USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘taboo’
Folk speech

I Need to Go Relax- Euphemism

Subject: Folk speech. The taboo.

Collection:

“Interviewer: So… growing up with your mom, if she had to go to the bathroom, what would she say?

Interviewee: I need to go relax.

Interviewer: And what do you say… now that you’re an adult with me, what do you say?

Interviewee: I need to go relax.”

Background Information: C. Taylor grew up in Southern California. She had a close relationship with her mother and paternal grandmother who first introduced her to this phrase. She currently lives in San Clemente, CA with her husband and one daughter.

Context: This was shared over dinner with my mother and father after my dad shared the history behind the phrase him and his buddies use when urinating in nature. My mother then contributed a phrase she learned from her mother and uses frequently in her day to day life with close family and mere acquaintances.

Analysis: This phrase epitomizes the idea that bodily functions are taboo and not to be discussed openly, even with one’s own family. The phrase is intended to mask the actual action that is being performed, communicating that going to the bathroom is something to be ashamed of or is otherwise unsuitable to be shared. It allows for the speaker to excuse themselves from a social situation in a dignified way that is vague enough to leave room for interpretation and discretion.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Chinese Homonyms

  1. The main piece: Chinese Homonyms

“Oh, okay, so homonyms. The way the Chinese language works, there’s four ways you can say every sound, basically.

“So. I feel like all the sayings I do know, they’re homonyms, and the reason they’re prominent is because they sound like other words that are either good or bad. So like, the number 4 sounds like the word for death, and that’s why the number 4 in China is like the number 13 in America. Like in China, a lot of buildings don’t have a fourth floor. They don’t like having 4 in their phone number, license plate, things like that. On the other hand, the number 8 is lucky because it sounds like the word for treasure. And the word for red sounds like fortune or treasure or something like that, so that’s why we use those red envelopes.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Context of the performance?

“I’ve only been to China once, for a class trip over spring break. My parents and grandparents don’t know much Chinese, but we know most of these…homonym rule things because they’ve kinda been, like, the little bit of Chinese that has been passed down from, like, my grandparents’ grandparents. So it’s cool, I always feel a little more, like, Chinese when I follow these rules because they’re some of the Chinese things I actually do know.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

Because the word for the number 4 sounds like the word for death, it seems that this number has become a taboo in Chinese culture. The extent to which it is a taboo shows just how much folk beliefs that are not backed by any science are still extremely believed in by the people, so much that it has been removed from daily life as extensively as possible—building floors, airplane rows, phone numbers, and license plate numbers all try to exclude the number 4. The extent to which nonscientific folk beliefs are valued in society is also shown in the positive connotations of the color red and the number 8. Just like the number 4 is removed everywhere, the incorporation of red and the number 8 as much as possible show that these folk beliefs are rooted in the people from the time that they grow up.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is an 18-year old female of Japanese and Chinese descent. She grew up in Oahu, Hawaii in a family that had moved there five generations earlier, and explained how none of her parents or grandparents knew any Japanese or Chinese. Celebrating Japanese and Chinese cultural traditions helped her feel more connected to her heritage growing up, because she felt that her parents and grandparents were very disconnected from the culture other than with these traditions.

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The White Foul Line

Baseball is rife with superstitions, my informant is a long-time player and as a pitcher he describes to me the longest-stranding baseball taboo.

“You don’t step on the white foul line when taking the field, ever, not just pitchers, but all players, but especially pitchers. When I go out to the mound I jump over it with my right foot, and always my right foot. It’s bad juju if you step on the line, nobody steps on the line, it just isn’t done. It’s bad luck. It’s always been that way. I don’t know who I learned it from, it’s just always been done as long as I can remember.”

