Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major. He is a junior at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. His family is from Mexico but he has lived in Southern California for nearly all of his life.
Context: I was talking to Fabian about Mexican stories and folklore. He shared with me the following folk belief common among the people in Michocoan.
Item: “There’s, um, little house elves, um, they are mischievous and moves things in your sleep. If you wake up in the middle of the night you’ll find milk outside the fridge, your shoes or socks out in random places. The people who do that are these mischievous little house elves. People, um try and stay up and try to see if they can catch them”.
Analysis: It is a way of explaining how things seemingly disappear or how random things move. The elf part is similar to the cobbler elves in the U.S., where they come out and do things but you never end up seeing them.
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“So when I was younger, my mom told me stories about why Chinese people decorate their houses in a certain way. Chinese people believe in ghosts, so some people will put mirrors above the doorway of their house because the mirror will reflect ghosts from coming in. Also, they would have a step in front of the doorway because ghosts walk in a very flat-footed manner, so it would prevent them from stepping into the house. The last thing was that some houses were built with two walls that were not perfectly parallel with the front door because that would mean that the ghost would have to walk and then turn and then walk into the doorway, so I guess the ghosts were confused and couldn’t get in that way.”
The informant’s mother is Taiwanese. According to what I’ve heard from Professor Thompson and my Taiwanese parents, almost everyone in Taiwan believes in ghosts, so dealing with ghosts is very important. Knowing that the dead roam your house is eerie and uncomfortable. This discomfort apparently transcends cultures as “haunted houses” are not desirable in the United States and many other cultures.
It seems like the Taiwanese see ghosts as very similar to us. Perhaps even a little less capable than we are as ghosts are repelled by simple mirrors and misaligned walls. There is an element of trickery in these house design traditions, which illustrates the different attitude held by the Taiwanese and a lot of the western world. In lore from United States, ghosts are often tricksters, causing mischief in the houses they haunt. In contrast, it seems as though there is a role reversal with Taiwanese lore. Ghosts are easily fooled and the living are the tricksters, giving us power over the dead. Perhaps the Taiwanese that believe strongly in ghosts find comfort in the thought of being able to thwart the dead.
It seems like a core concept or an inspiration for these traditions is “feng shui”, which is practice of placing of objects to redirect chi, which many Taoist and traditional Chinese call the life-force of the universe. Feng shui for houses is very popular among Asian Americans. I’ve heard of a friend of a friend that spent a considerable sum getting his room redesigned to optimize his chances of getting into an Ivy League. I have not heard of the practice of putting a mirror above the doorway or adding a step, but I have heard of a variation of having non-parallel walls. The idea is that by skewing the walls a bit, good luck enters through the front door, but doesn’t have a direct path to leave and ends up being reflected around the household. It is more than likely that the tradition my informant told me was an oicotype of the tradition I heard about.
Every year when my informant would celebrate New Year’s with her family, they would have a rule on the first day of the year. Nothing was allowed to leave the house. They couldn’t take out the trash, take an item to a friend, nothing. Her parents told her it was about not starting off the year with a loss; what has been accumulated in the last year should be preserved. If the rule is broken, it is said that the new year will go poorly and the family will have bad luck. When the family really needed to take something out of the house, though, sometimes they would allow it as long as something else was brought into the house first to balance it out.
My informant said she always kind of resented the rule because she didn’t see the point of it and it inconvenienced her. She followed it to please her family, though, and admitted sometimes it was fun because it was something the family all did. In that way, it was a bonding experience.
I’d never heard of the superstition before but I think it’s interesting how it gives special importance to the first day of the year, as if what happens on that day will affect the whole year. Also interesting is the idea that physically keeping items in the house will mean a preservation of less tangible accomplishments and gains made in the previous year.
The informant learned this piece of folklore from her mother about how to build a house in China.
“You shouldn’t buy a house with a front door and the back door directly across from each other, because um, they say all the money is going to come in and go straight out.”
I remember hearing something about this being a concept of Feng Shui. I do not know if this custom is directly related but they are certainly correlative.
The informant is talking about folk beliefs she learned from her mother about houses in China:
“You shouldn’t buy a house that’s at the end of a T-street, cuz then all the bad spirits will go into your house.”
This reminds me of a similar practice I have heard of, I believe in Feng Shui.
This could also come from the fact that houses at the end of T streets are more likely to be run into by automobiles. It could also just be due to the fact that a house in this position may just be more visible.