USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘custom’

Hand Gesture – Korea

My informant was born in South Korean, but moved to America when she was 16 years old. She explained to me how when she first moved, she was very confused by some of the cultural differences including hand gestures.

In America, we wave people over with our palms facing up. A similar motion that is common in western culture to beckon someone over is curling the index finger. However, in Korea both of these are considered extremely rude and degrading. They typically use the same hand motions to gesture over dogs.

Respect is a huge attribute in Asian culture. It is deeply rooted in family and demonstrated formally through gestures and language. Therefore, using the “American wave” on a human is equivalent to treating or calling them an animal. Koreans will signal people over by having their palm face down, and using a little “digging” or small swimming motion with their hand. Another way to describe it would be having your palm face down and waving it up and down vertically. If you tried calling a cab in Korea using the Western style wave, you would undeniably be rejected and ignored.

At first, my informant thought that Americans were “kind of arrogant and snobby.” She didn’t realize that there would be a significantly different meaning in something as trivial as gesturing someone over. She eventually caught on that people were not intentionally trying to be rude, and that it was just part of western culture to call people over using the palm facing up.

This made me really think about how important it is to be culturally aware, especially while traveling. There are so many little differences that may seem insignificant, but is actually really important to recognize. It helps us better understand our global peers and can prevent us from accidentally offending others.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Wearing white after labor day

Informant is a student at the Penn State University who grew up in upper NJ.

She told me about a certain rule in the fashion world which requires people to refrain from wearing white after Labor Day:


“So the rule is, you can’t wear white after Labor Day… until Memorial Day when you can again.” she says.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because… that’s just the rule.” she tells me. “That’s what my mom told me and we do it,  and everybody else I know does it too.”


She couldn’t tell me why, other than that it’s just something people do. I’m not really sure I have a great guess either.

After some research I learned that in the early 1900s, wealthy socialites would create secret “fashion rules” to tell new and old money apart. Eventually it just trickled down to the masses in 1950.

Interesting that despite the information widely available, these traditions continue.


Folk Beliefs

Gujarati Protection Against Evil Eye

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

I’m from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India.


So my grandma always did this thing, where she had this belief where if people see success too much, they give you the stink or evil eye, trying to wish you bad luck. So what she would do and say to do is to make a black mark somewhere you cannot see it- so take a little bit of like eyeliner, or mascara, and put it like right behind the ear or something to ward off evil spirits, and people’s bad visions. It’s the same way either way for males and females, but females do it generally.

Piece Background Information:

Informant already mentioned within piece that their grandmother taught them this folk belief on protection against the evil or bad eye.


Context of Performance:

In person, during the day, in Ronald Tutor Campus Center on USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

Upon further research, it is commonly believed in India that the main source (i.e. givers) of the evil eye are women, which is why they generally use this protection against the evil eye.  The black mark is meant to cast or ward off negative energy and evil spirits. I could not find significant meaning as to why it is a black mark, or behind the ear, but I found this protection against the evil eye very interesting.

Earth cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ramadan and the Ritual Celebration of Eid Alfutr

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

I’m from Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia.


Ramadan is like a whole month where everyone just, they fast from like very early in the morning ‘til like early in the evening. So from, from the sunrise to sunset basically. And they fast from like eating – they don’t eat anything, they don’t drink anything. And it’s a very like spiritual month where you just have like a lot of like, you know, religious tv shows and songs and stuff like that.

And then, after the month is over- the first day of the following month- it’s like Christmas in Christianity, So it’s like a big event where everybody is celebrating the end of the month and uh, I think it’s very interesting because every family basically like… wait you’re a vegetarian right? So this is not happiness for you. Every family has to kill a sheep, just like one sheep, and it has a spiritual meaning and it’s like a sacrifice you do to God to show that you’re grateful that the month is over, that you’re alive and doing well, and just thankful for that month.

And your family particularly partake in this?

All families do, and what they do is that they take the, okay it’s like one animal that’s killed. Most people do it at home, you bring the animal alive and kill it. Which is kind of… as kids, you would see that and were just kind of shocked (ha ha). It happens every year. Sometimes you’re allowed to buy the animal and take it to a butcher shop or something like that and they would of the you know, the rest of the work. Then the meat is divided into three portions- one third goes to family itself, another third to neighbors and relatives, and you know other people around the neighborhood, and the third portion goes to poor people, you know people who can’t buy an animal or can’t do that. So… yeah I think that’s the biggest celebration maybe.

