My informant is the mother of a USC student. She is an immigrant from Cameroon and came to America with her husband and son before giving birth to their daughter.
“A pregnant woman would, should…at all cost avoid seeing what she would consider as ugly until the gives birth. The fear, is that uh, her baby will become ugly if she does. It is also believed that if she eats a cobra before giving birth that it will speed the delivery of the baby. Again, this—cobra—is a delicacy usually reserved for only, for only the men. If you have not realized it yet, my people in every way see women as less than equal to men. A good woman is supposed to be behind her husband. He must have the last word, she must sleep behind him, she must please him at all cost. This is of course…changing with the access to higher education and influence of western culture. Divorce rates are soaring and more women are opting to marry later, not get married, and not have children…husbands are even blamed when their wives are troublesome because they cannot control her!”
Analysis: This belief illuminates the importance of beauty within Cameroonian culture. Especially in the case of the birth being a girl, it would be desired for her to be beautiful so she could marry a wealthy and handsome husband. In addition, the allowance of women to consume cobra during pregnancy demonstrates that women who are bearing children are considered of a higher status than women who are not, because they are allowed to eat foods that are typically reserved only for men (who are looked at with more respect within Cameroonian society). My informant made a point of reiterating that men in their society are more highly valued than women, however also made note that within the western world these beliefs have lost value due to women in the United States being able to attend school and support themselves without a husband. Of course there are communities and families who still adhere strictly to these beliefs even though they live in a western nation such as America.
“I don’t know how long it’s been in practice, but like every time like we wear pins, like a pledge pin on the right side [of your chest] when you’re pledging and then you put it on the left when you have been initiated. So, ‘cause the left side is your heart, so like the service pin is more on your heart like, you’re like in. Um, and then during the initiation ceremony we like light candles for each, kind of characteristic we talk about, um, and then we also, when people are ushered in to the initiation ceremony they’re, they have to close their eyes and not look and they get in a line with hand on shoulder, like in lines of maybe ten people and then someone leads them who’s an active member already to lead them to the place of the initiation. And then once they’re all there, um, they can open their eyes and then they, everybody says their name in order and they say the oath repeating after the person leading the ceremony. Um, let’s see. That happens once when you find out you’re gonna become a pledge and that happens another time when you’re initiated to become an active member. The pledging period is, like, a semester long, basically . . . It just seems like it’s always been done that way and so, when I experienced it as a pledge, it’s how I also experienced it as an active, like it, it feels like it’s always been that way.”
The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who studies biology and is currently applying to medical schools. This interview took place in the new Annenberg building when I was having a conversation with another friend about superstition and the informant started to volunteer information about the rituals that have taken place in her life. She is a part of the campus service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, or APO and has been for all four years she has been at USC. APO is co-ed and is somewhat culturally removed from USC’s other Greek life. It states its principle values are “leadership, friendship, and service” and the members of this service fraternity are supposed to embody those values in their everyday lives.
This ceremony is clearly a liminal moment that has been ritualized. It is a way for new members to join the fraternity on a consistent basis while knowing that they have the approval of the active members. Essentially, it is a way of very clearly establishing who is a part of the frat, who is not, and who is in the process of joining. I thought it was interesting that the informant interpreted the movement of the service pin from the right side to the left side as having to do with the left side being where your heart is. Part of me believes this interpretation is influenced by her studying biology and the human anatomy currently being the most important area of study in her life, while the other part thinks this is probably the original symbolic meaning of the movement. Having the pin on the right side of your chest makes it merely a form of decoration, at most an acknowledgment that you are interested in being a part of this organization. However, as soon as you move it to the left side of your chest, it is a statement that the organization is a big part of your life as it is next to one of your most vital organs.
