The informant is a graduating senior at the University of Southern California, studying Creative Writing and Social Sciences with an emphasis in Psychology. She was born in Egypt and originally held Egyptian citizenship, but moved to the United States when she was quite young and is now an American citizen.
This piece is an Egyptian proverb about the importance of respecting your mother. The informant recounts her and a friend’s experience with Yo Mama jokes (jokes that insult another person’s mother: ex. Yo Mama’s so fat she rolled over twice and ended up in Africa) and how that reminded her of an Egyptian proverb.
“In Egypt you also cannot make Yo Mama jokes. You will get beaten up. A friend who went there, who grew up here but he was Egyptian, and he went there one summer and he made Yo Mama jokes cause we were in middle school and that’s what we did; everyone’s an asshole in middle school. And um, I think he got punched in the face by his cousin for making that kind of joke.
No it’s just like, the biggest insult you can say to somebody is to insult their mother. It’s like, especially to guys cause it’s like their pride and joy, like “You always treat your mother with the deepest and fondest respect.” So, that was a big proverb. And culture shock when I came here in middle school and everyone was in the Yo Mama phase and I was like, “That is appalling.” But like, I don’t know. Like Yo Mama So Fat jokes, it was just very strange to me.”
While the proverb itself is fairly standard, demonstrated the cultural value of the mother figure in Egyptian culture, it was fascinating to see the conflict that arose when members from both cultures, such as the informant and her friend, participating in or witnessed jokes that directly opposed what they had learned from that proverb.
I think I’ll eat a tadpole,
maybe even a bug.
I’ve got some worms down in the garden
that I recently dug.
You said you didn’t love me,
you told me it was true,
so darling this is really, really,
what I’m gonna do.
I think I’ll eat a tadpole,
then I’ll lay down and die
and you’ll be sorry,
oh so sorry,
that you told me goodbye.
So if you really love me,
just tell me with a hug
before I eat a tadpole or a bug.
I really mean it,
before I eat a tadpole or a bug.
The informant was my father, a 49-year-old engineer who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but who grew up in the area surrounding Austin, Texas. The song is one that his mother used to sing to him and his siblings when they were little. The informant says his mother had a beautiful singing voice and would either sing hymns or songs like this before the children would go to bed because she was always in charge of this activity. He says it is interesting to him because “it must have come from some popular pop music of some age” and he “almost suspect[s] that it’s a fragment, but it was passed down to us as a whole,” “almost a vignette.” He also heard it from his older sister as she was learning to sing it for her children. He performs it because it reminds him of his mother, but also because “it’s just, it’s the cutest concept of a song . . . you know, it’s a child’s concept of love combined with a child’s concept of mortality. Uh, you know, you left me, I’m gonna basically hold my breath and die if you don’t come back. You know, and eating a tadpole is going to kill you, you know, it’s just all, I just love the construction and the cuteness of it.” He sees it as a way of teaching children that breaking somebody’s heart is a big deal. He also admits that the whole thing is “a little twisted.”
This song was collected while I was home for Spring Break and performed in my living room. It was interesting to me because my father also used to sing it to me and my sister when we were children. It’s a song with a nice tune that seems harmless, but it has lyrics that are actually pretty dark. I remember it as being sad when I was much younger, but looking at it now it strikes me that the subject of the song is suicide, even if the narrator is not going to die from eating a tadpole. I think the song is mainly meant to be cute and entertaining, but I also agree somewhat with the informant’s assessment that the song is about teaching children the effect their actions and words can have on another person.
A version of this song was performed and released (“I Think I’ll Eat a Tadpole”) by Sue Thompson in 1966. Thompson’s version has the above version as its chorus and additional verses. While the chorus is recognizable as the informant’s version, many of the words have been changed and the overall tone of the song is different. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHnlZfJAHT0
Thompson, Sue. "I Think I'll Eat a Tadpole." The Country Side of Sue Thompson. Ridgeway Music, 1966. CD.
