Author Archives: Andrew Maney

Thai Animals

LS is from Thailand. She says the worst thing someone can be compared to is an animal. A lot of Thai insults and swear words are animals. For example, ควาย (kwaai), which means “buffalo.” According to L, this is one of the worst things you can call someone. She says, “It is degrading to be called an animal.” Another insult is sàt, which simply means “animal.”

I can see where the insults come from. To be an animal is to be less than human. Being called an “animal” is worse than being called a “stupid person” or a “mean person.” By likening someone to an animal you are saying they do not even belong in human society. It is certainly a harsh thing to insinuate, which is the entire point of insults and swear words.

Parents will also use the bad connotations of being an animal to teach their children manners. L explained, “Parents tell their kids that if they eat while laying down they will turn into a snake.” And also, “If you don’t close the door behind you, you’re considered to have a really long tail because your tail is still coming through the door.” L told me her parents would always tell her these things, and that most Thai parents would tell their kids this; therefore, these phrases are commonly know. L told me that she would also use the familiar phrases with her friends to mock each other for fun.

I think this an interesting way to teach children. Children have such active imaginations that they probably believe they’ll really turn into animals. I believe that in most cultures parents teach their children through fantastical consequences. Using fun, imaginative punishments is sometimes easier than explaining to a child the real reason why it is inappropriate to leave the door open or something similar. A lot of folklore that is directed towards children is meant to teach simple lessons such as this.

It is clear why parents teach lessons through folklore. Children are more likely to remember to, say, close the door behind them if they associate it with something crazy like having a tail. This form of teaching clearly works, my friend L remembers the lessons more than ten years later. Folklore has this power to stick in our minds because it is performed for us in such casual, quotidian ways. It is easier to remember folklore than traditional rules or literature because it is so informal that it can be repeated and reheard daily.

The Weaving Maid and the Cowherd

“So there’s a beautiful, charming Weaving Maid who’s a servant in the palace of the Queen Mother, who is basically a really important female goddess. And this Weaving Maid just weaves all day.

“Then on Earth, there’s this, um, super hard-working Cowherd—that’s his name—who’s miserable and lonely because cows do not make inspiring companions. His parents died, he lives with his older brother and wife, and they treat him like a slave.

“No one really knows how the two of them [the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd] met, but the most common one is that one day the Weaving Maid and her six sisters came down to Earth to take a bath. And the Cowherd saw them. And being a creepy guy he picks up one of their clothes. And so when they see him, the six sisters turn into doves and flew away, but he took the Weaving Maid’s clothes. No one really knows how the negotiations went, but by the end she had fallen completely in love with him. So instead of turning into a bird and flying back, she stayed on Earth and married the Cowherd. And they had kids.

“When her master found out she was pissed. So she ordered the troops to abduct the Weaving Maid back up to Heaven. Um, the Cowherd tried to follow but he also had to carry the kids so he couldn’t catch up. He was a mortal so there’s no way for him to catch up to the god.

“But the Queen Mother, she doesn’t want to take any chances. So she takes a hairpin and forms a river—what we know as the Milky Way. And it flew between the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd, so then they’re separated forever. The kids that they had cried a lot to the Queen Mother to try to reunite the family, and the Weaving Maid’s six sisters also wanted them to reunite.

“So, after a lot of complaining the Queen Mother finally became a little bit merciful and called up a flock of birds to build a bridge over the river. She allowed the lovers to be reunited for one night every year, one the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. And on that day here, a flock of magical birds suddenly appear and form a bridge over the Milky Way, and they can meet up in the middle.

“Uh, so on the seventh day of every seventh lunar month, called the ‘Festival of the Seventh Evening,’ girls hold weaving competitions in honor of the maid and they sacrifice fruits that they put out overnight. It was a very good sign if you had spiders come out and spin webs over the fruit because it’s kind of like the weaving.”