The repetition of the initiation ceremony is important, as it gives the active members and pledges a period to adjust to the change in the community. It is noteworthy that the active members light a candle for each “characteristic” that an APO member should embody, i.e. leadership, friendship, and service, as this means three candles are lit and three is an important symbolic number in American culture. I think the reasoning behind making the pledges close their eyes when they are led to the ceremony has more to do with symbolism than it does with keeping the location of the ceremony a secret. The pledges are going to find out where the ceremony is as soon as they open their eyes, so there is really no reason to think that keeping the location a secret is an important part of the ritual. Rather, I think it has to do with the fact that when the pledges close their eyes they are in a location that represents their lives before APO, and when they open them they are somewhere that represents the their new lives with this fraternity. This action also increases the suspense and sacredness of this ritual. That an active member leads the lines of pledges into the ceremony shows the approval of the existing members of APO and is an important step in making this outgroup a part of the in-group.
“I remember growing up in Puerto Rico and always looking forward La Noche de San Juan Bautista, or the annual night the patron saint of Puerto Rico was celebrated. The festival began on the night before June 23 and people came to the beaches to party with food and music. The ritual would begin at midnight by people building bonfires and jumping into the ocean to cleanse their spirits for the next year. The waters were supposedly sacred and blessed with magical healing powers that night, though I didn’t really believe in much of what other people told me. We were supposed to swim into the water at least 7 times to be cleansed, while others did 12. Others took the ritual more seriously, sometimes taking three turns then jumping into the water backwards upon each swim. I always loved the ocean and took this as an opportunity to enjoy the warm waters under the night sky without my parents having to worry about where I might be.”
When I come home for the weekend, I often get the chance to talk with our housekeeper who tells me about her history and many of her stories. She grew up in Puerto Rico and is full of both funny and suspenseful stories from her youth in a small townoutside of San Juan. When I told her that I was in the process of collecting stories for my folklore project, she was more than happy to share with me some of her memories. Due to her love of the ocean, this ritual she did with her parents was one of the first that came to mind. I could tell that though she seemed to dismiss the notion of the “blessed waters,” she really missed her family and friends back home and the traditions they partook in. She spoke longingly about the kinds of foods they ate and how the ritual was passed down from generations. She learned all about the celebration from her parents and its meaning, telling me that the ritual had been performed yearly since the end of Spanish Colonization. Though many in the city didn’t celebrate it, it was still a big deal to people in outlying areas and was a huge communal celebration.
I enjoyed hearing about this ritual because here in America, I feel that ritual is not necessarily a large part of our identity, with maybe an exception to Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Everyone does have their own personal rituals for one event or another, but they are not apart of a greater communal tradition that have been passed down over generations. It’s very interesting to hear about how something such as the notion of healing waters has been passed down reverently from generation to generation and largely believed and participated in by most of a community.
“D” is a 19 year old female student at The University of Southern California. She is a Chemistry major and interested in pursuing Pharmacy after college. She is Vietnamese on both sides of her family and describes herself as very close with her sister, whom she shares many Folkloric traditions with. She played soccer up through high school and is currently active in the rugby community.
“D: Okay so before each game I would have, it sounds really weird, I would have a chocolate mocha and than I would have to put on my socks left first, than right second. I would also have to put my right cleat on before my left, and my left before my right, in reverse order basically.
Me: Was this because it happened sometime in the past and it worked?
D: It was because it was like a habit, and we won and I kinda just stuck to it.
Me: Do you think there is any validity to that helping you during the game?
D: No, it’s just a superstition. Like I would jump like three times before the whistle blew.
Me: Was it just you do did the team sorta, did the team sort of condone it?
D: The team had their own little things to do, we’d all like get in a circle before and we’d like talk, we all usually said the same things, like to pump each other up and we’d do like a team sprint to like win.
Me: Do you remember when that started, you had to have noticed that and decided to do it again at some time.
D: It was probably when I was like 10 or 11, when soccer really started to get competitive rather than like recreational.
Me: Okay, so when you played recreational you didn’t have any superstitions?
