JN is a 19 year old neuroscience major. She’s from Chicago originally, but she moved to California for college. In the following conversation, we talked about a small ritual that is very special to her and the importance of maintaining friendships:
“So this is a superstition that I have been practicing pretty religiously, I guess.
So I have this weird superstition that if you’re walking with a friend and you come across a pole in the way- and doesn’t matter if you’re holding hands- you are not allowed to go on either side of the pole. So for example, one person can’t go to the right side of the pole and one person can’t go to the left of the pole. Basically, you can’t let yourself get separated from the other person, or else that means that your friendship will grow apart. If that does happen, then the only way you can keep from damaging your friendship is to shake hands after. A lot of my friends don’t realize that, and I kind of freak out and make them shake hands with me! They don’t understand why I do it, but it’s just because I don’t want our relationship to grow apart and I want to stay friends with them.”
Who did you learn this from?
“I can’t remember. I think I learned it from a friend and thought it was really good, that it was something that I should definitely be doing. So I started immediately. I can’t even remember who taught me but it’s something I’ve done for sure since the start of college. I don’t think I learned it before that.”
Why is this ritual so important to you? What does it mean to you?
It is important to me because, even though it seems stupid sometimes, I don’t want to grow apart from my friends so I’d rather be safe than sorry!
My thoughts: In this folk belief, there is a connection drawn between physical distancing and emotional distancing. The splitting around the pole and the handshake after is reminiscent of the concept of “homeopathic magic” proposed by James George Frazer- that a physical action that resembles another will end up causing it. It’s also noted by the informant that sometimes other people don’t accept/are confused by her belief – perhaps this shows that “superstition” now has a negative connotation and less people are willing to admit that they believe in them.
“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.
Information about the Informant
My informant currently lives near USC, near enough that he likes to ride his bicycle around the campus to relax and swim in the John C. Argue Swim Stadium. He grew up in downtown Los Angeles. He spent his childhood and adolescence in the impoverished parts of the city. Even now, though according to him, he has a “nice place” now with neighbors that don’t bother him if he doesn’t bother them, he still sees people he knows to be either gang members or pimps or prostitutes, and he avoids them as he doesn’t want to get caught up in their ways of life. In this account, he tells me about how he avoided falling into a bad way of life in the first place.
“You know, when I was coming up, I have a lot of friends down, you know, and most of them, they dead or in jail, right? Or sprung out on crack somewhere. All the drugs. So, um, when I was like, uh, I don’t know. I’d say about, I’d say about thirteen, fourteen years old. Mom used to say this. She used to say, “Yo, you think you got friends out there, but you really don’t have friends,” you know. “You got ‘ssociates,” that’s what she said. “A friend is somebody that’s gonna be with you, you know what I’m saying? Through thick or thin, you know; that’s a real friend. But these people you meet, they out here, they’re trying to, you know, they drinking with you, they doing wrong with you, wanting you to do wrong, those is not your friend.”
So, you know, I listen to Mom, and then again, there goes these old, these old winos used to be out there on the corner, drinking their little wine, you know, not, not, not like bum winos, but they just be out there on the corner drinking wine and just getting together, you know. So one time, they, they would stopped us, you know, they say, “Man, you, whatcha’ll going? Where y’all going? Whatcha’ll doing?” “Well, we’re just going around, just, you know, just chilling, just, just going around, you know.” “Y’all gonna get in some trouble. Now, let me tell y’all,” and you know what, he explain to us just like what my mom said, you know, same way, you know. And it, it, it got to me, you know. Now, a lot of kids nowadays, they don’t believe what their mother tell them, you know what I’m saying? They, they, they go out there and do things and—but I took notice. I said, “Now, why would this guy just sit there and tell me something that my, my mom just told me, you know. So what she’s saying must be true. She don’t even know this guy. Right?” So, right then, I cut with those friends a loose. I slowed down with them. And I basically, ‘cause you know, ‘cause we was done, we headed for the wrong way, doing things out there, the wrong thing. And so these guy—you know, I cut them loose, and as I did that—I, I didn’t just like, bam, going out, I won’t see y’all no more. But I, you know, when they wanted me to do things, oh, I got something, you know, I’d tell them that. You know, I’m doing something else.”
