USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘poem’

AIDS poem in lipstick on mirror

I have a cousin who is an event planner in Colombia, Juliana, who arrived to the US in February of this year to start an intensive English program through UCLA extension. She was told in Colombia by her aunts to be careful because STD’s are rampant in Los Angeles, although none of them have traveled here. After making several American friends, one night at a party, the subject of STD’s came up and people started to tell stories. She said an American guy with dark hair was saying he had a former roommate when he was a freshman in college, who would sleep around without precautions. One night after “bagging a chick” he woke up to find he was alone, secretly he was grateful to avoid any awkwardness of kicking out a stranger. When he went to the bathroom, he saw lipstick on his mirror. Juliana initially did not understand what was written on the mirror and ask the guy to type it down on her phone so she could translate it later. It was a poem that read “Roses are red, Violets are blue, I have AIDS and now so do you” when she finally translated it, she said she was so shocked and it freaked her out a lot. One of her teachers seeing her so upset asked her what was wrong and she relayed the story, she said that her teacher started laughing really hard, this only made Juliana confused and embarrassed until her teacher explain that what she was told was an urban legend by the guy at the party and therefore not true.

Analysis: Juliana asked me three times to reassure her that the story was an in fact, an urban legend. She also asked why would anybody repeat such a horrible lie. I said that I am sure that Colombia had their share of urban legend as well but she denied that claim and said that any stories told were just to scare children into compliance. I think she was more susceptible to the legend because she was primed by her aunts. Her lack of confidence with English also made her likelier to believe someone who was a confident English speaker and storyteller. These kind of legends because of the believability factor seemed to get under people’s skin more and last longer, my cousin Patty said the same story was told to her with slight variation when she was in her 30’s when Aids was more of a death sentence than now and she stills remember the circumstances around the telling of the story.

Folk speech

Irish Poem


Terry is a second generation Irish american who grew up in los Angeles in the ‘60s and 70’s. He is now a dentist working and living in the Bay area.


Informant: “There is this poem that my uncle told me back in 1970 when I was 10 years old. My parents sent me to Ireland to live with my cousins for the whole summer. I had never met any of these people before, but knew them through the stories my dad told me about all of them. But one night my uncle Paddy drove me to the Bridge at King John’s Castle in limerick… you know the one we’ve been to before. And he told me that this bridge was where the Banshee would come out late at night if you were walking alone. And then out of nowhere he started rattling off this old irish poem about the banshee called “Drunken Thady and the Bishop’s Lady” and it was a long long poem that took about twenty minutes to say. I was amazed that he had remembered all of it and then we got back in the care and drove back to the house in Janesboro. Then the rest of the summer I tried to memorize the poem just by hearing it over and over so I could tell my dad when I got back home to Los Angeles, but I was never able to remember the entire thing.

Collector: Do you remember any of the poem?

Informant: ughhh oh boy lets see

Before the famed year Ninety-eight,

In blood stamped Ireland’s wayward fate;

When laws of death and transportation

Were served, like banquets, throughout the nation

But let it pass the tale I dwell on

Has not to do with red rebellion.


Uhhhhh and then there is another part at some point that goes


There lived and died in Limerick City,

a dame of fame oh what a pity

that dames of fame should live and die

and never learn for what, or why!

That’s all I can remember.



Collector’s thoughts:

I find it amazing that the informant could remember even the slightest bit of this poem despite having half learned it more than 40 years ago. Being sent at such a young age to stay with Irish relatives reveals how, despite living in the US, his parents and family still valued their Irish heritage and culture. For a full version of the poem see:


Quiet Night Thoughts Poem

“Do I have a poem… This is a classic, man. I learned this in Chinese school when I was younger. [Recites the poem in Chinese]

I’ll go line by line. Poems usually are like, same number of words each time, and only the last word rhymes, you know, you know, poetry.

And it’s umm… ‘I sit in front of the bed, looking at the moon,’ So it’s already a morose kind of tone. It’s night time, you’re sitting on your bed, no one else around you, it’s like praying, but they don’t do that in China. ‘Looking at the moon…’ I don’t remember what the second line means, forget the second line! [laughs]

And then he raises his head, looks at the moon, and then he lowers his head in sadness. And at some point, some of these words are about, like, he’s thinking of his family. I’m not sure which ones. So the fourth line, end of the fourth line or the second line is about thinking of his family.

And this poem was taught to me to teach me that, uhh… when you get into real life, you’ll be lonely [laughs], and you’ll think of your parents, and you’ll think of your home, and you’ll be like, ‘Man, I had it great!’

So this was a poem [laughs] to teach a spoiled brat to appreciate what he has. [laughs]

At least, that’s how it was presented to me when I was younger.


