USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘health’
Folk Beliefs

Eucalyptus Oil

Main Piece:


The following was recorded from the Participant. They are marked as DD. I am marked as DG.


DD: Um my-the basic, the default remedy that my grandmother would go for is…a bottle of eucalyptus oil. And um whenever I was sick, no matter what the ailment was, she would, you know, tell me to rub it on myself. So if um if I had a headache, put a drop on like my temples or if I had a stuffy nose, put some right below my nose, if I had a stomachache rub some on my stomach, um something that-it’s crazy, my dad’s a dentist and he’s generally a skeptic of a lot of these you know, Vietnamese old wives’ tales, but this is one that he still swears by, and I think there is some method to the madness. I think um the eucalyptus oil is kinda like menthol it’s kinda warming it’s basically a natural icy hot, so I guess it does have a very you know the same like icy hot like warming cooling effect. So I think that’s why it like works for a variety of different effects.


DG: So you heard this from your grandmother?


DD: Um it’s something that like pretty much all of my family members know. Um my grandmother and my mother are the ones most likely I guess to take care of me when im sick, so um that’s where it came from I guess. And my dad, who’s a doctor because he’s a dentist, he still swears by it. Like it’s to the point where I even brought a bottle with me to college, like after a particularly grueling dance practice Ill rub it on my calves if they’re sore, or if I have a stuffy nose I’ll use some.




The conversation was recorded while sitting in a classroom during an assigned period to discuss folklore. However, the context for the homeopathic medicine to be used would be whenever the interviewee was feeling ill, whether it be a cold, or a sore muscle.




The student was born and raised in Northern California. She is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. Although she was born in Northern California, her entire family is from Vietnam, and she is one of the first generation to be born in the United States.




This homeopathic cure is one that seems to hold a lot of weight, as it has a similar feeling to Tiger Balm or Icy Hot, and also is one of the ingredients used in both ointments. It is used incredibly commonly. It reminds me of the use of aloe vera, where both are natural ingredients from plants, used as a soothing cure. I also found it interesting that the interviewees medically trained father believed in eucalyptus oil as a cure, despite neither of them being entirely sure of its proven qualities. I think this shows the power of hearing these cures from above generations, and also points towards it working, as they would not continue to believe in it if it did not work.


For another version of this riddle, see Eucalyptus Essential Oil: Uses, Studies, Benefits, Applications % Recipes (Wellness Research Series Book 6) by Ann Sullivan (2015).

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Eating fruit before bed

My friend Justine is Chinese-American, and her parents are doctors who practice holistic Eastern medicine. She shared the following folk belief with me:

“I guess like, it’s a tradition to always eat fruit before going to bed, like you have to eat fruit before you go to bed cause that’s like, it’s better for your body and like it’ll help your immune system too. But I wonder if that’s actually helping, or if it’s more like a- it’s just something that a lot of people do. And I find that that’s like, [a common belief] across all Asian, especially Eastern Asian people.”

Like many folk beliefs and practices in East Asian medicine, this one is not necessarily based in empirical scientific proof, but this does not mean there is no truth to it. Remedies and folk beliefs formerly dismissed as “superstitious” have often been tested and proven effective by the medical/scientific institution, and subsequently incorporated into Western medicine. This belief reflects a general practice in Eastern medicine of focusing on overall bodily wellness rather than quick cures for acute illness.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Salud, Dinero, Amor!

Folklore Piece

“So I went to a Spanish immersion elementary school; everything was taught to us in Spanish except for English. Um, and so, when anyone would sneeze, as kids usually do, there’s this  Spanish saying that correlates sneezing with health. I guess, you could say. So if you sneeze once, you say ‘Salud’, if you sneeze twice you say ‘Dinero’, if you sneeze three times, ‘Amor’. So you’re wishing someone health, money, and love after each time that they sneeze.”


Background information

“I don’t know why I did it. I guess I was sort of caught up in it. I mean, if you’re a little kid and someone’s screaming at you in Spanish, but it’s a happy scream, you’re like ‘Yeah! I’m a happy screamer too!’ But like everyone’s just happy yelling at each other. Which I think is a lot of the Spanish language. I learned that when I was really young, I mean I started Spanish when I was in kindergarten.”



“I don’t really say it anymore, but yeah, in general, people say it any time you sneeze, like saying ‘bless you’. But I guess it doesn’t really change in English. But I think it’s the same idea.”



I learned about this in my Spanish class in high school as well. Much like the term ‘Bless you!’ many of the native Spanish speakers I know weren’t sure why they say it. Generally, it’s to wish someone good luck: health, money, and love.

My family does something similar where we change our “bless you’s” each time. The first one, it’s just a mild “Bless you.” The second, a bit louder, “Bless you!”, and the third “Take a sick day!” Each and every time.