I would not have entered this as a piece of folklore if not for the fact that I too have heard people say this. The one specific instance from my life that I can remember came from my mother. Searching for this possible proverb on Google turns up an article called “Friends vs. Associates: How Do You Know Who’s Who?” It may be coincidental, but the article is featured on a site called Single Black Male, and my informant himself is African American, as was, presumably, his mother. I could also speculate that my own mother may have heard this from the African American community in Baltimore where she lived while she was in America. No matter where it came from, it is a useful piece of advice. While not always phrased the same way, therefore not making it a true proverb, it does always feature the same two key words, that is, “friends” and “associates.” These two words are the most important as they are the types of people being compared in the advice, considering whether the person in question is truly a friend or merely an associate who may not want the best for you as a friend would. In this way, the advice resembles a metaphor or a simile, although it is never stated in either form, comparing and contrasting two concepts in order to define the qualities of both. In this case, of course, the important thing is how the concepts differ and not how they are alike.
Growing up in the neighborhood that he did, my informant told me many stories about the terrible tragedies and crimes he’s seen in the darker parts of Los Angeles. Many of them involve gang-related activities, and he constantly expressed his relief that he never truly got involved in any of that and his determination to never be dragged into it through associating with the wrong people. If indeed this is a piece of advice that specifically circulates throughout African American communities, then my informant’s case is certainly indicative of why this is. The unfortunate reality is that impoverished African American communities still suffer a disproportionately higher rate of crime, and specifically gang-related crime, and the poverty in those communities plus the temptation of the benefits one gets from being a part of a gang does drive many young kids growing up in those neighborhoods to becoming a part of the lifestyle that my informant is glad he avoided. This piece of advice then would be helpful in telling those kids to re-evaluate the peers they associate with and determine whether or not those peers have their best interests at heart.
Citation for the article on Single Black Male:
Streetz. “Friends vs. Associates: How Do You Know Who’s Who?” Single Black Male. Web. 1 May. 2014. <http://www.singleblackmale.org/2011/12/21/friends-vs-associates-how-do-you-whos-who/>.
The informant is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. She is twenty years old. She is also the Jr. Helenes chair for the USC Helenes, which means she works closely with the girls at 32nd Street School and other Helenes to create a mentoring system.
The informant let me interview her about a friendship bracelet making activity that took place between the Jr. Helenes and the USC Helenes:
“Some Helenes and Jr. Helenes were at our regular meeting place, at 32nd Street School. I taught them how to make the bracelets. It’s fun to teach other people to make the bracelets and it’s just a good way to bond. I don’t know why friendship bracelets are popular but they’re symbolic and meaningful. And simply making the bracelet together is a good bonding experience…For me, it’s my way of showing someone that they’re important to me—but it’s not like everyone who’s important to me has a bracelet; it just depends who I have that tradition with. I guess I also like the idea that other people can see them and ask who it’s from. With the Jr. Helenes, it’s nice to have a sort of bonding exercise so we can become really close. That way we’re more than mentors—we’re friends. I got started with friendship bracelets when I went on a month long trip to Hawaii during high school. We were making so many new friends, it was a good way to celebrate that, I guess. I ended the trip with like 7 bracelets. I also like giving them to people because they know I care about them. I like to let them choose the colors and have them hold on to the end while I make it so that it’s a process we’re doing together, and the finished product is something that will make them think of our friendship whenever they see it. I also am kind of superstitious, and I like to have them make a wish on the bracelet, because supposedly the wish comes true when the bracelet falls off.”
I agree with most of what the informant says about friendship bracelets. They are definitely symbolic of a friendship and a way to celebrate that relationship. She also made a good point about the process of making the bracelet serving as a time of bonding. What really struck me about my informant’s experience with friendship bracelets was the superstition tied to them. This was new to me, but it really adds another element to the bracelets, making them even more of a shared experience between two people.
Friendship bracelets can be found in the movie Napoleon Dynamite (2004). In this movie, one character goes door to door selling the bracelets and later, Napoleon and his friend Pedro hand them out when Pedro is running for class president. Instead of being made from thread, these bracelets are made from plastic.
