USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘homophones’
Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Protection

Why You Can’t Split a Pear

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening, and the informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people can’t split pears when they eat them.I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why it was considered bad luck.Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription). In this conversation, I am identified as K and she is identified as S.

 

Text:

S: Um, so, um, Chinese people have a lot of traditions that determine what you can and cannot do. So, in my family, my grandparents told us that two people can’t share one pear. In Chinese, the pear is pronounced “li,” but it has another meaning as well, which, when translated to English, means “separate.” So if a couple shares one pear, that means that they’ll eventually separate and can’t keep their marriage. If a mother and daughter split one pear, they have to separate– just, two people can never share one pear. But, for some reason, three or more people can share a pear; it’s just that two people can’t share a single pear or else they’re destined to separate.

 

K: Do you take this seriously?

 

S: I take this VERY seriously. When I cut a pear, only I eat it, only my daughter eats it, or only my daughter eats it. If my husband and daughter unknowingly eat slices of the same pear, then I will make sure to grab a slice for myself and eat it.

 

Thoughts:

Just like my informant, I also grew up with my grandparents telling me of this taboo that I can’t share a pear with someone. Frankly, I agree with it—as a Chinese person, I’m quite superstitious, and even when I think some of the traditions I follow are a bit ridiculous, it never hurts to abide by them just to be safe. The fear about sharing a pear makes sense— “sharing a pear” in Chinese is 分梨(fēn lí), which is a homophone of 分离(fēn lí), which means “to divorce” or “to separate.” This taboo seems to have elements of sympathetic magic, otherwise known as “like produces like.” “Sharing a pear” sounds just like “separate” in Chinese, so by sharing a pear with someone, it’s the equivalent action to separating with them.

In a cultural context, family in China is so important. We are raised to be extremely loyal to our elders; everything we have, from our knowledge to our place of privilege, is because of them. So why would you run the risk of being separated from them? This type of folklore is performed because we like to feel that we have control over processes like relationships. As humans, we have this feeling where we can’t control the bad things that occur over the people we love, so we attach this fear we have to rituals. These rituals, which include taboos and prohibitions are practiced to protect our social bonds.

Folk speech
Humor
Riddle

Korean Wordplay

  • Me – It’s weird (or “Teeth will rot”).
  • X – Then go to a dentist.

My informant claims he had created this joke himself.  Nonetheless when he used it on others, they were not surprised saying they have heard the joke before.  Perhaps he did originally think of the joke but others also thought of it simultaneously.  This joke is a play on words.  To say, “It’s weird,” in Korean uses the exact same wording as saying, “Teeth will rot.”  He thought of the joke when he misinterpreted his wife.  While she was stating that something was weird, he took it as her saying that she had a toothache.  Without paying close attention, he advised her to go to the dentist.  Upon hearing such an arbitrary piece of advice, his wife understood his misinterpretation and laughed at him.  Ever since then, which was about a decade ago, he tells a person to go to a dentist if he or she says something is weird.

“It’s weird” and “Teeth will rot” are not just similar; they sound and are spelled exactly the same way.  It is easy to see why someone may accidentally misinterpret the two meanings.  Misinterpretations can be hilarious, so it is not wonder this turned into a joke with several people thinking of it at the same time.

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