from the evil eye. Otherwise you could get a golden charm in the shape of the warding hand gesture, and that would also protect you.”
Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.
Collector Analysis: The Evil Eye is a very widespread and popular folk belief over a variety of different nations and cultures. The idea that someone could give you bad luck just by looking at your or your belongings enviously, or even that you could bring this bad luck upon yourself just by talking about the positive things in your life, is an oddly popular one. It is also interesting that the informant specified that the evil eye tended to be associated with older individuals. It is possible that older Sicilians are more traditional and thus more connected to their superstitious beliefs, and thus are more likely to either be concerned with warding off the evil eye or maliciously give the evil eye to someone.
Two charms capable of warding off ‘Il Malochio’. The charm on the left is called ‘Il Corno’. The hand shaped charm on the right is the same hand gesture that one could use to protect themselves from the Evil Eye. Image courtesy of www.lifeinitaly.com
Informant: “I’m pretty sure this game from my Grandad [J] from Boise Idaho, and he was kind of a do-it-yourself-er around his house, and we used to go to his house every year over spring break. He had a ladder propped up against the side of his house, and I was over there and I would have been really small at the time, this would have been before I was twelve. And I was running around in the park next door, and playing in their yard and so at one point I ran under the ladder propped up against the side of the house and that ended up being a whole lecture. I remember I felt like I got in a whole lot of trouble, but the gist of it was that it was dangerous to do, and it was bad luck. So it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder, and you never want to walk under a ladder. So, it was less about it’s dangerous, and more about its bad luck so you never want to do that. From that point forward, I never did. I mean, I never did. Even if I would look at a situation where there was a ladder propped up against something and you know that it would be safe to walk under, there’s plenty of space, it’s not gonna be an issue, and there’s no one on the ladder, I would still always kinda go around the ladder.
Anyways, later on in life, I guess I technically violated that because I was putting Christmas lights on the house in Oregon. I was hammering the lighting clips into the roof, and I reach a point where I needed to climb down to the bottom to move the ladder, and I left my hammer hooked on the top of the ladder. I go to the bottom, and I’m moving the ladder, and I think ‘ok, I’m gonna lift it up and move it over here in a way so it’s perched against the wall the whole time. And to do that, and not have it tilt way over, I had to stand under the ladder and use both had to move it. And as soon as I lift it, the hammer falls about fifteen feet and conks me right on the head! And it hurt, like, Heck! I probably have permanent brain damage from that and I had this giant bump on my head, and all because I broke my Grandfather’s rule of never walking underneath a ladder.”
Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Oregon and Washington and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.
Collector Analysis: For this particular superstition, it is very easy to see where it may have originated. Most likely, at some point in the past one of my informant’s ancestors had an experience similar to his own, and that stuck. At some point, the exact reasoning for it probably changed to superstition based on the fact that in many cases superstition can be stronger than a simple warning. Consider that if one tells a small child not to do something because it’s dangerous, they may still do it based on the fact that many small children seem to have an inherent belief in their own invulnerability, and might be convinced that they will be ‘careful enough’ to avoid injury. On the other had, if you tell a small child not to do something because it’s bad luck, well, bad luck is something that a small child knows that he cannot escape by simply ‘being careful’.
“You can’t walk, like if there are two people and there’s an inanimate object in between them, um, you go like this [demonstrates people splitting up to walk around object], you have to say, ‘bread and butter’ . . . My dad’s best friend, there’s a rumor that like he didn’t do it with his twin and when he was younger, when he was a baby his twin died. So they put, there’s like, they say that that was the reason why, they didn’t say, ‘bread and butter.’”
The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” The informant says she learned this practice from her father, who she thinks learned it from his best friend. She swears it is an Italian superstition, and is commonly practiced in Italy. Her roommate was sitting with us during her interview, and she commented that the informant makes her say this phrase whenever they are walking together and they are briefly separated by an object.
It was fascinating to me that such a seemingly whimsical practice and phrase could be associated with something as serious as the death of a twin. While I have no idea about the reliability or origin of the anecdote, it is suggested that the family knew about this superstition and that it is one that is particularly old and respected. Indeed, it was one of a few superstitions that the informant told me about that, when she was asked what she thought it meant, she would tell me not doing it meant sure “death.” She would then ask me why I would ever think about not doing it.
It is interesting that the informant claims this superstition has Italian origins, as it is based around English words. While they very easily could have been translated from Italian, the phrase “bread and butter” seems like a particularly English one. It is difficult to determine what exactly this superstition means or from where it came. It is easy to see how a simple action such as two people walking around a stationary object would become a source of anxiety for a particularly superstitious person. The phrase “bread and butter” represents two things that are commonly associated with one another. They are also fairly basic items that are considered staples in many western/European diets. It might reflect the trouble seen being caused by separating two things that should inherently be together, although it is difficult to say. This superstition also might have started as a sort of joke and evolved over time into something more serious for those performing it. Whatever the case, the informant certainly takes it seriously now.
Treat is a new friend of mine. We shared two classes this semester. He’s a sophomore transferring from Norwich University. He is in the same NROTC unit I’m in here at USC. He’s lived in some very interesting places like Italy and the Netherlands. They move around to such cool places because his father is in the military and that’s where his father got orders to. Treat really likes ghost stories and Mythology. It was not hard interviewing him in the least bit. He had stories I had never heard of or could’ve even imagined.
Treat loves urban legends. I really like movies and documentaries about interesting and maybe even horrifying things. He put two and two together and started to chat about Friday the 13th. A great movie franchise! But where does the suspicion come from? What came first the movie or the bad luck?
Treat talks about an article that looked into what happens concerning accidents on the 13th. The article compared the ratio of traffic volume to the number of automobile accidents on two different dates including Friday the 13th. Over a period of years they mapped “the relation between health, behavior, and superstition surrounding Friday 13th.” Interestingly, they found that while consistently fewer people in the region sampled chose to drive their cars on Friday the 13th, the number of hospital admissions due to accidents was higher than on the other days.
“Friday 13th is unlucky.”
Treat: Because we make it unlucky.
Analysis: Sometimes we fall into our own traps. Things happen because we make them happen. Paraskevidekatriaphobics is the disease of those afflicted with a morbid, irrational fear of Friday the 13th. It’s unwise to take solace in the results of a single scientific study though. Not all culture and society should change their habits because of one sample, especially one as weird as this. Surely these statistics have more to teach us about human physiology than the ill-fatedness of any particular date on the calendar. In the United States today. Some people refuse to go to work on Friday the 13th; some won’t dine in restaurants; many wouldn’t think of setting a wedding on that date. I know I won’t. So, how many Americans at the beginning of the 21st century actually suffer from this condition? You’d be surprised.