“If go swimming after you eat, you’ll drown.”
The informant doesn’t remember where he heard this rumor, but he thinks it was probably from a friend’s mother during his childhood. He doesn’t think it’s true now, though. In my opinion, I think this is a popular statement told to children by their parents so that they let their food digest before they get back in the water to swim. Another popular belief is that you’ll get cramps if you swim right after eating, so maybe the parents who say this more extreme belief are just trying to protect their children from painful cramps.
“M” is 21 year old male student at the University of Southern California, where he is a Junior studying Animation and minoring in Philosophy. M is originally from the outskirts of New York state where he describes himself as living in a rural area. He described himself as going to a high school of ~60 students, where cliche formation was rare as students could ‘jump from social group to social group’. He describes his parents as ‘hippies’ that were very relaxed in their parenting style as well as their personal approach towards life. He is of Irish descent on both sides and describes this aspect of his life as very active in his life.
“So I hated eating brussel sprouts when I was a little guy, I would throw them at my parents and stuff. So my parents told them they were just baby cabbages so I would eat em’. I like cabbage, but I didn’t like Brussel sprouts.
Me: Did it work?
M: Oh yeah.
Me: You actually thought you were eating baby cabbage for awhile?
M: Oh yeah, they’re like exactly the same, I didn’t have any idea there was something to differentiate them. I still think they might be baby cabbage (laughs jokingly)
Me: When did you start to catch on?
M: Probably when I was about 7 or 8, but I ended up liking brussel sprouts anyways.
Me: So your parents actually tricked you into liking brussel sprouts? That’s pretty elaborate.
M: Well, maybe. I don’t know…. if they hadn’t told me they were baby cabbages, and I just waited until I was seven or eight and tried them again, If I’d still like them. ”
As “M” was pretty well aware, being told that brussel sprouts were baby cabbage forced him into a sort of cognitive dissonance where he changed him preferences to accommodate his liking of cabbage. As he was not able to identify that his parents were doing it at the time, he ate them. Though he isn’t sure about it, “M” does entertain the possibility that his preference to brussel sprouts may be a result of this trick earlier in his childhood.
The informant, who is Buddhist, gave a presentation at a recent retreat on spirituality that I had gone on. I asked to meet with him to talk about other Buddhist principles and lore that he had not gone over at the retreat.
Informant: So, again, I was raised Buddhist. So my parents are Taiwanese Buddhist, which is a very specific like type of Buddhism. It’s a kind of pure land Buddhism, where it’s like, borderline spiritual, like religious Buddhism. Like a savior type of Buddhism, as opposed to, like the origin of Buddhism in India, which was more about self cultivation. One of the things that they espouse, or like, one way of practicing that Buddhist practice, is not eating meat. Because, you know, obviously if you eat meat, you are then thereby, you know, perpetuating the suffering of animals, or other living beings. So that makes sense. So there’s no beef, no chicken, no pork, no fish, no eggs… Actually they do eat eggs. Um, but then they go a step further, actually, and there’s a rule where you don’t eat garlic. Or you don’t eat anything that would like, smell bad. Which is so interesting. And like, my dad would always like, “Oh, make it vegetarian, but no onions.” And I was like, “What? Onions aren’t meat.” And he would be like, “But it’s the Buddhist thing to do.” And I’ve heard various, like, folklore as to why that is. Um, one of it is, like, so silly, like “Oh, you know. You don’t want to offend someone with the smell, so you don’t do it.” Because other people would be offended by the smell of onions, apparently. That’s one story. And then I recently heard, recently being like a year ago, where I heard a whole different story that was fascinating to me. Which, now, reflecting on it it doesn’t make any sense. But, the whole premise is, like, those types of foods tend to be like roots, so you would need to, like, harm the Earth by physically digging at it, like opening up the Earth, to get these, like, vegetables. Or like these very pungent, um, foods. So that’s like, ginger, garlic, onions. But then I’m thinking like, doesn’t that include like, carrots?
Me: And potatoes?
Informant: And potatoes! [Laughter] So, um, but that was something somebody told me. And again, it comes from the place of like, mitigating suffering and not causing harm, even to the Earth. And like, I can see how someone would espouse that folklore, and just be like, “Yeah, makes total legitimate sense.” But, for me I was a practicing vegetarian, but I didn’t buy the whole onion thing ’cause I didn’t get it.
