Tag Archives: bad luck

Spitting in China

Main Piece

WY: “Let me think…so it’s like superstition. Whenever my mom hears something terrible or scary she will always spit on the ground. Kind of like a ways to spit out the horrible things so she won’t be hurt by those things.”

Collector: “Where I am from (San Francisco), I know a lot of Chinese people who spit deliberately like that, too, but none of them have ever mentioned that to me. Guess I know now!”

WY: “Yeah. A lot of places in China they probably have the same tradition. Chinese people also do it for general health. They call mucus and other stuff in the system ‘toxins.’ I think the air quality has a lot to do with it, so they just try to make their lungs feel as empty and breathable as possible.”

Collector: “Do you do it?”

WY: “Generally not, but every once in a while when I hear something really terrible, I end up doing it.”

Analysis

I found the informant’s insight on this tradition enlightening because she grew up in an environment where she understood the meaning of it and had had time to process it. She did not hold a strong belief in it, but in desperate times fell back on the practice that she had learned from her mother. It was also interesting to hear how a scientific idea was also put forward in order to justify it for those who would question it. The two beliefs could work hand-in-hand, and do not contradict each other.

Pregnancy Craving Beliefs

Main Text:

DC: “When you are pregnant and you begin to crave a specific type of food, you must eat the type of food you are craving or else the baby will be born with the face of that food”

Collector: ” When you were pregnant with your son, did you ever ignore a food craving?”

DC: “Yeah, but nothing really happened” *laughter*

Context:

DC is a Mexican woman who immigrated to the United States and has one five year old son. DC mentioned before she told me this belief that when she was pregnant, her mother always told her not to ignore her cravings and she remembers it because of how bizarre it actually is. Despite this being just another folk belief in her eyes, today she continues this belief and mentions it to her friends or family whenever they mention that they are craving a specific food while pregnant. When asked why she continues to pass this belief along, DC responded that it encourages people to eat more when they are pregnant and not feel bad about the “weirdness” and the “changes” that their body is experiencing. She said that she likes to make people feel comfortable while they are pregnant and that sometimes this belief can just be for good humor if someone needs to hear it.

Analysis:

The idea behind cravings in general is a way for your body to tell you what food it needs or what nutrients it is lacking. To couple this with pregnancy, I believe that this folk belief was a way to address the needs of the baby and to make sure that it is also getting all the nutrients it needs from the mother. Another way to analyze this belief relates to the culture of the informant. Growing up in a hispanic family, one is usually encouraged to indulge at family dinners and to specifically not waste food. This in part can be explained by the limited resources of a developing country where water, food and money are very important life aspects.Either way, this belief is passed along by hispanic families who encourage others to indulge in their meals as well as not to waste anything, and both of these aspects would be fulfilled by a pregnant woman satisfying her cravings. Hispanic culture is also one that values new children to a high regard so in a sense I think that this folk belief is representative of the value placed on the birth of new children in that it encourages protecting and fulfilling all of the needs of an unborn child.

“Three On a Match” Superstition

Main Text:

Lighting three cigarettes with the same match is bad luck.

Context:

DS said she heard this over the years of smoking and people had mentioned it to her if she was using matches. She said that she remembers it because she used to be a heavy smoker and it came up fairly often so she would avoid using the same match to light multiple cigarettes just in case in order to avoid any chance of bad luck falling upon her and her family. When I asked her if she would pass this belief along to anyone she said she probably would not because it never really made much sense to her and she does not see many people smoking with matches anymore.

Analysis:

To understand why this piece is passed down it is important to go back to the origins and see where it may have originated from and the theories for why the folk group smokers think “three on a match” is bad luck.

One of the origins of this phrase comes all the way form World War I. If three soldiers were smoking cigarettes during the dark hours of the night then superstition held that one of them was going to die. This is because they believed that striking the match on the box would alert the enemy to the presences of the soldiers and as the matched burned to light the second cigarette the enemy would have time to aim his gun in the direction of where he now knows that the soldiers are. Finally as the third cigarette was being lit up the enemy shooter would be able to see and shoot the third soldier. I think this theory is important because it begins to explain why many smokers in America know and hold this belief because they were taught and/or experienced it way back in the early 1900s. When the war ended in 1918, many of the men who fought in the war came back to the America and shared this superstition they had when out in the battlefield to their families and friends who were also smokers and I believe that this is one of the reasons it caught on initially and still carries on today, even if people do not know why they say it.