Napoleon Dynamite. Dir. Jared Hess. Perf. Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, and Jon Gries. Fox Searchlight, 2004. Film.
「交換」(koukann) in Japanese means exchange, and 「日記」(nikki) means journal. Together they mean exchange journal, although, in fact, it is more of a sharing journal than anything else. In Japan, girls in the later years of elementary and early years of middle school often participate in a game of sorts, where a group of about three or four pass around a journal amongst themselves. One girl would have it in the morning, write something about her day, and give it to the next girl during lunch, who would pass it to the next girl after-school, and so on.
My informant has spent her entire life in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan. Okinawa, among other things, is known for its stationary residents; my informant barely knows anyone that has moved houses at all in their entire lives. Because of this characteristic, she said, she spent her school years, from elementary to high school, with approximately the same group of people.「グループきつくて、友達とかも大変だったよ」are her exact words, which translates roughly to, most times, friendships were (for good or bad) claustrophobic and exclusive. In this environment, which perhaps mirrors the environment of most Japanese schools in an intensified form, my informant had 交換日記 with two of her best friends.
The 交換日記 was used mainly to tell secrets they were too afraid to say out loud, or to refer to inside jokes and stories that cemented them closer together as a group. For instance, said my informant, one of her best friends only ever openly gushed about the boy that she liked in the 交換日記, never breathing a word about it out loud. That was an unspoken rule about the 交換日記, in fact–the journal and real life existed, essentially, in two separate realms, and by some unwritten law they all knew that they couldn’t actually talk about anything that was mentioned in the journal, unless the person who wrote it brought it up herself. There were a lot of unspoken rules like that, my informant said, to make them feel like they were participating in something secret, a covert organization of some sort, although every girl around them was doing the same thing.
The style and content of the 交換日記 were highly ritualized, she said. The journal was always the same standard, seventy-page school-use notebook, the one that basically every Japanese student used, and still uses. The cover was always decorated to the utmost; in their case, they had glued sequins and glitter all over the front, and an applique of a butterfly, making it shiny and girly and unrecognizable (the butterfly, she said, was because they had inside joke about it which she has since forgotten). On the inside of the cover they had written down the rules for the 交換日記, as all exchange journal groups did. Their rules dictated that each girl had to at least draw one picture of something detailing their day in their journal entry, no girl could withhold information about a crush or a potential crush, and each entry had to be at least a page long. The most important rule consisted of having to hide the actual physical exchange of the journal from all others. Other groups made other rules, but these were theirs, and it defined their 交換日記. My informant went through six notebooks with the same group of friends before they decided to stop. She said, however, that she knew girls who would get in fights with their friends because they were participating in more than one 交換日記 with different groups of friends. The one thing about the 交換日記, she said, was that it exhibited all the drama and self-consciousness of being a pre-teen/teenage girl in Japanese society.
The 交換日記 is indeed largely reflective of the school life of girls in their elementary and middle school years. My informant grew up with the same group of people, and for the most part, the same group of close friends, as do, it seems, most Japanese children still. The 交換日記 illustrates the girls’ desire to define themselves away from the rest of the school population, to create a distinct, close-knit little society governed by its own rules. It also indicates precisely how claustrophobic the school environment can be; with these close-knit groups and their secret journal societies, how is a newcomer supposed to integrate into the school? My informer said, in fact, that it must have been very difficult to be any kind of an outsider. Get on the wrong side of your friends, and you were out–and being out meant you had to find a way into another group, which was always extremely difficult, especially with girls, my informant said, who were very territorial about these kinds of things. This seems to make sense in a homogeneous society like Japan’s, where students, eager to distinguish themselves from the crowd, create friend groups as foundations for their identity, relying on these friendships to set them apart because, in all other aspects, everyone is usually relatively similar. There were prestigious 交換日記 groups that everyone wanted to be part of, for instance. And then there were ones like the my informants’, created merely for fun and for advancement of their friendships, but still possessing an intense, intimidating undercurrent of exclusivity.