D: No. It didn’t really matter because I beat everyone”
The pre-game ritual is a well known superstition used to enhance one’s luck in a game prior to the game, they are widely used by profession sports teams (Barabbi, 2014),( Yeager, 2014) and non-professionals alike. “D”s attempt to replicate prior conditions that allowed her to win in the past points at an attempt to replicate a past event that had a favorable outcome, possibly by keeping as many variables the same as possible. Though she does acknowledge it plays no effect on her performance, her continued use of the ritual points to it being reinforcing in some respect. Its use after she considered soccer to be more competitive likely means she did believe it to garner some sort of advantage at the time she conceived of the ritual (Tobacyk & Shrader, 1991).
Barrabi, T. (2014). World Cup 2014: 8 Weirdest Pregame Rituals And Superstitions. International Business Times. Retrieved 30 April 2015, from http://www.ibtimes.com/world-cup-2014-8-weirdest-pregame-rituals-superstitions-1603838
Tobacyk, J., & Shrader, D. (1991). Superstition and self-efficacy.Psychological Reports, 68(3c), 1387-1388.
Yeager, S. (2015). Pregame rituals of the pros. Retrieved 30 April 2015, from http://espn.go.com/espnw/training/article/6857252/pregame-rituals-pros
Informant H is 19 years old and was born in Inglewood CA. She moved to a place near Valencia just outside of LA soon after she was born. After 5 years, her little sister was born, then her little brother, and then her youngest sister. The family then moved to Bakersfield. H homeschooled for many years and then transitioned into a public high school.
H: So the very first people who started Xpressions started this um I guess its like a pre-show ritual where they have this little purple fuzzy stuffed animal and he’s about, I don’t know, he’s very small like this size, like a small ball. And we stand in a circle um backstage before its time for our show and the director holds the little fuzzy bear and he goes around and he puts it in front of everyone and everyone has to kiss the fuzzy bear for good luck.
Me: That’s really cute. Do you think people believe this will actually give them good luck and if they don’t do it like maybe they wont have a good performance that night?
H: Not necessarily. I think we know that the amount of effort and time we put into it is what’s gonna make it a good show but I think its just something that everyone has done every semester. So just knowing that from the very first group of people who did it now were doing it its cool that connection to the people who started it.
Me: So it’s about the history and the tradition more?
Me: Do you think the bear itself has any significance? Other than it was picked sort of randomly, do you know why it’s purple…?
H: I don’t know why its purple, I think its just a personal article, I don’t know any other significance to the bear.
Me: Do you believe personally that if you had done this or if you don’t, do you think something is going to happen?
H: Nope! I just think it’s a cute tradition.
Me: Do you think that’s why people do it? They just do this because it’s a nice bonding exercise?
H: Yes, I think it’s very much like a bonding exercise.
Me: Do you think it serves any other function besides a bonding thing between you guys?
H: I feel like bonding is mainly…and just that you know that that’s something you have in common with the Xpressions people because I know its changed over the years. So that’s something you have in common with someone who is an alumni of Xpressions, like oh you remember when you kissed the fuzzy bear?
Me: Is this like a secret thing? Do you guys talk about it very much?
H: Um no its just something we do like right before the show just like oh remember guys kiss the bear.
Me: And all the new members everyone together…?
H: Yeah everyone.
This dance group uses this fun tradition and ritual to bring all its members together and prepare them to work together as a unit for the show. Like other rituals, it ties them to the past and the origins of the group while keeping them in the present as they are about to perform. Also like other rituals, this takes place on a liminal moment in time, right before the dancers perform and is used to bring the dancers good luck. This ritual also includes a kind of folk item, the fuzzy bear.
Informant A is a 17-year-old Sophomore at USC studying Biomedical Engineering with an emphasis on Neuroscience. She is ¼ Greek Cypriote, ¼ German and ¼ Argentinian but she strongly identifies with the Greek side of her. She spent 9 years in Greek school and goes to Greece every summer. She speaks Greek with her grandparents.