Information about my Informant
My informant grew up in Hacienda Heights where he went to high school, and received his bachelor’s degree from USC. He is a game designer and is currently working for a social mobile gaming company based in Westwood.
“‘Stepping on your mother’s back,’ we heard that a lot in the playground. Um.”
Collector: “I haven’t heard that one; what is it?”
“Stepping on a–uh, you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. So you don’t wanna do that.”
Collector: “So like just…”
“Avoid the cracks in the ground.”
This sounds like a classic superstition spread on the playground. According to my research, the origins of this rhyme/proverb had a different variation in the second half. Instead of “break your mother’s back,” it’s rumored that the original rhyme was “your mother will turn black,” which indicated that stepping on a crack would result in your having a black child (which would taint your whole family line with “black blood”). My informant did not know anything about these origins or even why stepping on a crack would break his mother’s back. In my opinion, there is no real fear being played upon here, but it’s more of a children’s game, where the desire to not want to break one’s mother’s back leads to the child hopping around on the sidewalk, enthusiastically trying to avoid stepping on any crack in the pavement.
My informant (A) is currently an AV technician. He grew up in Quezon City in the Philippines for the first 13 years of his life before moving with his family to San Francisco, California for a year and then moving down to southern California, where he has stayed every since. He first heard the story about how pineapples came to be from his mother when he was around six years old. The story is also used in reading books for children when they are learning to read in the Philippines. His mom and aunt told him this story to frighten him into behaving when he was a child, and he has since told the story to his younger sisters and a few other people when casually talking. The story is paraphrased below:
“There was a mom and daughter in the Philippines long ago. The daughter’s name was Piña. Piña constantly lost things and, instead of even trying to look for the things by herself, she would just ask her mom to find them. The mother was really busy because she had to work in the fields all day, but the mom still helped her daughter find the things she kept losing. One day the mom could not find her hat, which she needed when she was working in the fields to keep the sun out of her eyes. The mom asked Piña to help her find the hat because she had to hurry or she would be late to the fields. Piña replied ‘Nanay [the word for mom], I don’t where the hat is. I’m busy.’ The mom told Piña that she really needed help, so Piña finally got up and walked around pretending to look for the hat. She didn’t actually look for the hat and then told her mom that she couldn’t find it. The mom got really frustrated and then she found the hat, which wasn’t that hard to find and Piña should have seen it when she was looking. The mom got really mad and said ‘Piña, I hope you grow 1000 eyes so that you can find things.” Then the mom went to the fields and spent all day working in the fields. When she got back to the house, she asked Piña to make dinner, but Piña wasn’t there. The mom looked and looked but she couldn’t find her. Days and weeks and months go by, and still the mom can’t find Piña and gets very worried. After a while, the mom starts seeing weird plants that look like they have 1000 eyes. The mom realized that Piña had turned into these plants. These little plants are pineapples, and that’s how pineapples came to the Philippines.” (Note that Piña is the word for pineapple).
This tale seems to serve two purposes. One is that it explains how the pineapple came to the Philippines, which only happened in the 19th century, which is probably why this story is necessary to explain why they are a relatively recent addition to the fruits normally found in the Philippines. The other is a more practical purpose, which is a way for parents to scare their kids into doing stuff from themselves or risk turning into a pineapple. This is probably why it is continually told to children. My informant spelled out the name Piña for me, and he used the Spanish spelling instead of the Filipino one (pinya), even though he used the Filipino word for mom (nanay). This is also interesting because the Spanish introduced the pineapple to the Philippines.
This story touches on the tension between the older and younger generations, and the how physically hard the lives of women are.
Context: The informant is a grandmother of 8 whose parents were originally from Afghanistan but settled in Pakistan. She also lived in Saudi Arabia for many years and has a working knowledge of Farsi, Arabic, and Punjabi along with her native Urdu. This story is a popular one among her grandchildren; here it is transcribed in English, though it was originally told in Urdu.