Another theory that can be used to analyze how this superstition originated and why it still gets passed along is the theory of the Holy Trinity. Many very religious people that I have known and spoken to in my lifetime believe that using the Holy Trinity symbol (or performing things in threes) as a casual act is very disrespectful to the Holy Law. People who do this they say are helpless in the face of evil (even to the devil himself). To apply this to smoking, this notion has spread and said that those smokers who do light three cigarettes from one match disrespect the Holy Trinity, cause evilness (or bad luck) to come upon them and “light the fires of hell” themselves with that one match that they used. People who happened to be religious who also smoked more likely than not shared this belief with the people that they smoked with and this is how it spread around the smoking community.

The final theory took some research but it explains this folk belief in a more reasonable ( to corporate America at least) way. This theory is about Ivar Kreugar who was a deceitful businessman who bought many matchmaking factories in the 1920’s and monopolized them. This made him rich and powerful to the point where he could spread an entire superstition without question from those he told it to, probably the matchmakers and smokers themselves. The theory goes that Kruegar made up this superstition and then got it to spread among the smoking community as a way for people to use more matches which allows him to sell more matches and make more money.

To summarize, there are three theories that I believe help to explain why this superstition was formed and how it spread to smokers in the United States. The first theory is that during Wold War I this superstition was shared among smokers on the battlefield as a way to make sure that they keep their matches and noises associated with using them hidden from the enemy to not disclose their location and get killed. The second theory is that doing something casual such as lighting a match in threes disrespects Holy Law because of the Holy Trinity and causes evil to come upon you. The third and final theory was that a businessman by the name of Ivar Kreugar monopolized many matchmaking factories in the United States and created this superstition as a way to have people buy more matches so that he could make more money.

Bedroom Arrangement Superstitions

Main Text:

HS: “The foot of your bed can’t face the door because that brings bad luck.”

Context:

HS and I were in my apartment by ourselves rearranging by bedroom so that it allows for more space and when I tried to put the bed on the wall opposite the door she told me this belief that her grandma had always told her. I responded in a sense of disbelief because I thought she was joking because I have ever heard anything like that but she reassured me that she was being serious and that her grandma really used to tell her that. She believes it was just a weird preference that her grandma had and that there is not really anything else to it but she likes to pass it along just in case something were to happen to the person that she did not tell it to. After we finished rearranging the room ( I refrained from putting the foot of the bed facing the door just in case) I had to run and get a piece of paper so that I made sure to collect this belief exactly as I had heard it.

Analysis:

Although the informants grandma moved here from England in her mid-life years, many cultures actually share this same belief. The thing that make the most sense to analyze from this piece is the why the bed cannot be placed a certain way which begs the question that a different arrangement must be better. Because this folk belief focuses mainly on the arrangement of material object I feel that it is appropriate to start my analysis relating this piece to Feng shui. Feng Shui originated in China but many different people of different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs still believe in practicing Feng Shui. Feng shui claims to use energy forces in order to make people more in harmony with the surrounding object and surrounding environment and I think this folk belief has appeared because putting the foot of your bed facing the door is against the Feng Shui because that specific arrangement does not place your bed on a spot of good qi or energy. People and cultures who believe in Feng Shui I believe continue to pass along this folk belief as a way to get people in good energy with their surroundings and as a way to spread the belief of Feng Shui as well.

Another reason I believe that people have passed along the idea that putting the foot of the bed facing the door as being bad luck is a historical one. I have heard that when someone dies in a room, they are taken and passed room to room feet first. So in a way, by putting one’s bed oriented towards the way a corpses would be removed from a room instills bad luck upon that person and symbolized that they are going to die soon.

The last way to analyze this folk belief is that people who believe in spirits are those that pass along this belief. This is because it is also said that if you orient your feet towards the door while you are sleeping, then spirits will be able to drag you out of the room in this way. Although this is another folk belief explaining a folk belief, I think it is important to understand that this explanatory folk belief ties together a group of people who will be ready and willing to pass down the folk belief being studied. This group of individuals all share a common belief in ghosts and this common belief in ghosts and evil spirits is not what only ties them together as a specific group of people but also affects the lore that they tell to other people and their reasons for telling it. If they believe in bad spirits pulling people out of a room if given the right opportunity, then it is logical that they would tell others not to orient their bad in an opportunistic manner towards spirits as a way to protect them from the bad luck of being taken by one.