So I’ve always really liked to sing and I’m one of the few people in my family who doesn’t sound like a dying like woodchuck when I sing. My grandparents and my extended family always give me song requests. I learned a lot of songs in Greek school. One of the famous Cypriot artists in addition to doing all her pop albums, did one titled “Cypress” in Greek. And on that album, she has a lot of traditional songs, with modern instruments. So I was at the beach one morning with my grandparents, and we went at 8am because my grandparents are like 80 years old, and everyone else is also like 80 years old. And I’m like walking towards the ocean kinda doing my own thing, and I start humming The Jasmine, which is a song about this flower, the Jasmine flower.There’s like a particularly potent one in Cypress. And scent is one of the strongest connections people have. And so there’s this whole song written about this Jasmine and its about a lover who was trying to talk to this woman but the parents were keeping them away, but he remembered that every day outside of her window there was the Jasmine. So he almost sings it to the Jasmine, and it’s a very powerful song. And so I learned the song after the CD from this major pop artist. And I was just humming it on the beach, and like everyone joined in. It was kind of creepy, it was like a real life musical. It’s such an emotional song, not only to this flower of our island but also something beautiful that we can all relate to; loving something so much. Everyone who’s from the old villages knows this song, it’s passed down through like party nights. There’s a lot of old Greek Orthodox festivals, and they bring the entire village together and they get the bouzoukis, which is like the Cypriote guitar, except with more range. And they play traditional songs and whoever wants to can come up and sing with them or dance and everyone just shares culture and eats food. Music is really important to the Greeks, its how people express themselves. And back in the day, all the myths used to be sung. And that’s how you’d remember the stories, they’d remember the lyrics rather than words. And music is a really good way to express emotions. And so everyone knows that song because of these festivals. So everyone joined in. I was a little freaked out. And this song is actually so old, it has Turkish words in it. And Cypress has been divided into the Greek and the Turkish side since 1964. It was a terrible war and now there’s a lot of animosity between the two sides. But back in the day, before the tensions with the Turkish mainland, everyone would live next to each other. Everyone spoke a little Turkish and Greek. And so this is one song that everyone knows because it’s basically half Greek and half Turkish. It’s a really old song, maybe like 1700s, it does mention some houses and stuff. All the older people actually request that I sing it.
Γιασεμί μου (Greek)
Το γιασεμί στην πόρτα σου
ήρθα να το κλαδέψω
ωχ γιαβρί μου
και νόμισε η μάνα σου
πως ήρθα να σε κλέψω
ωχ γιαβρί μου
Το γιασεμί στην πόρτα σου
μοσκοβολά τις στράτες
ωχ γιαβρί μου
κι η μυρωδιά του η πολλή
σκλαβώνει τους διαβάτες
ωχ γιαβρί μου
Yasemí mou (phonetic translation)
To yasemí stin pórta sou,
írtha na se kladépso,
okh, yiavrí mou,
ke nómise i mana sou,
pos írtha na se klépso,
okh, yiavrí mou.
To yasemí stin pórta sou,
moskhovolá tis strátes,
okh, yiavrí mou,
ki i mirodiá tou i polí,
sklavóni tous diavátes,
okh, yiavrí mou.
The Jasmine (English)
This jasmine outside your door
I came to prune it
Oh, my love
And your mother thought that
I came to steal you
Oh, my love
This jasmine outside your door
Has a great smell in the walkers
and its much smell
Makes passer-bies stay there like slaves
Oh, my love
Here informant A talks about the importance of songs and music in Greek culture. She mentions also a bit about Greek Orthodox festivals and their importance in passing on these songs and the community culture. These songs are a link for the community back to the past where most of their entertainment and values were encompassed in the myths that were sung. The entire community comes together around these songs and that the oldest and the youngest know them. It is also a link for A to her Greek culture back home. This song is especially important because it ties the Turks and the Greeks together in their common past and it is a strong reminder for the Greeks when they see the Jasmine flower of their culture.