This is like the classic Chinese, like everyone knows this one. If people memorize one poem, it’s like this poem, usually.”

Note: For a published version of this poem, see “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Li Bai, found easily on many online webpages and in: John Milford and Joseph Lau, Classical Chinese Literature – Volume 1, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Analysis: This poem is a memorized version of a very famous piece of Chinese authored literature from over a millennium ago. However, like the informant’s Chinese Zodiac performance, this somewhat original performance was also delivered with active animation, emphasis on humor, and mental translation into English. As such, some of the detail of the poem is lost, but the meaning conveyed by the poem remains, since that is what stuck with the informant over everything else. Versions of this poem are often used in  order to instill traditional values in Chinese schoolchildren at an early age, and it seems to have done that job very well with this informant in particular (who could not recall the whole poem, but definitely remembered its purpose, origin, and spread).

Folk speech

Lotus Flower in the Mud

Informant: “So there are these Vietnamese ‘Ca Dao’ which are almost like these miniature-ish stories or poems. I think the best translation might be ‘proverbs,’ except for the fact that these are typically longer, like four or five sentences long. Anyways, one really well known one is

Trong đẩm gì đep bẵng sen
Lá xanh bông trắng lại chen nhụy vàng
Nhụy vàng bông trắng la xanh
Gẩn bùn mà chẳng hôi tanh mùi bùn

Also, sort of similar to poems, there’s a sort of lilt or rhythm to it.”

Collector: So like a rhyming scheme?

Informant: “…We don’t rhyme that much. we’re a monosyllabic language, and we’re a lot more vowel based than English is, so there’s not really rhyming, but there’s a sort of a sound to it so you know that it’s not really just a normal conversation piece, but instead one of these Ca Dao. Anyways, the closest literal translation… It doesn’t exactly translate very well, but the closest translation is

In the mud, what is more beautiful than a lotus?
Green leaves, white flower covers a yellow center
Yellow center, white flower, green leaves.
Close to mud but never smells as mud

It’s supposed to mean that if you have something as beautiful as a lotus flower, and it grows in the mud, it is still beautiful despite growing in the mud, and it never smells like the mud. So the lotus blooms in mud, but it’s still pure. Now, people will milk that a lot of different ways, but … how I’ve used it is like, you can surround yourself with a lot of bad friends, but you are still able to remain good yourself. It’s sort of like, your environment can not be good, but you can still stay good yourself.

Informant is a student at the University of Southern California. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the Vietnam war. She was born in the United States, and was raised bilingually by her parents (though she says that Vietnamese “Is definitely [her] primary language at home”). Most of her knowledge of Vietnamese culture comes from her upbringing in he Vietnamese family in an area where a lot of immigrants from Vietnam settled. Additionally, when she was growing up, she learned a lot about her Vietnamese heritage through “Temple School” which she described as “Like Christian Boy Scouts, except for Vietnamese Buddhists”.


Children, do you love each other?

So, it goes like this:

“Children do you love each other?

Are you always kind and true?

Do you always do to others

as you would have them do to you?

Little birdies in their next agree,

tis a shameful sight to see,

Children of one family,

fall out, and chide and fight.”

And Sister Lorita got it… I think she must have gotten it from her own family. But she was a good friend of my moms and after she died, she came over and visited a lot. She worked at Mercy Hospital, they were really close… she ran the alcoholism unit at Mercy, but anyway she always said it whenever we’d argue about something.

Informant 2, age 22, son of Informant 1:

“Children do you love each other?” I remember mom saying it. But not Sister Lorita. Just like whenever we were fighting.

context: In a one on one conversation with informant 1, my father, I asked him if he remembered all the words to this poem that we often heard when we were fighting.

thoughts: Informant 2, did not remember all of it, probably because for him and our family, my mom, who got it from Sister Lorita, only needed to say the first few lines and we would stop what we were doing or just complain about the poem.

Sister Lorita was a great friend to my dad’s family after his mom died and so visiting her was a big part of Informant 2’s and my childhood, though he may not remember.

folk simile
Folk speech

Trees are Pretty Fucking Beautiful


“I think I shall never see a poem as pretty as tree.”


My informant heard this quote from his aunt when he was 10, randomly. He thinks that it means that nature can do amazing things, and people can never make thing as nice. He said that it’s probably a “hippie thing”. He still likes it although he doesn’t think about it all the time because it rhymes and it still makes sense. “Trees are pretty fucking beautiful, and I’m not a huge fan of poetry.”


My informant’s aunt would say this to him randomly while he was growing up.

Personal Thoughts:

It’s hard to analyze this saying without knowing the informant’s aunt, but I think his interpretation seems pretty plausible. I’m not sure if his aunt made this up herself, or heard it from somewhere else.