When you guys take the meat, how do you package it? And do you have a physical hand in distributing the meat to poor people? 

It’s cut and put into bags, and like freezers and stuff like that. And I remember when I was a kid, my mom would give me like a bunch of bags and she would say “go to that neighbor” or “that house and knock on the door and give them this meat.” And then my dad would take the rest and he would go to like poor neighborhoods and distribute the meat to the poor people there. Nowadays, even butcher shops will do that- they will give the family their portion and do the rest of it- distribute it to the poor people so that you have a more convenient ways of doing it.

Piece Background Information:

Informant already mentioned within their piece that they learned and practice Ramadan, as well as the ritual celebration of Eid Alfutr, due to the influence of his culture, parents, family, and school.


Context of Performance:

In person, during the day, in the informant’s apartment adjacent to USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

Ramadan is celebrated in the ninth month of Islamic calendar, which sees each month’s beginning at the sighting of the full moon, thus making it an Earth cycle ritual. By fasting everyday from sunrise to sunset, Muslims and those partaking in this tradition are reminded of the suffering of the less fortunate in the world. This fasting emphasizes the Muslim ideal of strengthening their connection with Allah through exercising self control, thereby cleansing their minds, bodies, and spirits and also lends itself to this informant’s other accounts such as not believing in wearing a physical/tangible object for protection against the evil eye and instead focusing on the mind (see: The Evil/Bad Eye and Arab Folk Beliefs on Protection Against It).

I also found it interesting that the informant noted how the whole process of butchering the sacrifice and splitting up the portions of the meat has become a lot easier- butchers will handle not only the butchering, but the distribution as well. On the one hand, this probably gives more incentive to partake in the tradition each year, as it makes the ritual much simpler, but it is also important to note that it is as a result of modernity.


Homemade Russian Scarf

Russian Scarf

The informant’s parents are both from Russia, having grown up in a small town outside of Stalingrad. Though Rachel was born here, the recentness to which her parents moved has caused them to enrich her life with lots of Russian culture. In going to her house one weekend, I noticed several of the scarves like the one above laying around and inquired as to what they were. She explained that they were head scarfs her mother made that women often wore in the countryside of Russia. When I asked her why, she explained that the Orthodox Church is a very big part of Russian culture and women were required to wear them to Church. She also said that they symbolize that a woman is married.

She then showed me other scarves that her mother made. I thought this was really cool, as in America there are very few things that people make besides the occasional knitted item a mother or grandma might create. The informant told me that her mom would go out and buy special fabrics then knit the fray on the edges of it to give it a more decorated look. She further explained that her mother learned this from her grandma, and that girls in Russia would always learn from their grandmas and mothers how to make scarves and clothing items such as these. The scarf is still a big part of Russian culture in the countryside, and its very common to see woman wearing them when at work on a farm. I asked if the informant knew how to make these, but she explained that her mother has yet to teach her, though she’d like to learn at some point in her life. I really liked my friend showing me this part of her culture and thought the designs of many of the scarves were beautiful.



Don’t Wear Silver in Water

The informant’s family comes from the Bahamas. She was born in the Bahamas and is a talented Bahamian woman. Her mother and she were extremely close and she learned a lot of the folklore that she shared with me from either her mother or from being with her mother. Eventually her family moved to Florida where they learned American cultures and were able to compare and contrast the two. 


“I’m not really sure if this is considered folklore or a proverb, but one tradition, or superstition, or maybe it could be considered water etiquette in most island cultures is that you absolutely never wear your silver jewelry or anything shiny into the waters. I don’t mean like swimming pools, I mean the water with fish and other things in it. We do this because we believe that a barracuda will attack you if you do. I think its because silver or any other flashy types of jewelry or anything will confuse a barracuda and it’ll mistake you for the little critters it preys on and will attack any human wearing it.”

When she was asked why this is a superstition she said, “Well a barracuda will attack you.”

Then I asked, “Have you ever seen it happen or heard it happen to someone close to you?”

She said, “well… no, My mom just told me and here mom told her and I’m sure her dad told her as well. I don’t know where they got it from, I just know not to do it.”