My jasmine. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2015, from http://lyricstranslate.com/en/γιασεμί-μου-my-jasmine.html
Informant C is 20 year old and studies Journalism. She is half Turkish and speaks Turkish as well. Her mom is Turkish and is from the Eastern Turkey area, about 200 miles west of Syria. Her entire family is scattered over Turkey and have resided in Turkey for many generations. Many of them are involved in agriculture.
So every region of Turkey kind of has its own folklore and I like the Black Sea’s folklore and there’s a region called Trabzon in it. Its kind of seen as the more wild and I don’t want to say less domesticated, but there’s just not as many people living up there. We have some relatives that live near Trabzon and there’s this really famous town named Çarşıbaşı. And when someone gets married to test to see if the marriage is a good idea, they come to the house and you know how like in some places you have to carry the bride over the threshold, there’s this vine that you break into 3 pieces and you plant them into the ground. And if they sprout that means the marriage is going to be successful and if they don’t you’re kind of doomed. People in Turkey are very into agricultural rituals, folklore, and even mysticism.
Here informant C tells about an agricultural ritual that predicts if a couple will have a successful marriage. Marriages are very important and the entire community always wants them to be successful and will often perform rituals to see if this will be so. Because the area is so agricultural it follows that their marriage ritual would also be agricultural. Rituals are also often performed at liminal moments, such as when a couple gets married. Growing of the vine may symbolize growing of a marriage and with it, prosperity. In this ritual like many others, we see an emphasis on the number 3.
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 army we have an APFT which stands for Army Physical Fitness Test. It consists of 2 minutes of pushups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and a 2 mile run. And the standards are slightly different for male and female but they’re supposed to be set for what you should be able to do like capability wise. As ROTC cadets, we take one every month. So in a way its kind of a ritual you could say. We have a specific way of taking the test. Because I’m in the army as well as ROTC I can see kind of the comparisons. For ROTC everyone comes 10 minutes before the test. And were not told to do this but everyone does. And everyone puts their headphones in, sips on some water, stretches, and gets like pumped up and this is kind of a ritual within USC. It’s just kind of taken its own life as this tradition. So after that we’ll all get up and do like 10 of these calisthenics exercises which are standardized throughout the entire army. And that’s kind of like a ritual as well, we do it every single time. It’s supposed to stretch and prepare you for the fitness test. And then everyone will line up and fold their clothes; everything is very specific you know in the military. And this is a ritual through the entire military too. And then we’ll go pushups sit-ups and run. But in between the sit-ups and the run, they give us about 10 minutes to allow our bodies to recover from doing the other 2 exercises. And during that time, it’s so strange, almost everybody will sit down and talk. They’ll talk to get the anxiety off their mind. Its kind of a nerve racking test for ROTC because if you fail APFT you can lose your scholarship. You would think that people would be freaking out but everyone just kind of sits down and talks. They talk about everything, mostly non-ROTC related stuff to ease their minds. Then you take the exam and most everyone passes every single time. It’s almost a superstition that you have to do this. Ever since I’ve been in the program for 3 years, we do this every APFT which is every month so it’s interesting how that’s formed on its own. It’s this student mentality to be really prepared here at USC. When you put high achieving students here together, they want to do really well, they want to be really early. I know that having these specific steps and rituals help to calm some people down. People have found that it helps to do it specifically. It’s almost like an OCD person, they do things specifically to help calm their nerves so we can take this intense test. The military puts you in these high stress environments, but these rituals and superstitions and community kind of comes out of these environments.
Here the informant talks about some of the rituals and superstitions in the military surrounding their physical test. Many of the rituals she says is to calm anxiety and continue to foster unity and support within the group. Unity is extremely important for the military because they need that support in order to do their job effectively. They will do these rituals so exactly that they almost turn into superstitions that they must do them. Even how the military training is set up with these stressful tests breeds community and support because they can all help each other and cheer each other on, and they all understand what each person is going through.