These sneezing rituals are not uncommon; as we talked about in class it used to be believed that when someone sneezed, a bit of their soul left their body, hence the phrase “Bless you!” This general sentiment of wishing someone good fortune when something bad has happened to them could be the reason for the extension to this Spanish saying that the informant is talking about.

Interesting, too, is the informants reaction to being asked about its origins. She had no idea, didn’t claim to have any idea, and removed herself from the culture entirely. Even though she attended a Spanish immersion school, spoke in Spanish for a large portion of her life, and learned and celebrated an immense amount of Spanish culture, she still speaks of it as if it were entirely removed from herself.

This deals a lot with our class discussions about cultural identity and heritage. I think the informant might feel that, because her heritage isn’t of Spanish origin, she doesn’t claim ownership over the Spanish culture. There’s no right or wrong answer to this dilemma, only that the informant acts in the way that she feels most comfortable, which evidently is not identifying herself with the language or culture.

Folk Beliefs

Don’t Stand Too Close to the Microwave

The informant is a 20-year-old college student. All of the informant’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from South Korea, but both of her parents have lived in the United States their whole lives.

While I was heating up some leftover pasta in the microwave, the informant commented on the fact that I was standing too close to the microwave while it was running. I told her that I’d never heard of this being a bad thing to do, and she replied that her mother has always told her to stand far away from it, or else she will develop a chronic illness and die young. A second woman who was in the room confirmed that her mother has always told her the same thing. The second woman also has a South Korean mother whose parents were immigrants born and raised in South Korea.

While I had never heard of this belief before, I do not doubt that there is some truth to the idea that prolonged or continuous exposure to microwaves can create a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses like cancer. However, the risk is most likely rather minimal, considering that microwaves are lined with material that prevents radiation from leaking and affecting anyone in close proximity. It is interesting that both of the individuals who held this belief are of South Korean descent, which may highlight a prominent difference between Eastern and Western views on health and medicine. I asked the informant whether her mother had a specific viewpoint on keeping cell phones in close proximity to one’s body, since they are known to emit radiation similarly to microwave ovens, and the informant replied that her mother did not. This seems, then, to be a belief isolated to microwave ovens as cooking appliances, and may also reflect a more traditional viewpoint on food handling and preparation.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Water Bottle Toxins

Click here for video.

“So whenever I bring a water bottle onto the car I almost always forget it there. My dad says that after you leave it in the sun and the bottle heats up, you’ll get cancerous toxins in the water and he would never let me drink it and would always force me to pour it out in front of him.”

The belief that water bottles leach toxins into the water that they hold is not a novel one.  I have heard this health belief from many other people in the United States. Generally, the usual concern is due to BPA (bisphenol-A), which is said to interfere with natural hormone regulation. My high school chemistry teacher believed strongly in this health belief and spent one of his lectures demonstrating how it is possible for BPA to leach from a plastic water bottle into the water it holds. As a precaution, he was often seen with a metal water bottle.

However, this is my first time hearing about possible toxins causing cancer. I think this plays into a cultural fear of carcinogens, especially within the food manufacturing sector, and combines it with our health beliefs about plastic water bottles.  None of my foreign relatives share this health belief, which leads to me to believe that it is mostly a belief shared by those in the US or specifically health and environmentally-conscious California. This health belief most likely stems from the fear of “chemicals” that seems to run rampant in our society. It is a fear of the unknown. We don’t know how water bottles are made and how the substances used in manufacturing them interact with our day-to-day usages, so we tend to assume the worst.

Furthermore, water is a life-giving substance to humans and the idea of vessels used to hold it “betraying” us and leaching something poisonous into it has a certain appeal to it. This health belief has been largely debunked in scientific literature: while plastic water bottles do leach BPA, the amount leached is so negligible that one would be more likely to die of water poisoning before the BPA levels would reach any significant level.

Schmid, P., Kohler, M., Meierhofer, R., Luzi, S., Wegelin, M. “Does the reuse of PET bottles during solar water disinfection pose a health risk due to the migration of plasticisers and other chemicals into the water?” Water Research. 4 Sep. 2008, Volume 42, Issue 20: 5054-5060.

ACC. “The Safety of Polythylene Teraphthalate (PET).” PlasticsInfo.Org. American Chemistry Council, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. <>

Folk Beliefs

How Taoism Saved my Grandfather

So my dad’s grandfather, my great-grandfather, had three wives and they all lived in the same house – yeah, it was fucking messy. And then my grandfather, my dad’s father, was the favorite son, or so he says. And so they had this huge family – you know, cause it was three people’s families, basically, of like twenty kids. And they had like nannies, cause my dad’s side of the family made a lot of money in the timber industry. And so one day my grandfather got super super ill. It was gastrointestinal. And they didn’t know what to do with it. They tried herbal medicine they tried purging and bleeding. And so my grandfather’s mother, as a last resort went to see a Taoist practitioner. And she was like, “what should I do? My son is so so sick. And he’s about to be married off. Like we want to see him get married and start his own family.” So this Taoist drew a picture of this pentagram and then he told my great- grandmother, take this to this specific field on this day in the evening and burn it under the night sky. So she went out and did that and then apparently magically he was better after that. Cured him of his illness.