 

 

Don’t Stick Your Chopsticks Straight Into Your Rice

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never stick their chopsticks straight up and down in their bowl of food. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone, and I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why it was considered bad. The informant told me the she learned this from her parents, and that this taboo is highly integrated into Chinese culture—“no Chinese person would ever be found doing this…” Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 Text:

“Especially in the countryside, when they bury a person, they stick a stick on top of the section of land that they use to bury a person. On the stick, they tie little white strip of cloth to the stick, and this serves as the gravestone.

Because chopsticks are quite literally sticks, we can’t stick them straight up and down into our food because it too closely resembles the gravestone. Doing this is essentially a call to bad luck, because if you do it, you’ll bring death to both you and your family.

I honestly don’t know if I fully believe in this custom, but because it’s been so ingrained in my culture, seeing people do it makes me extremely uncomfortable, and it just seems safer to not do it and to teach my own friends, family, and kids to not do it.”

 

Thoughts:

This is a taboo that I grew up knowing, but never understood why it wasn’t allowed. I remember my grandmother scolding me when I was around seven years old for sticking my chopsticks straight up and down in my bowl of rice, but when I asked her I couldn’t do it, she told me that it would give me indigestion. It actually wasn’t until this year, in college, when one of my friends that I made here (who also happens to be Chinese) and I were talking about the weird taboos we had grown up, and she mentioned that the chopstick one seemed to be a stretch because it was supposed to resemble a gravestone. Surprised, I decided to ask my informant about this taboo to clarify the reason for its existence.

I did some further research after my conversation with the informant, and I found out that there is more than one way that sticking your chopsticks straight into your food brings death: apparently, Chinese people stick burning incense into rice to honor the dead. Breaking this taboo can bring bad luck to you because no one is dead, so it’s as if you’re summoning death by honoring yourself. This is an example of sympathetic magic: the Chinese believe that if you make a gesture that resembles something bad in the world, you’re making a calling to it. I also noticed that this is not limited to only Chinese culture—in Japan, sticking your chopsticks vertically in a bowl is also considered taboo because it reminds Japanese people of funerals, where a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of the person who has just died either at their deathbed or in front of the photograph.

 

Why You Can’t Write Your Name in Red

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school.This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never write their names in red. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 

Text: 

“Chinese people never use the color red to write people’s names because historically, in China, when people’s names are written in red, it means that they are criminals that have been sentenced to death/ are dead. This doesn’t go to say that the color red is unlucky; in fact, the color red usually brings in good luck and is meant to express excitement and happiness. For example, during Chinese New Year, everything is decorated with red things. During a wedding, people wear red to celebrate and bring good luck to the newly wedded couple.

In this case, red is bad luck because it’s being written.  Usually, only people with authority can write in red. This isn’t just the people that decide which criminal to put on death row; we even see this school systems. Generally, a teacher is expected to use red pen to correct their students exams and papers; when a students sees a red marking, this means that they know they made a mistake and that they need to correct something. When the color is used in written form, it serves as a warning. So when someone’s name is written in red, and the name that they’ve written down is of someone that is still alive, Chinese people will panic or freak out because that means that they’ve ultimately just been sentenced to death by someone of higher authority (AKA, the person holding the red pen).

So traditionally, we never write people’s name in red ink because that means you want them to die.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve known of this taboo my entire life—I remember when I was about 5 years old and I wrote my name in a bright pink pen, and my mom yelled at me and whited out my name. When I asked her why, she told me that pink was too close to the color red, and that I should never write my name in red or red-like colored ink. After that, until I was 14, my mom didn’t let me use pens that were a color other than black, blue, or green. A few years back, I again encountered something similar: I was working at a tutoring center, and my boss had written a girl’s name in red ink at the top of her worksheets that she had to take home. The mother of the girl, who was Chinese, screamed in front of the entire classroom, yelled at my boss, and then actually ended up having her daughter quit the tutoring center.

Clearly, this taboo is taken very seriously in Chinese culture; I ended up looking up why people couldn’t right their names in red after this conversation with my informant, simply because I had never heard of writing the names of criminals in blood as a practice. Sure enough, she was correct. In an article by a Vision Times: “All Eyes on China,” an online newspaper about China’s history, influence, and China in today’s context, Yi Ming writes: “In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and later this evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death sentence criminals were written in red ink.” However, Ming gives even more reason for why the color red (in the context of writing names) is unlucky. She states that “Yán Wáng Yé, the King of Hell, also marked people about to come down to hell in red ink,” and that deceased death row criminals had their names written in red ink on their tombstones.