“Once in a house near the jungle there lived a goat with her three kids. Their names were Ungus, Bungus, and Tipopi. One day, the mom goat had to go out, maybe to get groceries, but she told her children: lock the doors and don’t let anyone in except me. I will say, Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, open the door! And only when I say that do you let me in. So the kids said, ok Mama, and she walked out and locked the door and she went.
Now in the jungle next to the house there lived a big scary wolf: he had long hair and big eyes and hungry and he saw the mom goat leave, and he heard what she told her babies, and he said to himself, I think I’m going to go eat those delicious goats.
So he went up to the house and he knocked on the door and he said, Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, open the door! And Ungus and Bungus ran to open the door, but Tipopi said to them, wait! This is not out mom! Our mom’s voice is light and sweet, and this voice is heavy and ugly. So Tipopi said to the wolf, You’re not our mother! You’re the wolf that lives in the jungle! Go away and don’t come back!
And the wolf was very mad but he had to leave.
And now when the mother goat came back and she opened the door and her babies rushed to tell her what happened, and she was so relieved that they were all safe.
Then the next day, she had to go out again, but was so worried and scared that she said, now when i come home, I will say to you, Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, open the door! And you ask to see my hand, and i will show you my hand. And only then do you open the door. And her kids said, Ok, Mama. So she went out the door and locked it and went.
Now the wolf had seen the mother go out again, and he wanted to try again to eat the kids; but this time he ate a whole spoonful of honey before he went, to make his voice light and sweet, and went up to the door and said, Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, open the door! And the kids heard a light, sweet voice so they rushed to the door and asked, Mama, show us your hand! And the wolf showed his paw, and it was big and black and hairy and ugly, and Tipopi said, This is not our mother! Our mother’s hand is small and white and pretty. This hand is big and hairy and black! And he said to the wolf, You are not out mother! You are the wolf that lives in the jungle! Go away and don’t come back!
So what could the wolf do? He left.
And again the mother goat came home and the kids rushed to tell her what happened, and again she was so happy they were all safe.
And when she had to go out again the next day, she was very worried and scared so she said, this time when i come home, i will say, Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, open the door! And you will ask me to see my hand, and I will show you my hand. Then you ask me to show you my foot, and I will show you my foot. And only then will you open the door. And the kids said, Ok Mama. So she went out and locked the door and she left.
And the wolf was watching and he saw her leave, this time before he went to their house, he ate a whole spoonful of honey to make his voice sweet and light, and he covered his whole paw in flour to make it look pretty and white, and he went up to the door and said Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, open the door! And the kids rushed up to the door and asked, Mama, show us your hand! And this time, the wolf showed them only one finger, and his one finger was as big as the Mama goat’s whole hand! And the kids said, Mama, show us your foot! And the wolf showed them his foot, and it was huge, and black, and it had long claws–this long claws! [holding hands about a foot apart] And Tipopi said, this is not out mother! Our mother wears pretty shoes and her feet are small and white. This foot is big and black and hairy. This is the wolf that lives in jungle! Go away, Wolf! Don’t come back!
And the wolf was so angry, and he was so hungry, but what could he do? So he left.
And when the Mama goat got home, her kids rushed to tell her what happened.
And the next day she had to leave again, and she said, now when i come back today, and i say Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, open the door! Just do what you did yesterday, and you will be safe.
And the wolf was waiting for her to leave again, and this time he ate a whole spoonful of honey to make his voice sweet and light, and he covered his whole paw in flour to make it look pretty and white, and he covered his feet in flour too, and we put tiny beautiful shoes on his big toes–just one big toe fit into the whole shoe, can you imagine that?