Analysis:

Baseball superstitions, rituals, charms, and taboos usually are surrounding those circumstances which are not totally in the player’s control, that is pitching and hitting usually. This particular superstition is not stepping on the foul line when taking the field. It is quite an old superstition that has no particular origin with a certain player, but one players of all caliber pay attention to. It is supposed to prevent bad luck in a game when one play can change the entire game. Because it is so old and established as a taboo, players simply adhere because all those players before them have done so, so it must work, and the players will do anything that works. One bad pitch or one great hit and the game could turn for the worse. A pitcher can do all he can to play perfectly, but he cannot control the batter’s actions, therefore this leaves a lot of room for superstitions. It is human nature to want to control one’s surroundings and this is just a little taboo that allows a player in his mind to control the outcome however small.

 

general

Taboo Against the Big Stall?

The informant says he’s had very little experience with taboos but that one experience in particular stands out to him:

When he was at the Mexico City airport, waiting for a connecting flight, he stepped into a mostly empty bathroom and went for the big stall because he likes the extra space.

Someone in the bathroom, a random stranger, stepped in his way and accosted him in Spanish, shaking his head in regards to the big bathroom. The informant was a bit surprised by the reaction and didn’t respond, choosing another stall entirely.

The respondent doesn’t know whether to attribute the taboo of using the big stall to the individual of that particular incident or to Mexican culture as a whole. In any case, since he’s spent such a short time in Mexico, he has nonetheless attributed that taboo to the whole of Mexican culture. He concedes that the big stall is important and necessary for those with disabilities, but affirms that in his experience it is the most popular stall.

Analysis:

This one is an interesting and minor piece of folklore. Because we don’t know whether it does describe Mexican culture or not, I won’t make any projections. I do think it is very important that we leave the large stalls alone if other ones are available, and leave them for those whom they’ve been designed.

Folk Beliefs
general

Hawaiian Folk Belief on Whistling

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

My mother’s mother’s mother and even from before her are from Hawaii but some England roots are interjected into the bloodline as well. My mother’s father’s father’s father hails half from Hawaii and the other half from China and Portugal. But what is funny about most Hawaiians, is that they are not only Hawaiian. They are also Caucasian, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino, Samoan, Japanese, Korean, e.t.c…….Plantation workers were brought in to work the sugar and pineapple fields and they brought their culture with them.

Piece:

In Hawaiian we call it (taboo) Kapu, which means sacred, don’t touch or you die, just don’t do it. Hawaiians of ancient Hawaii had many taboo, thank goodness which no longer exist, as most kapu broken would end with death. When I was little, my Tutu, my mother’s mother forbid us to whistle after sunset. Whistling after sunset was kapu because whistling at night would summons evil spirits. To this day 35 years later, I don’t dare whistle after sunset……

Piece Background Information:

Informant already mentioned within their piece that they learned about this taboo through her grandmother.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Context of Performance:

Via email.

Thoughts on Piece: 
If you google “whistling at night”, there are plenty of accounts, mostly from Japanese, Native American, and Hawaiian cultures, of how whistling at night can invite evil. And in relation to the legend of the Night Marchers, shared with me by the same informant, apparently there are Hawaiian accounts that whistling at night will summon these legendary figures. While there can be no scientific or evidential basis for how whistling at night could summon spirits, perhaps this is also a method for parents to get their children to behave as whistling, or making noise, at night can be disturbing.
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Gift of Shoes Taboo

Barbara is a Chinese-American who graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside. Her parents are from Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States, before giving birth to her in Baldwin Park, Los Angeles. She recently received her Master’s in Clinical Psychology and is currently working at a clinic in downtown Los Angeles. Her hobbies are baking, exploring hipster cafes or restaurants, and reading thriller novels.

Original Script

Ok so you don’t want to give your significant other a pair of shoes for their birthdays or Christmas or as a present because it means that they’re going to run away with the shoes you got for them.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first heard of this superstition when she was shopping for shoes with her mom. She remembers this superstition because she especially enjoys buying or receiving shoes as presents.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

This ancient Chinese superstition has endured time because of its meaning and its sound. The character for “shoes” is 鞋 (xié), which sounds like “syeah.” The pronunciation is similar to that of the character for “bad luck,” which is 邪 (xié). Besides the sound, shoes are also tools used to step on or run away from something. Thus, the Chinese have always generally considered shoes as taboo gifts.

