Background: M.W. is a 18 year old student at USC studying History and Japanese. He was born Tarzana, California and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona as well as Eugene, Oregon. His mother is half Chinese half Japanese, and his father is Russian. M.W.’s grandmother on his mother’s side is Chinese, and his grandfather is Japanese. His upbringing has been composed of a mixture of both European and Asian influence, and he highly values both sides of his family history.
M.W.: My grandmother taught me that whenever we had a bowl of rice we had to finish each and every kernel. The running joke amongst the family was that if you didn’t, you’d marry someone ugly or you’d have bad luck. But the truth behind it was that my great grandfather grew up in a very poor village and they were taught that if they didn’t finish the rice, that they would not be allowed anymore for the next meal because they didn’t have enough they didn’t always have enough rice for the next meal. But we do it now because it’s respectful.
Q: How often do you practice this?
M.W.: Honestly never because rice is way too much to eat usually.
Q: Does your mom or grandmother always practice it?
M.W.: Not usually. However, they will often joke about it.
Performance Context: You would perform this when eating rice. It is particularly prominent in Asian cultures and in poor families.
My Thoughts: Rice is an important food in many Asian cultures, as it is abundant, easy to get, and can be eaten with many different dishes. Therefore, it is understandable that a tradition of eating all the rice in a bowl used in the past not to waste food and to save money would be passed down through the generations. Over time, eating all the rice in a bowl has even changed meaning – it is now a familial and cultural tradition done to be respectful, when in the past it was done to conserve food and money.
The Main Piece
Rachel explains to me the superstition she was told by her mother from her early years about the dangers of not finishing every grain of rice on her plate: “Back home, when I was little, I always hated (said with emphasis) finishing my food ‘cause it would feel like my belly would explode. My mom would always tell me that even if I didn’t finish my meats and vegetables I had to finish every grain of rice on my plate or else I would lose all my money in the future, it was so annoying.” Rachel went on to explain that she would imagine herself as a hobo and that would be her encouragement for finishing every grain despite her belly possibly exploding. However, she told me this story as more of a reminiscence rather than a warning of possible losses or persuasion to finish my food.
My informant is Rachel Tan, a current first year undergraduate student and personal friend of mine at USC. Since childhood Rachel has always been told to finish all her food, as have many children all around the world. Although the practice may be common, the reasons and stories behind such practices have varied throughout time and regions. Rachel may have grown out of her imaginative years and says that she “doesn’t really believe in it anymore,” but she is reminded of her mother and her story from time to time as she eats and sees any left over rice on her plate. However, she does not perform any act of purposefully finishing every grain as she feels it is pointless. This story was passed down in her family for generations as her mother remembers her grandmother telling the story and so on.
This Chinese superstition was told to me previously as Rachel and I ate Panda Express together at the Ronal Tutor Campus Center. I was eating fried rice and we were discussing our life back home.
I found it quite interesting to hear the different stories that were told by our elders and passed down from generation to generation. Having lived with my grandmother who is also full Chinese for four years I have heard my own personal share of Chinese superstitions. I have learned that many vary from household to household depending on ancestry. It was also interesting hearing how Rachel told the story. The difference in generation and where and how she was raised influenced her take on the superstition. She no longer believes in it, recalling it as more of a “silly superstition” rather than something that should actually be taken with caution.
The informant was asked about some sayings, proverbs, and customs in her family.
Informant: “A lot of families, to get us to finish all the rice on our bowl, they [parents] say that if you don’t finish the rice on your bowl, your spouse is going to have a lot of pimples and blemishes on their face, so every time, they always remind us of that story, like ‘you know how so and so has a lot of pimples? Their spouse must not finish their bowl, so you don’t want to do that. Mom and dad… they’ve been telling us this since we’re young so it’s expected that our bowls are clean. Otherwise the stories will be reminded every time there’s something in the bowl… what I’ve heard from my German friend, when you’re growing up, it’s either your spouse is going to have a lot of pimples, or there’s a lot of starving kids in Africa. But then I met a lot of international students while I was in college, and he actually says that his parents tell him because there’s a lot of starving kids in China. So there’s a lot of different countries there involved. ”
Collector: “Are Asians specifically more afraid of pimples than other people are?”