And the wolf went up to the door and said Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, open the door! And the kids rushed up to the door and asked, Mama, show us your hand! And the wolf showed them only one white finger, and the kids said, Mama, show us your foot! And the wolf showed them his one toe covered in flour in the pretty shoe, and the kids rushed to open the door…
And there he was…standing in the doorway…his big big eyes…and his long long hair…and his drool dripping off his teeth…it was the wolf! And the kids ran screaming into the house, and the wolf came chasing after them, and he swallowed up Ungus and Bungus in one gulp. But Tipopi hid inside the milk jug, and wolf looked everywhere, but he couldn’t find him. So he left.
And when the Mom goat came home, she saw the open door…and she went in and she saw the ripped curtains, and the broken tables and chairs…and she started calling, Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, where are you? Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, come out! Ungus, Bungus, Tipopi, your mom is home!
And Tipopi heard her and he peeked out of the milk jug and there was his Mom, and he leapt out and hugged his mom and started crying and he said, Mama the wolf came and ate my brother and sister! And the Mom goat was very sad and very scared and angry, but she said, Tipopi, go get my sewing kit. And Tipopi ran and found his mother’s sewing kit and the Mom said, You stay here, and I will go find the wolf.
And she went out into the jungle and she walked and walked, and then she came to a river, and it was warm and sunny, and there was the wolf, lying against a tree asleep. The mom goat crept up to the wolf and began to cut his belly open, and when she opened it, there was Ungus, and there was Bungus, and they were scared and they started crying, but the Mom goat went, Shh! Shh! [puts finger to her lips and makes a "come on" gesture with one hand] and she got them out of his belly. And then she went down to the river and found two huge stones, one for Ungus and one for Bungus, and she carried them all the way up to the wolf, and she put the stones in his belly, and then she sewed it up, and it was so fine you couldn’t even tell it was there. And then she took her kids home, and then they were safe and together at last.
And when the wolf woke up he felt so thirsty, so went down to the river to drink some water, and he was so heavy the he just tipped [tilts her whole body to the side] over and he fell into the river and drowned.”
Analysis: This story can be examined through multiple facets. It’s a simple fairy-tale, along the lines of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf here could be symbolic of nature/the wild, and how it is dangerous to people living in villages where the border between the wild and the domestic is very thin. It is notable that it is not just any herbivore that is attacked in this story, but goats, domestic animals which are an important source of sustenance and incomes in some of the more rural areas, as they provide milk, meat, and hides. So in that respect the story is a simple study of the dichotomy of village/jungle and civilization/wild, and how it is dangerous, but nevertheless not uncommon, for the two to meet or mix.
It is also notable that, while in the Western version of Little Red Riding Hood it is a little girl who is sent by herself into the wild and disobeys her mother and therefore gets into trouble; in this version it is three siblings of mixed genders who are attacked in their own home while trying to obey their mother. This would seem to squarely place villainhood on the wolf’s shoulders, and none of the blame on the innocent(s); while Little Red Riding Hood is often blamed for what happens to her by pointing out that she shouldn’t have disobeyed her mother. As such the message in Little Red Riding Hood seems to be, listen to your parents and if you don’t it’s your fault if something bad happens to you. Whereas the moral in this story seems to be that bad things happen even when you’re good and smart and listen to your parents, and it’s nobody’s fault but the bad people who hurt others.
It’s also interesting that, in some versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the girl and her grandmother are eventually rescued by a father figure, the woodcutter; but in this story, the kids are rescued by their very brave and clever mother. I think this reflects the fact that in the informant’s family and culture, the bond between mothers and their children are usually very strong, whereas the relationship between father and children depends on each individual family: some fathers are strict and distant, others indulgent and doting. The informant’s own father, she reports, was strict but loving, but her relationship with her mother, and especially the relationships between her younger sisters and her mother, were very very close. Contrast this with the heroicizing of the father figure in Western culture, where any time the child is in trouble, it is the big strong dad that comes to the rescue, and perhaps the mother figure comforts the children afterward (for instance, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, the character of Wolverine).
