USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘rice’
Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Magic
Signs

Don’t Stick Your Chopsticks Straight Into Your Rice

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. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never stick their chopsticks straight up and down in their bowl of food. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone, and 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. The informant told me the she learned this from her parents, and that this taboo is highly integrated into Chinese culture—“no Chinese person would ever be found doing this…” 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).

 Text:

“Especially in the countryside, when they bury a person, they stick a stick on top of the section of land that they use to bury a person. On the stick, they tie little white strip of cloth to the stick, and this serves as the gravestone.

Because chopsticks are quite literally sticks, we can’t stick them straight up and down into our food because it too closely resembles the gravestone. Doing this is essentially a call to bad luck, because if you do it, you’ll bring death to both you and your family.

I honestly don’t know if I fully believe in this custom, but because it’s been so ingrained in my culture, seeing people do it makes me extremely uncomfortable, and it just seems safer to not do it and to teach my own friends, family, and kids to not do it.”

 

Thoughts:

This is a taboo that I grew up knowing, but never understood why it wasn’t allowed. I remember my grandmother scolding me when I was around seven years old for sticking my chopsticks straight up and down in my bowl of rice, but when I asked her I couldn’t do it, she told me that it would give me indigestion. It actually wasn’t until this year, in college, when one of my friends that I made here (who also happens to be Chinese) and I were talking about the weird taboos we had grown up, and she mentioned that the chopstick one seemed to be a stretch because it was supposed to resemble a gravestone. Surprised, I decided to ask my informant about this taboo to clarify the reason for its existence.

I did some further research after my conversation with the informant, and I found out that there is more than one way that sticking your chopsticks straight into your food brings death: apparently, Chinese people stick burning incense into rice to honor the dead. Breaking this taboo can bring bad luck to you because no one is dead, so it’s as if you’re summoning death by honoring yourself. This is an example of sympathetic magic: the Chinese believe that if you make a gesture that resembles something bad in the world, you’re making a calling to it. I also noticed that this is not limited to only Chinese culture—in Japan, sticking your chopsticks vertically in a bowl is also considered taboo because it reminds Japanese people of funerals, where a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of the person who has just died either at their deathbed or in front of the photograph.

 

Legends
Old age

Rice Ball/ Human Heart.

Background: The Informant was enlisted in Taiwan’s Military for two years, where he heard this story from his fellow soldiers.

Context: This story was performed in an Architecture studio, for an audience of two, in order to pass time while working on projects.

Body: “I learned this in the military in Taiwan. When you are a scout especially at night there are not many residential areas around the base. There are mostly old people around the base, who make money by selling food to the military people. Sometimes when you are scouting you will see a granny with a little cart selling rice balls. When a scout asks to buy a rice ball, the grandma says “OK” and takes out a human heart. ”

This was likely a scary legend told amongst soldiers in order to create a sense of solidarity regarding the eeriness of their situation, considering that many of them relocated from more populous areas.

Customs
Foodways
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Haitian Halloween

Originally from Florida, this friend of mine grew up around a wide range of cultures and traditions. Raised by Haitian and Colombian immigrants, she speaks Haitian-Creole, French, English, and a little bit of Spanish. We share a love of food, and spend a lot of time talking about food and different recipes and whatnot, so when this project came down the pipeline, I knew I had to ask her about some unique, family recipes.

The following was recorded during a group interview with 4 other of our friends in the common area of a 6-person USC Village apartment.

“Um, so like Christmas dinners – my whole family would come into like – we would rotate which house we would go to. And then everyone was – not really assigned – but everyone knew what like, what dish to bring. Cause like, that’s the only thing you’re good for, so just bring that. I was desserts. My mom was – there’s this thing called Soufflé Maïs, so. It was so good. It’s like sweet corn and cheese. And then – it was soufflé because it’s cooked in the oven. And then my mom also makes – I call it egg salad because I like the eggs more than the potatoes. With spam and hotdogs or either like mayo or mustard. It’s so good, it’s so delicious. It’s not a Haitian dish, it’s just a dish. And then uh, ah, Diri Djon Djon. So it’s like black rice basically. It’s soooo good. It’s like rice – of rice, and then the type of mushroom you put in with the rice. Cause it blackens the rice. And then you put peas in it.”

She later told me that these same dishes would be served around Halloween, as her family created a tradition of having a Halloween dinner every year. The Diri Djon Djon was particularly popular then, as the black color lends itself perfectly to the spookiness of Halloween-time. It was cool to hear about how her family mixed American dishes with Haitian dishes, at times using each culture as a sort of springboard into unexplored food territory. Before I finished the interview, I made her promise to bring me some Souffle Maïs next time her mom made it.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Vietnamese Proverb

RN is the informant, PH is myself.

PH: Do you know any legends, jokes, proverbs that you especially like?

RN: Proverb?

PH: Yeah

RN: Can it be in another language?
PH: Yes

RN: I’ll give you the English translation and you can just write [that it is a] Vietnamese proverb

PH: Do you know how to spell it?

RN: [says the proverb in Vietnamese]

PH: I’ll let you spell it.

RN: It means there’s nothing like fish and rice, there’s nothing like mother and child.

The actual proverb in Vietnamese is:

“Không có gì bằng cơm với cá, không có gì bằng má với con.”

Translations of this proverb vary, and this translation was off the top of the informant’s head. The informant speaks Vietnamese, as it is the language primarily spoken in his home, but not at an advanced level.

For another instance of this proverb, see Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.

 

Folk Beliefs

Eating All Your Rice Yields a Clean-Faced Spouse

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as MT.