About the Interviewed: Yuki is a Japanese student from the University of Hokkaido, currently studying western art and culture. She’s currently participating in an American homestay at a friend’s house in Southern California. Yuki is ethnically Japanese, and she’s said that her family has lived in Japan for a long time. She’s about 21 years old.
My subject, Yuki was willing to tell me about a folkloric tradition in her family.
Yuki: “My dad performs Chado for work. In English, it means “Tea Ceremony”. Chado is the art of making exquisite tea, but it is also very difficult. You have to train for a long time to do it properly. Chado requires absolute [specific] steps. You can’t make mistakes. People pay a lot of money to watch Chado because it’s traditional.”
I ask Yuki if she can explain what a “Chado” performance looks like.
Yuki: “I can’t do [demonstrate?] it. It’s too hard. My dad studied for a very long time. I’m sorry. I can explain it though. You take a bowl, and you carefully clean it. Then you prepare the tea in a very special way. Chado is history. People used to make tea for Kings using the Chado style.”
I carefully ask if Chado is more about technique, or if the Tea is just that good.
Yuki: “(laughs) The technique is more important. But the Tea is better than most. Chado is about watching tradition.”
I ask what Chado has meant to Yuki.
Yuki: “I think it’s interesting. I just can’t do it. (laughs)”
Chado, or Tea Ceremony, is a traditional art performance that has deep historical roots. It involves making tea using a highly articulate technique that requires intense training to master. People pay to watch those who know the technique perform their craft.
Yuki was unable to perform the tea ceremony for me, but independent research has shown me that there are a large number of materials required to make the ceremony “work”. It has a lot to do with the concept of “authenticity” in folklore. People want to engage in a culture that is as close to its original counterpart as possible.
My informant is a 20 year old gay film student who self-identifies as a bear. Gay bears are loosely defined as masculine, bigger, hairier guys who are into other masculine, bigger, hairier guys. In this interview he describes a holiday particular to bears called Bear Week, which takes place in Provincetown. He says it has always been a dream of his since he heard of it in 7th grade to go to Bear Week, and he might make his dream a reality this summer. It means a lot to him because this community is one he is very involved in, and very into personally as well. This interview took place in a university dining hall.
“Uh, ok so, the biggest bear event is at Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is already a pretty gay hotspot year-round, but uh, second week of July the bears come to town and wreak havoc on the pools and, (laughs) and hotels, and main streets of Provincetown. And there’s a place called Dick Dock, which is (chuckles) a certain section of the boardwalk in Provincetown, and you go underneath the boardwalk, just as the old song says, (laughter) you can find men engaging in… all sorts of pleasures.”
“Where’d you hear this?”
“That I know about… I know about this from friends of mine who have gone to Provincetown for Bear Week.”
When I asked him about the more common ways that this kind of knowledge is proliferated, he had this to say:
“Well in gay cultures, the folklore tends to spread more in private, um, because bears is not something that’s discussed widely in high schools across America so I didn’t know about it, my friends weren’t telling me about it so I had to look this kinda stuff up on the internet, and I would just read articles, and like, the Wikipedia article, like a lot, and you know, different theories on like, what bears were about, and there’s this one great guy named Andrew Sullivan, who’s actually a super famous writer, and he wrote this great article about what it means to be a bear…”
Bear Week and Dick Dock were two of the only pieces of information he could give me about bears that he hadn’t just learned from the internet or from bear movies and webseries (of which there are many!) because of this phenomenon he describes of the rarity of discussion of bear culture among youth. However this community means a lot to him, and since now he’s in college he can participate in it less virtually and more in reality, which gives him access to bear folklore of a different sort. That said, this community has evolved and proliferated (like many other queer subcultures) through the internet so much that it’s difficult if not impossible to disentangle the “real” folklore from the internet folklore, especially when you’re young and tech-savvy. I think the internet has opened up so many avenues and subcultures for youth, especially queer youth, to explore, as it’s easier to access in private, even before coming out.