Informant: “I think that in Chinese culture we definitely do care about our appearance so having your spouse having pimples I guess it’s not really… it can be frowned upon in the community and since Asian cultures are very community centered, you want to look good so you don’t want… it’s always community centered so you need to care for your spouse’s pimples. You know, its not just about your pimples, it’s you know, you’re responsible for somebody else in the community”
A lot of people in the US probably recall being told by their parents when they were young to finish the food on their plate because there are starving kids in Africa who would be extremely appreciative of whatever food was on that plate. Thus, it’s quite interesting to observe an alternative version of essentially the same saying parents use to get their kids to finish their plate of food. There are likely many more variations of this well-known guilt strategy around the world.
“This is another custom… you’re supposed to have rice on the left side of you, and soup on the right side when you serve it. Don’t know the reason, but maybe because you eat with your right hand.”
The informant learned this from his mom. He doesn’t really know the meaning of it, but he doesn’t like it because he think it’s annoying.
This is a custom that is normally taught to kids at a young age regarding table manners.
I think this is part of table manners that are taught in Korean culture, similar to the ways that we have rules about where the bread plate, drinks, or utensils are placed on a table. This creates more organization on a table, and since rice and soups are a common part of Korean meals, they have rules about where they go within a table setting.
“If you don’t clean your plate of food, typically rice, then your spouse’s face will have a lot of blemishes.”
My informant was told this belief by her mom. She would tell it to all of her siblings when they were kids. She thinks that her mom just used this to motivate her kids to not be wasteful with their food.
Usually, parents would tell their kids this at the dinner table when they said that they were done eating, but still had food left on their plate.
I think this belief or saying represents the values of not being wasteful, and the importance of marriage in Chinese culture. I’ve also been told a variation of this by my parents, but instead of my spouse’s face having blemishes, she told me that my face would have blemishes, in exactly the pattern of the rice that was left on my plate.
Informant Background: The individual was born in Bangkok, Thailand. She grew up there and still has family in Thailand. She said her family origin is Chinese. Her family still performs a lot of Chinese traditions such as: Chinese New Year, Ancestry Day, etc. Being in Thailand her family also practice a lot of the Thai traditions. She does not speak Chinese but she does speak Thai and English. She currently lives in Los Angeles to go to school. She has been travelling back and forth between the United States and Thailand constantly throughout the years because her family still resides in Bangkok.
My parents told me that if you do not finish every single rice grain on your plate you have to count how many you have left…Then you have to jump into the river, and every time you jump you have to make a splash sound…So it actually means you take each rice grain individually and then jump into the river again and again until your plate is empty. And every time you jump into the river you have to make a really loud splash sound. Nobody actually does this….they end up just finishing their rice. I mean the adults don’t really expect you to do it…it’s more like a threat so you finish your food.
According to the informant this proverb is more common among older generation. She grew up in Bangkok, Thailand. Though Bangkok is a metropolitan area she heard this from her parents. It was usually for parents to say to their children when the children do not finish their food. She has heard it from some of her friend also. She said some family has variations of threat when their kids have leftover food on their plate but this is the most common one she has heard. She mentioned that the origin of the splash come from the fact that before cars were highly used it was very common in Thailand for people to live in a house near water (canals, river, and lake) where boat was their main transportation. Many of those houses near the water are farms and gardens where they value their harvests. That is what the informant believes this saying generated from.
She also said that rice is the main part of the diet in Thai food. One of Thailand main export is also rice. In a meal each individual is given a plate of rice. Protein and vegetable are then in the middle of the table as shared dishes. It is then more evident if the individual has rice leftovers on his/her plate.
I believe this saying is a warning to teach children to value the food that they eat and the importance to every little rice grain. It is easier to finish the small rice grain on the plate than having to take each grain to the river and jump. As the informant mentioned, Thailand is mainly an agricultural society with majority of crops grown being rice, this is to teach children that every little grains of rice is highly valued. To tell the children that they have to jump into water as many times as the rice on their plate is a reflection of the hardship a farmer would endure to grow the crops.
The informant said she also heard this phrase not from my family but from many movies and TV shows. The characters would usually say it in older movies or movies that are set in older times. Sometimes she said her teacher will say something similar in the lunchroom if students have leftover food. I agree with the informant that this is said as a threat rather as a dare. From her personal experience she has yet to hear that anybody actually jump into water instead of finishing some rice grains.
Informant Background: This individual was born and grew up in Hawaii. His family is of Japanese and Chinese descent. He speaks Japanese and English. His family still practice many Japanese traditions, also many Chinese traditions. They celebrate some of the Japanese holidays. Many of the folk-beliefs and superstitious are still practiced. His relatives who are Japanese lives in Hawaii as well. He currently lives in Los Angeles to attend college.