This dining custom embodies the Buddhist principle of not causing others unneeded suffering, similar to the practice of vegetarianism. The extra explanation about preventing harm to the Earth also espouses this principle, though the informant pointed out a flaw in that explanation. The informant did not subscribe to this practice himself, though he learned it from his family.
Informant Background: The informant was born in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Taiwan. He grew up with his parents and grandparents who still speak Chinese, he does too. Many of his relatives are in Los Angeles so they all still practice a lot of Taiwanese/Chinese traditions and celebrate all the Chinese holiday such as: Chinese New Year, Ancestry day, Chinese Ghost day, etc. He said his family still hold many Chinese folk-beliefs and superstitions. He also travels back once in a while to visit his other relatives who are still back in Taiwan.
If you hold your chopstick close to the tip, you will never leave your family and stay at home with your parents forever. If you hold toward the end, you will probably run away from your family and never see them again. If you hold toward the middle, you will have a happy medium between creating your own life and your original family.
The informant stated that is one of many Chinese folk-beliefs around the dining table. The informant learned about this through his parents. This is meant as a way to teach children to hold their chopsticks properly.
I believe Chinese culture value and respect their ancestor and older generation greatly. The value and respect can also become overpowering to some. To stay at home forever is fear by many because it hints that they would never get married and start their own life. To not have any ties left is unconventional in Chinese culture and sometimes can be seen as undesirable when your family ties are weak or non-existence. To hold the chopstick at the middle is to have, as the informant said, a happy medium of both older wisdom and new knowledge.
This belief shows the important of marriage as a life transitional period. Marriage changes a person’s identity of him/herself, identity within the community, and identity with his/her own family. In this case it is either a presence or absence of marriage that dictates the person’s faith.
This folk belief reminds me of Goldilocks and the three bears where in the three options lies a happy medium between the two undesirable extremes. It also resonates with the idea of the number three: in this case three option of too much, too little, and just enough.
I do agree with the informant that this can be a way for parents to teach their children proper table manner through these folk-beliefs. Chopsticks are use in every meal in a Chinese cuisine so it is an important everyday habit to hold it properly. This also shows how folklore can exist in everyday life through association to common everyday activities.
Informant: “My mom would always say this to me if I were eating something after school while lying on the couch. She said she heard it from her mom, who heard it from her mom, and so on. But I was always really tired after school and did it anyway. My mom would lie down while eating too, and joke about it, saying something like, “Oh well, I can handle being turned into a cow.” It was never really specific who or what force was going to change me into a cow anyway, so I never took it very seriously. But every summer when I’d go back to my grandma’s house in Okinawa, she’d be really serious about it, and say that she actually knew a little girl who turned into a cow after she ate her rice lying down. Honestly, it was just a way to discourage me from lying down because it was a lazy thing to do, but whenever I was at my grandma’s house. she was so serious I almost kind of believed her, like if there was a certain food I ate while lying down, I really would turn into a cow. It was probably good that they tried to discourage me from that too, because lying down while eating is actually pretty dangerous, and apparently a whole bunch of people die every year from choking on their food while lying down (or maybe that’s just another thing my mom told me to scare me out of being lazy).”
My informant was born in Okinawa, Japan, and lived there until she was five, before moving to America. She speaks English to her brother but primarily Japanese within her family, because her parents don’t speak much English. She lives at USC currently, and with her family in Irvine.
To be turned into a cow is clearly a scary prospect for a child. For mothers and grandparents to convince children of this as a result of laying down on the couch reveals what they expect of their children. They cannot be lazy. To lay down with rice is equated to cowness. To make that absolutely clear for those children is to convince them of becoming literal cows.
Informant: “…I’m sure you’ve seen me do this at breakfast. Whenever I order eggs, sausage, and hashed browns, I’ll cut it up and mix it all together in a kind of mash.”
Interviewer: “How long have you been doing that?”
Informant: “Oh um, ever since I was really little. That’s the way I’ve seen my dad do it throughout my life and I guess it just caught on. It wasn’t until high school when I got called out for it.”