This folklore suggests that this taboo is an example of sympathetic magic, where “like produces like.” If you write your name in red, then you’re essentially writing a death sentence to yourself because it resembles the death sentence of a criminal or the red ink on a criminal’s gravestone. These taboos exist to protect ourselves socially; we would never want our own names written in red because we don’t want to die, and we would never want our relatives or friends names to be written in red because we don’t want them to disappear from our lives nor have anything tragic happen to them. We are surrounded by this fear of the reality that we can’t control the bad things that happened to our loved ones, so we attach this fear to rituals; these rituals give us autonomy over processes like this, perhaps psychology providing us comfort and making us feel like we are doing everything in our power to protect one another.  

 

To read more on this, this is the citation for Yi Ming’s article on Vision Times:

Ming, Yi. “A Chinese Taboo: Never Write Other People’s Names Using Red Ink.” Vision Times, 2

June 2016,

www.visiontimes.com/2016/06/02/a-chinese-taboo-never-write-other-peoples-names-using-red-ink.html.

 

Korean Electric Fan Superstition

Main Piece (direct transcription):

M: “Okay, so there’s this like…It’s not really a superstition, but…back when the electric fan first came out [in South Korea], there was this news article that came out saying that if you slept—or if you were just in a room with a closed door—and the fan kept running, like you’d run out of like… (laughter) clean air, or oxygen, and you’d die.  So now people don’t like sleeping with fans running.”

Me: “So it was all derived from a newspaper article?”

M: “Apparently, I haven’t actually seen the source, but like, you just don’t sleep with your fan running or you die.”

Me: “Do most people believe that?”

M: “Yeah, in South Korea, because they think you’ll die.”

 

Context: The informant, M, is a 19-year-old USC student originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Her mom is originally from South Korea and is the source of her knowledge about many Korean superstitions.  M’s primary language is English, but she also speaks Korean.  While sitting with M, I asked her if she knew any Korean proverbs, myths, or superstitions.  After a moment of thought, she told me that her mom is very superstitious, and that she knows a handful of Korean superstitions through experience with her mom in her house.  She then proceeded to tell me this superstition about electric fans in Korea.

 

 

My Thoughts: I thought that this superstition was interesting, because it originated from a popular source, such as a newspaper.  This was not rooted in any religious or sacred beliefs, as many superstitions are.  This is a fairly new superstition, yet it has seemed to take dominance throughout South Korea, and most people believe it.  I like this superstition because, although electric fans have been around for a while and are clearly safe, the majority of South Koreans still hold this fear that they will kill you if you fall asleep with one on.  I tried to think of any superstitions that might mirror this one in America, but I really could not come up with something.  This is a very unique superstition to South Korea, and I think that it’s both interesting and funny.  It is outlandish, yet superstitions are so powerful that people, although though they might not actually believe something will kill you, will still practice it because they want to be safe about it.

 

Persian Flattery Superstition

Main Story (direct transcription):

Dad: If someone says that you are something positive, such as being pretty, young, wealthy, or successful, superstitious Iranians make a fire.  In the fire, they have some kinds of herbs that smell like oud, or incense, and they have seeds in them.  They make the fire in a coil, it’s not like a huge fire, and they throw all these seeds into it.  Some of the seeds make a big “pop” noise, and it opens, and it looks like an eye shape.  They say,

“This is the evil eye!  This is the enemy!”

Me: So why do they start the fire in the first place…?

Dad: To contradict something.  Back home (in Iran), you cannot say how beautiful someone is, or if when you have a kid, you can’t say “such a big baby!”.  Like here, in America, you can say those things, but in Iran, if you say that, it’s like you’ve jinxed it.  I remember when my youngest brother was born, my great-great aunt came home, and she was very old.  He was a beautiful baby, but when she saw him, she spit on him.  She said,

“What an ugly baby!”

She didn’t want to jinx it, so she said he was ugly.  I was so offended when she said it!  It’s the “evil eye”.  Here, when I came to this country, people were saying things like, “what a big baby, how beautiful…” and I was so confused.  You don’t say things like that in Iran because you don’t want to jinx them.  Making the fire to contradict something positive that was said is too much work, so they don’t say positive things in the first place.

 

Context: The informant, my father, is a pharmacist who was born in Shiraz, Iran.  He moved to the United States after growing up in Iran, and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  His first language is Farsi, his second is Spanish, and his third is English.  He lived in Spain for several years before moving to the United States, and therefore has collected folklore from his time in these different countries throughout his lifetime.  My dad was telling me about different Iranian superstitions, since we were talking about how my grandma is a very superstitious woman.  I asked my dad if any particular superstitions popped out to him, or if any of them in particular were his favorite, and he proceeded to tell me this one.