Japanese rice balls, called Musibi, are never made as a perfect circle. They are can be in other geometric shapes. Because the spherical Musibi are made at funeral, so it is bad omen to make them in that shape out of context. That is why it is common to see them in triangular shape. You also cannot put your chopstick vertically into your bowl of rice or any food because that is what you do with candles and incent sticks at a funeral. You also cannot pass food from chopstick to chopstick. You’re supposed to put it down on a plate for the other person to pick it up….This is because during funeral people would sometimes pass the bones of the deceased by using chopstick…If you do any of these things, you will have bad luck and something bad will happen to someone close to you.
The informant is from Hawaii but his family is originally from Japan. So he practices many Japanese traditions. These practices he learned from his parents and grandparents growing up as things that you must not do simply because it is only reserve for funeral time.
I never realized why the Japanese rice balls at restaurants come in triangular shape until the informant told me about the tradition. From experience rice balls always come in triangular shape no matter how it’s cooked. It is common to see it through Japanese movies and cartoons as well.
I heard about not sticking chopsticks into rice bowls from people of Chinese descent because of the same reason. I also heard it from a tour guide while visiting Japan for the first time.
This belief reflects the importance of funeral as an event, an exclusive event. There are many beliefs and traditions surrounding it and specific things you do only during funerals. To do something you would do at a funeral in everyday life is then bringing yourself and the people around you bad omen. It is clearly reflect in these beliefs and practice which parallel everyday life activities.
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“So when I was little, I was really bad about finishing the food that I ate. […] My mother used to try to convince me to finish my food by telling me that for each grain of rice that I didn’t finish and left in my bowl, I would later on get a pimple and hopefully that’s not true.”
My informant’s mother is from Taiwan. Interestingly, I’ve heard the exact same thing from my own mom, who is also from Taiwan. Its possible that this way of getting kids to finish their rice may have originated somewhere in Taiwan. The country has had a history of food shortages among the lower classes, especially during the Japanese occupation. This piece of folklore may have originated as a way for the older generation who have suffered through food shortages to convince their youngsters (who haven’t experienced famine and don’t understand the importance of eating) by appealing to their vanity.
“When you eat rice—when you eat a bowl of rice—you’re not supposed to leave any bits of rice left in the bowl when you’re finished. So, if you leave one, it’s said that your future wife or future husband would have pimples on his face, or on her face.
“You can have leftover fish, in fact it’s good manners to have leftover fish or meat. It indicates that you have enough to eat. During Chinese New Year, one thing that we will do is eat fish, and leave some on the plate. And that will be a good sign that we’re going to have more for next year.”
Q. Why do you think that this superstition exists?
A. Rice is like a very basic farmer’s food, I guess. It’s something that everybody eats. And for somebody to not finish their rice—you’re wasting sort of a staple food product. That’s bad.
If you can eat meat—if you can eat fish—that means that to begin with, your family is very wealthy, or if you’re not wealthy, it has to be a special occasion, and you want to honor the rituals more than you bother about the fish. But rice is a daily thing, and prudence is something that we are taught.
Q. If you’re eating rice now, will you eat all of it?
A. If I’m eating rice, I will eat all of it. I no longer believe in it, but it’s a habit that got passed on when I was a kid. So, when I was a kid, my mother would stand over me and say, “You have to finish your rice.” Did I really believe that my wife would have pimples? I don’t know, I can’t remember. But I know that since my mother was watching over me, I ate my rice properly. And to this day, when I’m eating out anywhere, in the cafeteria, I still make an effort to finish all the rice. I try to finish my food all the time, but rice is special.
Analysis: This superstition illumines the dependence of the Chinese diet upon rice, while also reflecting that the majority of China’s population did not historically possess much wealth. The belief seems geared toward teaching children—if you fail to finish your rice, then your future husband or wife will have pimples. Thus, the superstition seems intended to teach children not to waste food, an important value in a society in which most people own little.
There was once an evil king that did not care about his people and did not listen to anyone. A kind governor tried to help the king, but the king would not listen. The governor was so distraught that he committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, into the sea. The people under the governor’s rule loved him immensely and they did not want the governor to be eaten by the fish in the sea, so they covered sweet rice with bamboo leaves in order to satisfy the appetite of the fish, so that their governor’s flesh would not be eaten.
My informant first heard this story from his parents on May 1st as a child, as it is tradition to eat bamboo leaves and rice on that day in honor of this event. The fact that the governor committed suicide out of shame due to failure and an unwillingness to continue to work for an evil king is an interesting moral lesson to teach to children through this legend. Respect for the elders and the dead is also features prominently in this story as it does in traditional Chinese culture and explains why the tradition is still practiced today.