And finally, the reasons it appeals to so many kids of different generations are pretty obvious: especially when there is a good storyteller, who knows her audience and how to get the reactions from them. The description of the wolf is something the informant says she usually embellishes to get the kids really frightened, and then making gestures to go along with the story (for instance, imitating the mother goat’s small, pretty white hand) is always part of the act of storytelling too.The fact that there is a happy ending for the kids (with whom the children usually identify) and that the wolf gets what he deserves also makes it a popular story in the informant’s repertoire.
1. The first time the son-in-law comes to his mother-in-law’s house, the women in her family fill his mouth with sweets, and he can’t refuse.
2. The Son-in-law will also have to pick out his new wife from amongst all the women in her family (and servants). They will all cover their faces with their veils and group together. The new husband must recognize his bride by her hands and figure; if he picks her out, he gets to spend the night at her side. Otherwise, he has to sleep outside under the stars.
Just like for the bride, the marriage period is a liminal period of transition that needs to be eased. Teh groom is now responsible for his wife and is joining a new family.Unlike the bride’s experience though, the groom is not being tested like the bride for his courage, strength, intelligence, etc. This is probably a carry over form the dowry tradition, back in old days (and to this day in villages and conservative communities) the bride’s family would pay the groom’s family to marry their daughter. Thus, the groom’s family would put her to the test to make sure she was “worth the money” so to speak. Now, the dowry system is uncommon, but the practice of testing the new wife remains.
Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”
On the wedding day, before the wedding, the bride’s mother will comb the bride’s hair three times… I think the first time is so that the couple will love each other forever. Then second is so the bride can have one child per year… And third is that the bride and groom will grow old together.
The informant learned about this through her aunt and observations of the weddings she attended in Hong Kong. According to the informant this is a common Chinese wedding ritual. She said it is usually a time shared privately by mother and daughter only.
I think this tradition clearly reflects how wedding is more than about the bride and the groom coming together but also their relative and other people in their lives. In this case it is the ties between the mother and the daughter. This is similar to Western traditions where the mother would help the bride get ready for the ceremony in a separate room hidden from the crowd.
The bride’s mother is passing down the knowledge and wisdom. The first blessing is so that the bride and groom will have the unconditional love as her family. The second reflects how the older generation wants the next generation to keep continuing the bloodline through children. It also reflects how marriage is about celebrating reproduction through different metaphors. The third is for the bride and groom to grow old with grey hair together. I think the combing of the hair reflects this idea of beauty since women tends to grow their hair longer than men. Hair color also reflects a person’s age through color. This tradition has the element of the number three which occurs in many cultures through different rituals.
Wedding ritual is a way to always strengthen the ties between the older and younger generation, and younger generation to the next generation. This tradition then keep the mother involve before losing her daughter to the other family. The combing of the hair is also an act a mother would perform when the daughter was younger; this is a way of bringing closure before they say their goodbyes.
Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals
in the days my grandparents told me that to get a governmental position you need to pass certain exams. The exams happened in one day and it is really hard. You can’t get a job unless you pass this test. So to get good luck for that exam day the night before your mother would have to catch a spider in your house, put the spider in the egg, and cook it. You can put the spider in by cracking open the top a little bit and then put the spider in. Then you can still boil the egg. Then you have to eat it before you take the test. This will help you pass the test.
This is a folk-belief about how to create good luck. The story was told to the informant by her grandparents who live in an area called Hainan. According to her this was what her great-grandmother did for her grandfather before he went to take his test.
I think this folk-belief is very strange. The informant herself also stated how she finds this method very strange as well. Regardless of peculiarity, this shows the family’s involvement in one individual event; that different members of the family are linked together through different objects and methods. In this case it is the mother who has to cook the egg because it is common in a Chinese household that the mother is the cook in the family. This reflects how the mother has to support her child and bring him luck even though the method seems strange. The spider also has to be found in the house. This also shows a different living arrangement situation depending on culture. In Western Culture after the child reaches a certain age he/she would leave the family house and live separately. In this case it is evident that Chinese family tends to maintain as one household.