 

 

My Thoughts:

I really liked this snippet about Iranian superstitions.  I didn’t know that it was negative to say something positive about someone, especially babies, in their culture.  Since my dad and his Iranian family in America have spent ample time here, I have heard them say positive things about others, and they are not as superstitious as their Iranian ancestors were.  I thought it was funny how my dad tied in this superstition to his own life, telling of how his great-great aunt actually spit on my uncle when he was a baby.  When my grandmother comes to visit next, I will be sure to listen and see if she says anything positive about anyone, especially about my youngest baby cousin on my dad’s side.  Now that I know this superstition, I think it will be fun to see how many people practice it, and how many don’t, and see whether or not there is a generational gap in those who do, and those who don’t.

Track Team Superstition

Context: The informant had been speaking of memories with her track team in high school.

Piece:

Informant: Yeah so, there was this like consp.. I don’t even fucking know… okay so basically my coach said that if you ever like dropped the baton, like the relay baton during track practice that like that for sure you were like you were like… I don’t know something about the relay… and the actual race was gonna get super messed up. And so if you dropped the baton you always got severely punished on the team and one time this girl Maya dropped the baton and then the coach made the whole team run two miles because she like takes it super seriously and apparently that’s the only way to cancel it and uh. The weird thing was that it wasn’t even that if you dropped the baton during practice you were gonna drop the baton during the actual race it was just that something is gonna go wrong like nobody knows what. Usually it was about somebody being injured or like someone going down and have an injury if the baton was dropped in practice.

Collector: Um so did you like…

Informant: So I never dropped the baton before but it was always really scary and I knew the punishment was gonna be something really ridiculous if someone did it um and plus um because of the fact that our coach believe that if your dropped the baton it resulted in someone being injured, everybody would be on edge for the track meet after a practice where someone dropped the baton. So it was kinda like an extra pressure added. So it made it that I was on the relay team freshman year and we never dropped the baton.

Background: The informant, a 19 year old USC student, ran for the track team in high school. This piece reflects the beliefs she shared with her team. This belief also helped push her as an athlete and created a sense of camaraderie within her team.

Analysis: This superstition is a homeopathic superstition, as it follows the “like produces like” ideology. If the baton is dropped (which is considered bad) then a team member will get injured (also considered bad). But once they run laps (which is good for athletic ability) then the predicted injury is reversed (also good). This belief amongst her track team is a piece of shared knowledge that connected the team. This idea provided standards for the team and brought the team together through the common goal of safety. This also is a sort of preventative measure against injury, which is incredibly important for sports. What is particularly interesting is that the coach enforced this shared superstition through punishment. Superstitions typically are an individual choice, but in this case the team felt obligated to do so and almost forced into believing the superstition. This piece shows the power of sharing beliefs with others and how it affects an environment/group of people. It also enforces a core value of American society which is success, and by believing and following through with this superstition, the team is led to success.

German Birthday Superstition

Context: The informant was speaking about a birthday of a friend and how this belief was something she practices.

 

Piece:

Informant: One of the superstitions that like a lot of, I think it’s just German people, but like maybe in general European people, that you can’t say Happy Birthday to someone before it’s their actual birthday. It just like causes bad luck and is like a bad omen.

Collector: So in terms of this birthday thing, did you learn that from your parents?

Informant: Yeah it was just like I think like as a kid like I would say like “Oh, it’s almost your birthday” and stuff like that and they would be like oh don’t you don’t say it, you just don’t say it you just don’t say happy birthday before someone’s birthday, it almost jinxes it like you’re not gonna make it to the next birthday

Collector: Do you put this into practice?

Informant: I never say happy birthday before it’s their birthday, I usually don’t mention it until it’s their birthday.

 

Background: The informant is a 20 year old USC student of German descent whose parents raised her with German influence. She also travels to Germany often.

Analysis: This superstition deals with luck and life span. The negative connotation of prematurely wishing someone a happy birthday insinuates that because the yearly cycle has not been completed yet, that there is space for the life to be broken or ended overall. It’s interesting because in American culture, just the act of wishing someone a happy birthday is thought of as a kind gesture. But this piece shows that for German culture it is about the timely nature of when it is said. This probably reflects German ideology on being on time and doing things by the book rather then just for completetion.