Superstitions play an important role in the way that people may act, what they will do, what they will say, what they will wear, or when they will do things. Usually superstitions are practiced because of good luck or bad luck and doing something one way will prevent bad luck from happening, and give you good luck. In the case of the informant this is a superstition of something you don’t do or there will be bad consequences. Maybe this originated by an older sibling trying to fool his younger siblings into doing something he wanted so he made up a story about barracudas attacking, or maybe someone was actually attacked by a barracuda because of the jewelry the person was wearing. Regardless of where it came from it is a heavily practiced superstition and is not ever broken in fear of being attacked.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Veteran’s Day Tradition

Informant E was born in Korea and moved to El Centro California when she was 4. Before she came to USC she found that she was accepted into the school but also enlisted in the military. She put school on hold and deferred for a semester and went to training at the age of 17, and was one of the youngest soldiers to graduate. And after her experience with boot camp she came back to USC and started school and contracted to army ROTC. She has been deployed over the summers to Korea. She studies Psychology and Linguistics as a double major and a Forensics Criminality minor combined with dance as well. She wants to use her schooling and military experience to be in the FBI one day.

So in the military we have a lot of military balls we have a lot of Veterans Day dinners and banquets where everyone comes up in their nice dress uniform. But specifically we had this one Veterans Night/Dinner/Ball put on by USC and it happens every year but it’s a tradition that the very youngest cadet and the very senior oldest cadre member come together to cut the dessert cake together. It’s been an ongoing thing not just within USC Veterans Day dinner but also balls outside of USC. And I think it symbolize the fact that the youngest and the oldest and everyone in between is a part of this ceremony. I have a very late birthday and I joined the military at the age of 17 which is the absolute youngest and so the first couple years it was me that was cutting the cake with this like 5 star general and personally it was such an honor and it made me feel really important. Like I was a part of this ceremony with this amazing phenomenal general who was in several wars, and just to stand beside him and doing this together symbolizes the fact that we are one, an army of one, one fight, one team. I don’t think I’m ever going to forget that and I know that every year we have this and it’s a new younger cadet and a new older senior personnel every time and I know kind of what exactly they feel. It’s a huge honor and its very humbling too. Everyone’s watching you do this and what it signifies. It’s an amazing tradition. This is one night that everyone who has served beside you comes together and everyone comes together out of this stressful environment, everyone just comes together and has a good time.  I do find it nostalgic and it makes me proud too because some of these cadets I’ve mentored and taken under my wing growing up and now they’re up there doing this thing and I know the experience they’re having. Its really humbling and it’s a moment of joy and pride and its very nostalgic because I was once up there too.

Honoring those who came before is very important. Before every function we have this table we set for our Prisoner of War and Missing In Action brothers and sisters in arms. It’s very specific. We have this table set and the tablecloth signifies that they’re not here with us, the empty chair signifies that they’re not here with us, there’s a plate set out because were waiting for them to come. There’s a slice of lemon on this plate to symbolize their sour fate and there’s some salt to symbolize all the tears that we’ve cried waiting for them to come home. And after everything we say that we remember and we toast to them in the end. I think it’s another tradition before we start all these functions that we still remember them and we still honor them even when they’re not here with us.



The military places a strong emphasis on community and unity. This tradition with cutting the cake symbolizes that everyone from the oldest to the youngest is a valued member and is honored in this ceremony. This helps unite the military together even more.  Even those who are not currently present are honored as well because they are still included in the community.  The military also emphasizes honoring and remembering those who have came before.  The informant mentions how humbled she was to have the opportunity to cut the cake and how proud she felt to stand next to this celebrated general and to be a part of the military.


Weekly meetings with PhD advisor

“So in the PhD program, there are some rules for success with respect to you and your advisor. Uh, rule number 1 is that you should try to have weekly meetings. If you do not have weekly meetings, there will not be, you know, there will be no pressure on you to get things done, and there will be no pressure on your advisor to read a thing that you’ve don, or to think about you at all. So the best is to have some kind of weekly meeting where you are expected to have a little bit of something done, even just a little bit. Which carries me to rule number 2, which is you should try to do something every week. You should try to bring to your advisor when you see them, because if you are just going to your advisor empty-handed, then neither you, nor your advisor are going to get anything out of that. So if you go to a meeting, you should have a thing at the meeting.”