My Thoughts about the Performance

I have never considered shoes as gifts of bad luck or ulterior motives. When I heard about this Chinese superstition I was surprised, because I have both given and received shoes as presents. I find this superstition somewhat funny, because the source of this belief is based on sounds and metaphors.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Gift of Time Taboo

Barbara is a Chinese-American who graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside. Her parents are from Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States, before giving birth to her in Baldwin Park, Los Angeles. She recently received her Master’s in Clinical Psychology and is currently working at a clinic in downtown Los Angeles. Her hobbies are baking, exploring hipster cafes or restaurants, and reading thriller novels.

Original Script

Ok, and you don’t want to give your significant other a watch or a clock or anything that tells time ‘cause it kind of means that you’re telling them it’s time for them to go, like they’re gonna to either leave you or they’re gonna die or something.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first heard of this superstition from a friend she was eating with in high school. They were discussing what to give to a friend for her birthday, and the topic of a watch as a potential present came up in the conversation.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

This ancient Chinese superstition has endured time because of its meaning and its sound. The phrase for “giving a clock” is 送钟 (sòng zhōng), which sounds like “song jong.” The pronunciation is similar to that of the phrase for “attending a funeral ritual,” which is 送终 (song zhōng). Besides the sound, clocks and watches also represent running out of time. Thus, the Chinese have always generally considered shoes as taboo gifts.

My Thoughts about the Performance

I have never considered watches or any other objects that tell time as gifts that imply death or abandonment. When I heard about this Chinese superstition I was surprised, because I have both given and received watches as presents. I find this superstition somewhat funny, because the source of this belief is based on sounds and metaphors. I have also never had any near-death experiences or had the person leave me after giving me the present.

Folk Beliefs

Popular Belief in Ghosts in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico

Do you maybe have, like, a ghost story that you were taught?

 

“Actually, yeah, it’s uhh… they, they always said that there was, there were two nights every single year, don’t remember when or how, but there were certain specific time of the year, the, you were forbidden to leave your house between, after 11:00 p.m. on those two nights of the year, otherwise you would encounter, uhh… not really ancestors there, but some other people, especially those who wanted to do, like… like… you know, just, you know, bad stuff. And uhh… people who could not rest in peace, and they would come those specific nights. Of course nobody every left their houses, you know, during those two nights, ever, you know cuz you were so respectful of that tradition. And as far as I remember, nobody saw anything, although it’s maybe because nobody went out. [laughs]

 

Uhh, but, uhh, I dunno why, I don’t know why those things came, uhh… I don’t remember when that thing was like, like, followed, but uhh, there were two specific nights one right after the other, those two nights, you just were totally grounded.

 

Do you remember who told you that story? Or was it something that just everybody knew?

 

“Everybody in the community knew that one. Oh! Also related to that same thing is that they said that, uhh, you were lucky enough to, to, to be… uhh… outdoors between like 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., not after 11:00 p.m. because everybody else was so afraid of encountering something unnatural, they, ummm… they said between 10:00 and 11:00 was okay but you were lucky enough, you would see flames on the ground. Appearing like, just like, magic, and uh, you, uhh, you have to make sure, you have to make certain of where that flame was coming from, or where was the specific spot, because uhh, the next night, you wouldn’t come out, like I said, but on the third night, you were supposed to go there with some friends, dig, and supposedly you were going to find gold there.

 

I never knew anybody just, you know, striking rich by doing that, but that was part of the legend as well.
Where did it come from? It came from our grandparents, actually. And my dad tolds me that his dad swears that he saw some of those flames, but he was so afraid to go and dig because he would find something else instead of money, so… [laughs]

 

Not sure that was an old tale, you know, from some drunk people or something like that, very convincing, but, it became part of the community there, yeah.”

 

And what was the name of this community, again?

 

“This is Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico.”

