USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Vietnamese’
Customs
Festival
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Vietnamese “Day of the Dead”

Context:

My informant is a 20 year old student at the University of Southern California (USC). This conversation took place one night at Cafe 84, a place where many students at USC go to study at night. The informant and I sat alone at our own table, but were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, he talks about a Vietnamese tradition, similar to the Day of the Dead, that his family practices every year in order to honor and respect his family’s ancestors. My informant says he never officially learned this folklore, but rather that his mom “just started doing it… One day I woke up and there’s just this altar in the middle of my house.” This is a transcription of his folklore, where he is identified as N and I am identified as K.

 

Text:

N: Hello, so um, this is really similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead—I don’t really know what it’s called to be honest—but it’s kind of like an ancestral worship thing, so like…

 

K: But specific only to Vietnamese?

 

N: Yeah for Vietnamese people! So we have a bunch of pictures of our ancestors, and then we have a bunch of food that we put on the table… Honestly we didn’t do much more than that. I’m pretty there’s a whole other tradition that went along with it…

 

K: Okay but why did you do it?

 

N: Just to like worship your ancestors and stuff. Like, “pay respect to your ancestors” kind of thing, and we’d just have pictures of a bunch on them on our table and we’d like offer them, like, Vietnamese food offerings.

 

K: Were they supposed to, like, come back and visit you or something?

 

N: No… well, maybe, I don’t know! Yeah… so that’s it.

 

Thoughts:

In this account, it was clear that my informant didn’t know a lot about the tradition and was even slightly unenthusiastic about it. This may be attributed to the fact that he’s uncomfortable because he feels that he should know more about the tradition because his family has been doing it every year ever since he can remember. During our conversation, it seemed like he felt a little ashamed or guilty that he wasn’t as informed, especially when he knows it’s so important to his family.

In a separate conversation, my informant told me that his parents were immigrants to this country, but that he was born in Los Angeles, California. Sometimes, people can be embarrassed or shy when they tell cultural stories, especially if they don’t have strong connections to their culture, which seems to be the case with my informant. Even though he gets the gist of it, my informant seems disconnected from this practice because he was never the one to set up the altar, pull out the photos of his ancestors, or cook the food that his family offered. In this case, my informant seems to only be a passive bearer of this tradition: he can recognize the folklore when it’s performed or being created, but he doesn’t seem capable of replicating it. His parents, on the other hand, have clearly been the active bearers of this tradition in his family. This could be due to the fact that they are immigrants, and thus are much more strongly connected to its purpose.

This tradition speaks to immigrant status and identity; my informant is in a liminal state of being a part of a Vietnamese identity because he was born to Vietnamese parents, but also being American because of the fact that he was born and raised in America. Because of this, he loses a lot of the authenticity of his Vietnamese identity. Even from the very start, we can see that he introduces this tradition not by it’s Vietnamese name, but as a tradition that is “similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead.” Perhaps this is because in America, Day of the Dead is much more well-known and integrated into American culture than most other ethnic holidays. For example, when I took Spanish in high school, we would celebrate Day of the Dead every year as a way to immerse ourselves into the culture. As a child, it’s possible that he came to understand his own family’s folklore in the context of America. Thus, rather than thinking that Day of the Dead is similar to this Vietnamese tradition that his family practices, his mind was instead wired to notice that this tradition is similar to the popular holiday of Day of the Dead.

On the other hand, understanding that Day of the Dead is a much more understood and well-known celebration, my informant perhaps uses Day of the Dead to explain his tradition in terms of other peoples folklore to help it be better understood. His way of introducing it as a Vietnamese version of the Day of the Dead could be his way of saying “Day of the Dead is not a mainstream holiday, and neither is mine.”

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic
Old age
Signs

White Headbands – A Chinese Folk Belief

Item:

Q: Why can’t you wear white headbands?

H: 嗰啲 (go2 di1) white 係人地死咗人地 先戴白色吖嗎(hai6 jan4 dei6  sei2 zo2 jan4 dei6  sin1 daai3 baak6 sik1 aa1 maa3)

[Translation: People only wear white when people die, right.]

Q: 白色件衫定係 白色喺個 頭(baak6 sik1 gin6 saam1 ding6 hai6 baak6 sik1 hai2 go3 tau4)

[Translation: White clothes or white on the head?]

H: 個頭 (go3 tau4)  Like when the parents, like the- your upper generation, like your parents or your grandparents or something, yeah.  When they pass away, so wearing the white [gesturing a headband]. So Asians nope, not gonna wear the white headbands.

[Translation: The head.] (Rest of line remains the same)

Q: So the person who dies wears the white or when you have someone who passed away?

H: Mhmm. So the younger generation will need to put the white thing on their heads, so that’s why no Asians wearing white headbands.