This belief is a method of how to deal with one of life transitional period. People associate themselves through different identity, one of them is occupation. In this case, the exam is important as an official way to achieve that particular job identity and how the family helps the individual.
It also shows how the egg is eaten to enhance the individual’s belief in his own luck. This shows it is important to believe in good luck is whether or not the spider-egg has magical power or not. Similar to the placebo effect, believing is a big part into feeling lucky.
“This story was a bedtime story that my grandma used to tell me sometimes when I was a child, probably around when I was in kindergarten. It was about a disobedient frog.
So, once upon a time, there was a tree frog who was very disobedient to his mother. He never did what he was told and always just did the opposite of whatever his mom wanted. For example, like if his mom said not to eat the bug, he would eat the bug and if his mom said to go west, he would go east. Because of his constant disobedience, the mommy frog ended up getting sick, and died. But before she died when she was very sick, she asked the disobedient son to bury her near the river, because, um, she thought he would do the opposite of what she asked, as always, and bury her in the land. However, because his mom became sick from his disobedience, the son frog repented from his ways and wanted to obey his mom at least for her final wish. So, he actually buried her by the river instead of on land. Each time it rained, he was so afraid that his mom’s body would wash away in the water so he would cry out. This is why you can hear a frog’s cries near rivers every time it rains.”
My informant told me this tale over lunch on a sunny day, as she stated that this story was the first one that popped up in her thoughts, as she was feeling homesick. She said that she remembered being so sad whenever her grandma would tell her this story, and that it would really make her feel love toward her mom. It helped her to at least try to be more obedient, because of fears that her mother would get sick if she disobeyed her. She would remember past instances of disobedience would remorse.
Hearing this story, I was also really struck with how sad and depressing the story is, especially for a tale that is often told to children. The way the mother and the son frog are never on the same page is really tragic, as it took his mothers death to make the son come to his senses and the mother was never able to see her changed son. She could have thought he never really loved her, as he was constantly disobedient, when he really did as evidence by his crying at each rainfall. This story could really scare children into obeying their parents, especially since children often take things literally. I think I personally can never hear the croaking of frogs the same way.
So, there was this really, really good looking couple. They had a baby girl that was super cute. But as the baby grew up, she got less and less cute to the point where the parents became too embarrassed to take her out and have other people see her so they tried to keep her at home as much as possible. One day, the little girl kept crying that she wanted to go to the park and the mom couldn’t handle it anymore, so she took her to the park. At the park, the little girl was like, “Mommy, I need to use the bathroom.” There wasn’t a bathroom anywhere so the mom brought her daughter to a little secluded grassy area that was on a cliff near the park. She told the daughter, “You can pee here. No one will see you.” While the girl was peeing, the mom pushed her off the cliff and the little girl died. A couple weeks later, she found out that she was pregnant again. When the baby was born, it was the most adorable little baby boy and as he grew, he just got cuter and cuter. The couple loved their son so much and was always showing him off. One day, the mom brought the little boy out to the same park and he needed to pee. The mom then took her son back to the grassy cliff area. She told him, “Mommy will wait for you over there so take your time.” He replied, “Ok, but Mommy? Please don’t push me off this time.”
My informant told me this story while we were eating dinner. We had previously been discussing our beliefs regarding the after life when she said that the topic reminded her of a story she heard. She told me that her mother had told her this story. When I asked her what this story meant to her, she told me that it taught her that she should never be embarrassed by their family.
I feel like the story is very effective because of the twist at the end. When I was hearing this story I expected the ghost of the girl to return and push the boy off the cliff; I was completely blown away when it turned out that the boy was a reincarnation of the girl. I agree with my informant’s interpretation. Additionally, I believe there is a focus on how shallowness is a bad characteristic to have, as seen through the couple’s better treatment for their better looking child. At the same time, the theme of revenge is somewhat present through the reincarnation of the little girl into the little boy.