Interviewer: “Called out for it? Why?”
Informant: “Well, when I was at boarding school… it was a pretty ritzy school, I had a scholarship to go there, but it was full of kids who uh, came from old money or whatever… But anyways, me and my classmates went out to breakfast one day, I ordered the usual – eggs, sausage, hashed browns – sliced it up and mashed it all together. I started eating, and my friend says to me in this judgmental way… ‘You know…that’s the way a poor man eats….’ I was really embarrassed… I didn’t know what she was talking about. I thought she was just being a bitch… so I kept mixing it all together. But… I was kind of offended. When I came home – it must have been during a holiday vacation – I went out to breakfast with my family, and my dad and I, we ordered our usual and started eating it in the same way we had always done… But this time, I told him what my classmate said and… you know what… he actually told me that she was right!”
Interviewer: “What? …Really?”
Informant: “[laughs] Yea, I know… I was surprised too, dude! So… supposedly, it’s a custom that came from the Great Depression. Mashing it all together, it was a way to hide rancid meat…
Interviewer: “No way!”
Informant: “Yea, my… great-grandfather lost his business and lived in one of those, those little shantytowns in the Midwest, so that’s supposedly where it all started. My dad said that that’s how his dad ate and how his grandfather – my great-grandfather – did too… I had no idea it was such a long tradition.”
Interviewer: “That’s pretty crazy… that just a way of eating can survive generations.”
Informant: “Yea, it’s pretty cool. And I don’t even care that it’s a symbol of ‘lower-class.’ Whatever… I think of it more now as a type of historical family custom…”
The notion that people were forced to eat rotten meat after losing everything during the Great Depression makes sense since they didn’t have the means to buy better quality meats. In some cases, they practically had to scavenge from the bottom of the barrel to survive. Whether or not her family custom of eating dates to the Great Depression, the tradition shows how behavior can also be treated as folklore since it can be passed down vocally and visually. This is also an example of nonsensical folklore, not because it doesn’t make sense, but because there is no underlying meaning to the action; it is simply done because that’s the way it has been done, “because that’s the way my father did it.”
“The way you can sum up every Jewish holiday, for the most part, is: they tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat. It means to me two different things. One is very serious… for some reason, so many other cultures have decided that the Jews should be annihilated. The other thing it means to me, that bothers me, is that many of our uh… that Jews tend to dwell on these negative events to define who they are and what they are about.”
The informant told me that she doesn’t know where she first heard this phrase, but that “probably some other Jew said it to me.” I have heard this phrase and similar phrases throughout my entire life, and I have often used a variation of this phrase to try to explain my religion or the holidays we engage in to people who are unfamiliar with Judaism.
The thing that interests me the most is this informant’s take on the phrase. I have usually heard this phrase used in a way that is dismissive (oh, all of our holidays are just like this…) or, more often, in a way that is humorous. It’s almost comical to think that most Jewish holidays follow this pattern and that they usually involve the consumption of a lot of food, which seemingly, on the surface, has little relevance to the heavier, darker fact that Jews have been persecuted and have had to escape death time and time again.
For instance, Sean Altman is a singer-songwriter who performs under the band name Jewmongous. He has a comedic song called “They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat)” that supposedly explains the story of Pesach. It contains a ton of pop culture references and factual inaccuracies, which is supposed to prove that all of the details of the holiday are basically irrelevant, because all you need to do is boil down the holiday to this one simple phrase, which is contained in the chorus. The song is available as an MP3 and on a CD, which you can purchase on his website at http://www.jewmongous.com/. You can also watch a live performance of the song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34atu3WGUgc).
Despite the fact that this phrase is typically repeated for its humor, I have always heard this informant use the phrase in a sort of melancholy way. To her, the phrase represents a long and depressing history of the Jewish people, and she believes that the use of this phrase, combined with the practice of Jewish holidays, tends to perpetuate a tendency to dwell on the negative. While I see her point and definitely agree that Jews tend to have a martyr complex, I strongly believe that this phrase is a way for Jewish people to reclaim their history and bring joy by making light of very serious problems. Rather than dwell on the negative, we look forward to the positive— in this case, a large feast.