“I’m getting a Ph.D. in Linguistics, which is the study of how language works in the mind. It has to do with why we sometimes have trouble distinguishing “f” from “s” on the phone, why speakers of Japanese seem to mix up “r” and “l”, and why it’s perfectly reasonable to say “Aluminum bird-feeders sleepily wrestle with simple fractals” but not *”Whose was Mary reading novel?” (cf. “Whose novel was Mary reading?”).

I work in particular on sound things. My most recent work has to do with why the “c” at the end of “electric” sounds like a hard “k”, but turns into a soft “s” in the word “electricity”. There are also words like “divine” (pronounced with “ai” as in “fine”) that change to “divinity” (with an “ih” as in “fit”). This sort of thing happens in a lot of languages, and is rather strange. I believe it’s worth studying for many reasons; in particular, it tells us about how the mind stores words, and therefore has implications for psychology/medicine (e.g. understanding how aphasia works) and for cognitive science in general.”
The informant is studying at the University of Southern California, and is currently in the second year of his Ph.D. program. This folklore was collected by asking the informant what are some common practices of PhD students, or advice that he has received. He learned this from speaking with his PhD advisor and some of the more senior PhD students in his department.
According to the informant, the first rule of being a PhD student is to have weekly meetings with your advisor. Everyone in his department has at least one weekly meeting with their advisor, though it is not a requirement—it is just an unspoken practice of these PhD students, that they learn from each other. Each student likely has his or her own take on the rule: how long the meeting should be; whether the meeting should be made up if the student cannot make it that week; whether the time should be set in stone or can be flexible. That is the variation of the folklore custom.
Another custom of these meetings that the informant speaks of is to always have something to talk about, even it is very small. This increases the connection between the advisor and the student, as the student is required to prove that he has done some work over the week—as work should be done every week—and it allows the advisor to think about the student and the student’s work and provide feedback on what they are working. It is also awkward to walk into an hour meeting with absolutely nothing to talk about except what was discussed the week before. That would just waste the advisor and the student’s time.
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Castells (Human Tower)

“The other manifestation of our culture that I really like is Castells, which are human towers. And again, the tradition is passed in between the families, because it is a very risky tradition, as they all stand on each other’s shoulders, and, um, the very young kids go all the way to the top, you know and it could be as high as eight or nine levels. So you either grow up inside that tradition and you understand why you’re doing it and you believe in why you’re doing it or there is no way anyone is going to allow their kids to go all the way up there because it is risky. But it also is a very…unique group. People who belong to Castell have been part of it for a many many generations, and again it was forbidden during Franco’s time but they found a way to continue and preserve their own tradition of Castells and they were getting together, you know, secretly, and practicing. And again, after Franco died there has been a renewal and an effort by the government to bring it back.”

Informant Analysis: “Um, I do like Castells very much that although different towns have their different groups and they have different colors, and they take pride in their colors and in their group, in order to make Castell you have to have a huge base that supports the top. What I particularly like from this tradition is even though you belong to another team, if someone is trying to accomplish a very high tower and they need manpower or, you know, power in the base, everyone pitches in, no matter what team you belong to. I think it really represents the union of the Cataluñans as a group, because everyone participates and can be part of it”

Analysis: Castells is a huge event for everyone involved, but it seems that those who are actually forming the human towers capture the most attention and have the biggest job. Despite the focus on the “stars” of the event, the unification element seems very important for this ritual, not only because many different groups of people come together, but also because it brought people together at a darker time in Spain when Franco was ruling. The fact that this tradition survived along with the others the informant describes points to the commitment to sustaining the culture of Spain, even when they had to do it in secret.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Queens Prayer

When Kula and his family would have big family gatherings, they would all say a prayer before they ate their meal. The prayer was called the Queens Prayer and went like this:

Ho’onani ka ma kua mau
ke keiki me ho’o na me no
Ke akua mau ho’omai ka’I pu
Ko kea au ko kela au

Praise God from whom all blessing flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye heavenly host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

The prayer was similar to saying grace before a meal. However, it is not solely said before a meal. It is used as an initiation to something important. Hawaiians would say the prayer to start chapel service or at the opening of a new restaurant or business or before a surf tournament. In whichever case the prayer was used, everyone involved would join hands while one person, usually the head of the family or event would say the prayer. Everyone else would quietly say the prayer along with the orator.