This is a family story that was passed down in my informant’s family. It attests to the luck and perseverance of a large family as well as to the power of magic. Life works in mysterious ways, so my informant’s grandfather “magically” being cured reveals his fortune. Also, his healing may be related to him being the favorite son within the context of Chinese culture.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Earwick, Nosepick, Facelick

Earwick, Nosepick, Facelick

It’s a game the source’s mother, used to play with her, her brother and her sister. The rules of the game are as follows: “two people race to see who can complete three tasks first. They have to stick their finger in the other person’s ear and nose, and then lick their face. The game can be started by either person at any time.”

When the source and her siblings were kids, they thought it was just a game, but when they were older, their mother explained that it wasn’t really a game at all. It turns out she was testing for cystic fibrosis. She was really only trying to lick their faces, and if it tasted salty it would mean they had cystic fibrosis. Healthy kids are supposed to taste like flour.

The source’s mother invented the game so her kids wouldn’t run away every time she tried to test them. She added the steps of picking the nose and ear because it made the source and her siblings laugh.


I believe that while the game started as a way to practice a folk medicinal test, the reason why it caught on in the family, and why they still occasionally play it now is because it is a way for the family to playfully get close to each other. All of the actions performed in the game are fairly intimate gestures, and at the heart it’s a way for the family to stay close.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Carrots Improve Your Vision

My informant, a fellow dorm-mate of mine at USC, was eating whole raw carrots one night as I was walking past his room. I turned in, asking him why he would be eating such a snack. He said, half-jokingly, haven’t you heard?

“Carrots improve your vision”

Though this wasn’t the real reason that he was eating the carrot, I asked him more about the origins where he had heard such a thing. “I’m not sure”, he said “I just always heard that growing up as a kid. My dad used to say it to me when I didn’t want to eat my vegetables”. Others joined in the conversation as well, some saying it was fact, others stating it was myth.

After looking up this debate online, we found that it was once reported in the London Sunday telegraph that this rumor is a myth, and that it dates back all the way to WWII when Britan’s air ministry created the rumor that a steady diet of carrots would help their pilots see Nazi bombers that were attacking at night. In reality, the article read, it was to cover up their new technology of interception radar so the Nazi’s wouldn’t find out about it. Apparently it was so convincing that the English populous took to eating carrots to improve their vision (Sunday Telegraph). From then on, it appears the rumor has spread and hasn’t been overwhelmingly disproved to the many that still believe it. Further, I personally believe that much of its survival has been a tactic by parents to get their children to eat more vegetables and carrots. In addition, I believe the placebo effect may come into play in this situation, making individuals subconsciously convince themselves that their eyesight is improving after eating carrots.


London. Sunday Telegraph. “Don’t Expect to See Like a Hawk After Eating Your Carrots with Today’s Roast”. 9 March 2003. (p. 41).

Folk medicine

Swedish Sauna

The informant is 77 years old. She was born in Minnesota and is of Swedish and Finnish decent.

Over Easter Brunch, the informant provided me with this unique Swedish sauna tradition.

“One time, when I was little, I went with my mother to Minneapolis where there was a Polish community to go to the sauna. It was the one and only time I went. There were too many naked women running around for me to want to go back. Anyways, what you did in the sauna was essentially take a steam bath. After you got all sweaty and steamy, in the old country, you would run out and jump in a snow bank. In Minneapolis, we just poured ice water over ourselves. In the old country, after this you would hit yourself with pine branches, but we didn’t do that here. The point was to open up your pores, and invigorate yourself—to stay healthy.”

Like the informant said, this ritual seems to be about purification and rejuvenation. I would guess that the steam is meant to cleanse the body. Following a steam bath with cold water would also cause pores to snap shut, blocking out any future dirt. I’m not sure what function the pine needles would have served but perhaps it also had something to do with invigorating the flesh.


Folk medicine

Thai remedy

“Drinking warm water every day is healthy.”

The informant heard this from her elementary school friend’s mother from Thailand.  She does not believe in this remedy and does not understand it.

Perhaps the Thai culture wants people to stay hydrated by drinking water since Thailand is such a warm place.  However, in Holland it is often cold so drinking cold water may not be as appealing, so perhaps the mother changed the remedy to warm water to adjust to her new climate.  Thai people are also known for their tea so perhaps drinks that remind them of tea, like warm water, express their culture so the drink is encouraged.