BD: So tell me about why your mom always tells you to eat everything.

MT: In Vietnam, if you don’t finish your bowl of rice, the number of rice grains left in your bowl corresponds with the amount of acne on your spouse’s face. My mom believes this superstition. I don’t know where she learned it from. It’s common among most Asian cultures.

BD: Does everyone in your family believe it?

MT: Yeah, pretty much. Though it’s silly, I think it’s one of those things you never acknowledge, but you try to maintain. But I’m mostly just hungry. So I eat everything anyways.


 

Analysis:
I had heard a similar idea from my mother, and I found it interesting to hear the same idea in another culture. Though most people here in America say to finish all your food, because there are people who go without, this is an entirely different perspective on a reason to finish food. This belief also reinforces the values of Vietnamese culture, the future-orientation towards one’s future spouse.

Customs

Two Scoops of Rice

“Whenever I’m having like family dinner, like when I was a kid, and we’d have rice, regardless of whether or not we were hungry, we’d have to take two scoops of rice, not one.  Like, even if you only wanted one scoop’s worth of rice, you’d have to get that amount of rice in two smaller scoops, because you have to take two scoops no matter what.  It’s about having the ability to have two scoops of rice and appreciating that certain sense of prosperity.  My dad put this practice into my family, and he got it from his parents who were from China, where this practice is a broader cultural thing.”

ANALYSIS:

This piece of folklore is super interesting because of it’s strong connection to Chinese heritage despite the informant having never even been to China.  Culture and cultural practices get passed on from generation to generation and are often a way for the people inheriting the culture to get in touch with their heritage, and I think this is a perfect example of this.  And even though the furthest line the informant can draw back to this practice ends with his grandparents, it’s almost certain that the grandparents inherited it from their grandparents, and so on and so forth.  It’s uplifting to know that such a gracious cultural practice and the meaning behind it has survived for so long and across continents.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Narrative

The Rice Witch

Context: One of my roommates, when he heard me explaining to a friend about how stressful it was to try and find folklore from different sources, offered some of the stories he knew from his childhood.

Background: My roommate’s family was extremely superstitious when they lived in Vietnam before he was born.

Dialogue: One day my uncle got enough, like, money on a shopping errand to buy some bags of rice, and, you know, apparently, as far as we know, he did get the rice. He was heading back with two bags of rice, um, and… he came back with nothing! What he told the family was that, in the middle of the way he encountered an old lady who asked him to give him the rice, and… he just could not… control anything except the fact that he handed the rice over to her and watched her walk off with it, and then came back with, uh, nothing, and actually… everyone believed him. So I guess there’s that.

Analysis: This feels extremely of its culture, largely because my roommate specified that his family’s superstition were directly connected to the country they come from, Vietnam. This fact also leads me to believe that this witch is a kind  of witch specific to the Vietnamese and/or Southern Asian area, rather than just a witch that everyone in Western civilization is familiar with.

Tales /märchen

Shim Chung

심청은 태어나자 마자 어머니를 여의고, 맹인 심학규의 딸로 홀로 아버지를 극진히 모시며 살아간다. 어느 날 심봉사는 실수로 개천에 빠져 허우적거리는 것을 지나가던 한 스님이 구해주고, 그 스님에게 부처님에게 공양하면 눈을 뜰 수 있다는  말에 넘어가 절에 공양미 300석을 바치겠다고 약속한다.

 

심청은 중국과 조선을 오고 가며 장사를 하던 상인들이 물살이 심해 사고가 자주 발생하는 인당수 지역에 용왕님을 달래기 위한 인신공양으로 바칠 사람을 찾고 있다는 소문을 듣고, 아버지의 눈을 뜨기 위해 자신이 그 제물이 되기로 작정하고 공양미 300석을 받고 인당수로 몸을 던지는데…

 

이에 감복한 하늘에 의해 용궁을 거쳐 다시 지상으로 올라가 황후가 되고 맹인 잔치를 벌여 아버지를 찾게 되었으며, 딸과 재회한 기쁨에 심봉사도 눈을 뜨게 된다는 내용.

 

Shim Chung lost her mother as soon as she was born, and lived alone with her father, Shim Hak-gyu, who was blind. One day, Shim Hak-gyu fell into a river and saved by a Buddhist priest and promised him that he would give 300 bags of rice to the temple, for which Buddha would fix his blindness.

 

Shim Chung heard rumors that the merchants who went to China and Chosun and went to the market looking for a person to serve as a human sacrifice in order to appease the King Yongdang in the frequent occurrence of accidents. In order to open his father’s eyes, she determined to become this, and take the 300 bags of rice throwing herself into the sea.

 

When she threw herself into the sea, the heavenly god was moved and saved her. She became the wife of a king and the King provided a party for blind people and her father was invited there and met her daughter. Surprised and pleased, he opened his eyes.

 

Background Information:

 

This story emphasizes serving one’s parents with devotion which is very important in Korean culture. This story is in children’s book and learned at elementary school.

 

Context:

 

This is mostly performed as Korean traditional opera.

Personal Analysis:

This story shows that Korean people care about respecting elders. It’s a part of their culture that respect is given as a default unlike in America where respect should be earned. The happy ending seems a bit unrealistic, but it shows the daughter doing her duty to serve her dad as well as the blessings that came because of it.

Customs
Foodways

Eating All the Rice Out of a Bowl

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.

 

Main Piece:

 

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.

Folk Beliefs
Foodways

The Rice In the Rice Bowl

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.
Background Information
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.
Context
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.
Personal Thoughts
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.

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