 

Context:

I collected this folk belief as part of a conversation in both Cantonese and English about Chinese traditions and customs.  The informant, denoted by ‘H’ in the exchange above, is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  It should also be noted that the informant likely meant East and Southeast Asians when referring to Asians in the text because these are the cultures that are most similar to her own.  She didn’t mention specifically where she learned about white headbands from when asked but only said that you just know this kind of thing growing up because you would see it all the time in Vietnam.  She also told me about how one of her daughters unknowingly wore a white scrunchie once and thus had to explain the symbolism behind it before making her take it off.  White headbands as a funeral custom is an inherent part of the culture in which she grew up, and as such, she will never forget about it and will always stay away from wearing one out of proper context herself.

 

Analysis:

This folk belief can be tied to a belief in sympathetic magic: since white headbands are worn as part of funeral custom when a member of your family has died, you could potentially cause death in the family by wearing them if no one has actually passed away.  The likeness of performing the custom during a particular event may evoke the event itself to happen.  Here we can also see an example of the difference in color symbolism between cultures, a difference that becomes apparent when one is removed from the immediate environment of their own culture.  The informant grew up around this symbolism, taking it as a given, and as such never recognized it as significant until coming to the United States.  In the United States and other western countries, white is often a symbol of innocence and purity.  On the other hand, in Vietnam and other eastern countries, white is a symbol of death and thus only worn during funerary rights.  This is likely why the informant’s daughter did not initially realize the bad omen of wearing a white scrunchie because she did not have the background of having grown up in Vietnam where white headbands were only worn for funerals.  Now with another example of the symbolism in the color white in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, I can understand why it is also a bad omen to wear white during the lunar new year.  Since it represents death, you may bring death upon yourself.  All in all, this folk belief outlines the symbolism of the color white in East and Southeast Asian cultures and furthermore, it proves how one’s own culture is not immediately recognizable until taken out of its initial context.

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.

 

Game

Bâū Ća Tôm Cua

Main Piece:

 

The following was recorded from the Participant. They are marked as DD. I am marked as DG.

 

DD: So there’s this game that me and my cousins used to play on the Lunar New Year, and it’s called Bau Ca Tom Cua, and it basically means um Gourd Crab um…it means Fish but it’s referring to a Shrimp, or um and then a Rooster. It’s basically-it’s a simple game where you have a picture of um each of the four items I mentioned, well actually some of them have 6 it’s a fish-a shrimp-, a crab, a rooster, a gourd, and a stag. And you have this little dice where on each of the little sides there’s a picture and you…usually money or candy, usually small change because my cousins and I, you know, small kids you don’t want them gambling with you know, tons of money, and we would put the coins basically on the picture that we thought was going to get rolled. So we would put the dice in a bowl and there’s 3 of them and roll them in the bowl and remove that and the ones on top, if you were right, you got to split the money.

 

DG: Who did you learn it from?

 

DD: Um, I remember playing it with my…cousin, um it must have been something we learned from probably our parents. Yeah its just a pretty common game. And even when I went to the Vietnamese lunar new year festival here, there were a whole bunch of boards.

 

DG: What was the context?

 

DD: It was a game that was traditionally played on the New Year’s, I don’t know if there was a significance for why it was played on the New Year’s… but it makes sense to me that um that at least little kids would have money on the New Year because their relatives would have just given them money.

 

Context:

 

The conversation was recorded while sitting in a classroom during an assigned period to discuss folklore. However, the context that the game would be performed in would most often be on the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

 

Background:

 

The student was born and raised in Northern California. She is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. Although she was born in Northern California, her entire family is from Vietnam, and she is one of the first generation to be born in the United States.

 

Analysis:

 

This game is good for cross-cultural teaching, as it is rather simple to teach and pick up. It can be adapted to bet on candy, coins, dice, or more. It is also easily taught to small children, meaning it is highly adaptable and good for bringing up through generations. It is also a quick game to teach, making it good for fairs, etc, where all the players may not be familiar with the game. It also has a specific history, being related to the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Due to this, this is not a game that the majority of the American population will likely know, or have heard of. I personally have learned this game in the past, at a Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration at my university, and found it very fun to play.

Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Vietnamese Child Numbering

Main Piece:

 

The following was recorded from the Participant. They are marked as DD. I am marked as DG.

 

DD: In a lot of Vietnamese families, there’s a habit of numbering the children from oldest to youngest, in the way sort of like nicknames. So we’ll have, um, sister number two is the oldest sister [sibling], brother number three is the second oldest sibling and oldest brother. And, um, interesting thing about that is that you actually start with the oldest one being sibling number two because there’s a belief that if you called them the first child, the spirits will come take the child away. And it’s actually really interesting in my family because my grandparents have nine children and they were supposed to have a 10th but the first born did actually pass away… right after birth I believe, so it did actually fall into that superstition, and it’s something I know my grandmother always believed. Although with my dad’s family they don’t really number the children, but they give them nicknames to symbolize, like, where they are in the order of children. Like…uh my dad is one of the younger ones so his name is trè, which means young, and his youngest brother is út which means littlest. Út usually refers to like the littlest finger, um, so, and it’s even like I still call him uncle út, which means the littlest uncle.