 

Analysis: Like many ghost stories, the informant expresses disbelief in the ghost elements in the story in abstract, but seems to believe at least partially in the reality of the experience that he relates. The story seems to imply that there is a certain time of the year where social function is not permissible because people are remembering the dead who cannot rest. This motif of restless spirits is incredibly common in ghost stories around the world, despite the very Catholic culture of Mexico. What is unique to this story, however, is the promise of gold if one happens to find oneself outside and getting very close to the forbidden hour, which would suggest that a degree of risk-taking is honorable and respected in this rural Mexican culture.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Sex Taboo in Rural Mexico

“I have some… some things about my culture and my village, and umm… we were a 9 girls at home. So… sex was umm… nobody can talk about sex. And then, uhh… My mom… how mothers protect their daughters, not to be pregnant and not to be with boys before marriage, she always said to us, ‘don’t touch your body. Because if you touch your breasts, it will damage. So just be careful not to touch it, and also when you take a shower, don’t wash your private parts, because they can get sick.’

 

So that way, we don’t touch our private parts. So… It was a taboo, nobody wants to speak about that.”

 

And was that a common thing, did everybody tell their daughters that?

 

“I think so, I think so. I think it was like that. So no girls got pregnant. No girls got uhh… got a sex before after marriage. So, sometimes, we think if you give a kiss to a boy, to your boyfriend, you will get pregnant. So not even wants to kiss a boys. It… It was kind of a… umm… we grow up, all the girls in our village, and nobody talk about sex. We all just tried to avoid that, and if somebody wants to tell us about sex, our parents, my mother and our parents, said, ‘Run from there! Because this is no good, God doesn’t wants that.’

 

So… Everybody behaved really well with that! [laughs]”

 

Analysis: Taboos are very interesting folk beliefs, and that is very much the case even here. What is interesting to note, however, is the notion of value applied to the body of a woman and its ties to physical purity. In other words, the less a woman had experienced in the realm of sexuality, the more valuable she was assumedly perceived to be. Given the parent-to-child transmission of the norm and the reliance on God, this taboo on sex and understanding the female body could very well be a cultural norm and rudimentary form of birth control passed down from generation to generation in order to preserve the honor and finances of families. It is also worth noting that, using the informant’s family as a hypothetical typical family, the size of the family after marriage is much larger than most families in the United States, implying that more effective birth control may not be available, thus necessitating the narrative.

Folk Beliefs
Tales /märchen

The Dog at the Gate

“It came to my mind, one of those legends, It was more, more like, kind of warning from our parents not to do something. But, uhh, in a way, the kind of worked out. The, the way they did it is the following.

 

They told us that curfew time for us was between 10:00 and 10:30 p.m. every day. No exceptions. Uhh… When you were under 16 years old, that was an uhh, unwritten rule. So… uhh… They said that, uhh, instead of punishing us for not coming on time home from wherever we were, they came up with this little legend.

 

It was told to their parents, it was told to them by their parents also, so they scared the heck out of us. They said, when you were walking on these little trails next to the trees, next to the river, invariably you had to cross one of these stone fences. That’s the properties, that was always a little gate. Or sometimes it was just open there, the, the, the rocks were removed from that stone gate, that stone fence, and uhh… people had to walk through those, uhh, those openings no matter what.

 

They said, you were coming after 10:30, between 10:30 and 12:00, it was going to be really dangerous because there was going to be a big, ferocious black dog with red eyes guarding that, uhh, specific opening on the fence. And you wouldn’t be able to cross. And the only way would be to just go back to where you came from, you have to gather at least another 3 people to go with you, otherwise you would find the dog every single time there.

 

Of course we never saw the dog! [laughs] But we got home on time every single time! We were never late, because we never wanted to see that dog! [laughs]

 

So, that was a thing that scared the heck out of us for years and years. Now, when we became adults, you know, we knew it was just a little hoax, it was a little old saying, you know, but… but it worked!”

 

Analysis: Like many tales, this one seemed to be told with the purpose of instilling obedience in children. The informant made it clear that the telling of the story was so scary that it inspired him, even as a young adult, to never break curfew out of fear of consequences – not from his parents, but from the uncontrollable force of the guard dog. It should also be noted that the guard dog would not attack if the individual was in a large enough group, implying that social functions were acceptable late-night activities, but lonesome wandering (or, possibly, philandering) were not.

[geolocation]