 

Context:

 

The conversation was recorded while sitting in the sun on a bench on a university campus. However, the context that this numbering was used under was whenever a child was born. It would be numbered whilst still in the womb.

 

Background:

 

The student was born and raised in Northern California. She is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. Although she was born in Northern California, her entire family is from Vietnam, and she is one of the first generation to be born in the United States.

 

Analysis:

 

I find superstitions to be the most interesting of all folklore items. In this case, the superstition is that something bad will happen if the children are numbered starting at one. The reason I find it so interesting is because although there’s no solid, scientific proof, people still act based upon the belief, just in case. I find myself doing the same in other superstitions. This is also one that I’ve never heard of before, and one that had proof in the believers’ eyes, with the death of their first child. I also found it interesting that they adapted the numbering system to, in the form of “young” and “littlest.” This appears to be a form of an oicotype, where the folklore belief has been adapted to a new cultural zone.

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

House Hunting Superstitions

“There’s two [superstitions] that my parents told me they look for when they’re house shopping. The front and the back doors of a house can’t align or else money will come in through the front door and just leave out the back (she loudly laughs as she finishes her sentence). When I asked my dad about this, he was like, ‘I don’t know why,’ and I asked my mom and she said, ‘whatever comes in through the front door will leave out the back door,’ and I was just like, ‘ok, mom.’ Also, the stairs can’t lead directly out the door because it’ll fall out the door, like your possessions, or your fortune, or your good luck. I think my parents believe in this because, when we were younger and were going house shopping, if the stairs were even remotely near the front door, my mom refused to look at the rest of the house. I guess these just superstitions or old wives’ tales that get passed down from your parents.”

Background Information and Context:

This is a superstition that was relevant to the informant’s parents while shopping for real estate. She believes that the superstition most likely came from Vietnam, from which her parents immigrated.

Collector’s Notes:

Growing up in a Vietnamese family, I, too, was exposed to many strange and illogical superstitions, usually from my grandmother. I am all too familiar with asking for an explanation of why something is good or bad luck and getting a reply that doesn’t clarify much, as my informant recalled in the above example. I also found it interesting how she was so quick to dismiss these superstitions, while I know from previous conversations that she is usually eager to accept certain other luck-related traditions like cleaning the house for the new year. I think a large part of accepting a tradition is feeling a personal connection to it and a positive association.

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.

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.

general
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Dog Buns

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: This is a tale my roommate heard  when he was a kid.

Dialogue: It goes… There’s this Buddhist who’s, you know, vegetarian, everyone loves him, he’s very holy, um, and, the queen of the land who, I guess doesn’t really like him or wants to bring attention away from him and to herself, uh, comes up with this plan to make everyone hate the monk… So, she, um, cooks these dogs, and… puts them into meat buns… um, which could also look like vegetarian buns, and she gives all of them, uh, to the monk, and, she says, “Look! I’ve, I’ve prepared these nice, uh, veggie buns for you! Why don’t you go eat them?” Uh… She’s thinking, then she’s going to reveal they’re made of dog, and he ate them, and everyone’s gonna hate him… Um, but the monk instead digs a hole in the ground, buries the buns into the ground, puts dirt back over them, and waters them, and then the dogs come back out of the ground! And, then people realize that the evil queen put dog in the buns and now the dogs are back to life, and now they get rid of the queen, and everyone loves the monk again.

Analysis: Sort of just a cute story, really something meant for kids, like a fairy tale (and perhaps it is, and my roommate just didn’t refer to it as such). Nice little morality tale about not letting jealousy get to you, with the added iconography of the Buddhist monk instead of the traditional Western protagonist.

Folk speech
Proverbs

A Vietnamese Proverb: Dark and Light

This is a Vietnamese proverb that was told to me by my mother when I was very young:

“Gần mực thì đen gần đèn thì sáng.”

 

Literal translation:

“Close to ink then you are dark, close to light then you are bright”

 

This is a proverb often told to children, meaning that you should be careful with who you surround yourself with. People are shaped by others around them, and if one surrounds themselves with bad people (the dark) they will become bad, while if one surround themselves with good people (the light), then they will be a good person. This is a lesson about peer pressure, as well as a warning to young children about how friends, family, and peers can influence them.

 

Collectors Comments:

This is a proverb that has stuck with me for a long time since my mom first told me way back when. It reminds me of sayings such as “hanging with the wrong crowd” or other proverbs that deal with friend groups and peer pressure. This saying was my mom’s way of trying to teach me that I should be selective with my friends, and only hang around people that would make me better. The proverb makes use of the contrasts between black and white and dark and light that are common in so many cultures. While, I have heard similar proverbs in other languages, this is the first one I’ve heard that relates to ink as black and light to white.

 

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