My roommate, KY, performed this folk myth for me. He was born in China and lived there for the first few years of his life. The story of the Weaving Maid is a classic Chinese myth that is told all over the country. K told me there are many versions, but this is the one he remembers his parents reciting to him when he was young. He said that he always liked this story because it explains the Milky Way. He remembers that his dad would take him out at night to look at the stars and sometimes tell him about the Weaving Maid and similar stories. Apparently there are other Chinese myths that explain how different stars and constellations were formed.

K actually performed this piece for me when we were sitting out in our backyard one night. Being in LA, we couldn’t really look up and see the Milky Way. I don’t think the story had the same effect as it does when you can look up and see the “river” that the Queen Mother creates in the myth. But it still captured my imagination. My roommate and I are both physics students and avid lovers of astronomy. I asked him if he thought this story influenced his decision to study physics at all. He mused on this and replied that he had never thought of it, “but it must have something to do with my fascination of the stars and stuff.”

That is what I love about folk tales, and creation myths especially. Even though we know they are (probably) not true explanations for why things are, they allow us to think about beautiful, grandiose phenomenon, such as the Milky Way, in familiar, human ways. I believe myths were, in fact, early human’s first attempts at explaining the mysteries of the universe. Before we had hard science, we had our imaginations and our special ability to craft stories that could decipher this amazing world.


For another version of this myth, see Picturing Heaven in Early China by Lillian Lan-ying Tseng. This book features a lot of interesting Chinese creation myths about space and the stars.

Pull My Finger

The joke is simple: the jokester says “Pull my finger” and sticks out his finger, the victim pulls the finger, the jokester farts. My father (still) thinks this is hilarious. As he explains,

“It’s something we did as kids. It was super funny back then. And being a dumb guy, still think it’s funny. Back then we would literally fart when you pulled someone’s finger. Tears of hilarity. So every time I hear it I think of being in grade school.”

My dad “performs” this joke every time I see him. It has become something that everyone in my family expects, and that has become a part of the humor for Dad. It’s basically his way of saying, “I’m going to fart.”

Another part of the humor is that the victim becomes complicit in this nasty thing the jokester is doing. The victim is meant to feel like his action of pulling the finger is what caused the fart. I remember as kids we would be astounded as to how my dad could do that on command. Really he was just fooling us all. This joke is more of a prank; it is most fun for the jokester (unless, of course, the victim respects good toilet humor). Pranks are interesting because they walk the line between being cruel and being amusing. I think they exist so that the prankster can be cruel and get away with it by calling it funny.

Cruelty is a common theme in humor in general. A lot of jokes are deprecating and sometimes mean, but if they’re clever or funny enough, they allow people to find joy in all sorts of things that are usually not very funny. Self-deprecating jokes can be used to brush off embarrassing mistakes. And other jokes can be used to inject a little bit of happiness into depressing events.

Pranks, on the other hand, can sometimes be just plain mean. But I think the “pull my finger” joke is one of the simplest, funniest pranks you can pull on someone… no pun intended.

Una Adivinaza de Aguacate

SB is from Costa Rica. We have been friends for some time, and whenever she cuts avocado I notice she says a little limerick to herself. I asked her what she was saying. She told me: “Agua pasa por mi casa, cate de mi corazón.”

It’s a riddle (adivinaza), and the answer is aguacate, which means “avocado” in Spanish. The phrase literally translates to ” Water runs down my house, it is a punch to my heart.” It is not really apparent what this has to do with avocados, but the solution to the riddle is found in the wordplay. Agua + cate each have meaning on their own in Spanish, but also form the word aguacate.

S explains, “Riddles like these are used to teach kids various fruits in Spanish.” It clearly works, because S remembers this riddle all these years later and still associates it with avocados whenever she has one. I asked her why she thinks there are riddles to learn simple things like fruit, and she explained that aguacate is actually a pretty difficult word for kids to say. This little rhyme, which breaks down the word, helps teach how to say it.

S told me another one of her favorites:

Tiene ojos y no ve,

posee corona y no es rey,

tiene escamas sin ser pez,

¿qué rara cosa ha de ser?

Which means:

It has eyes and doesn’t see,

It has a crown and isn’t a king,

It has scales but is not a fish,

What rare thing could it be?

The answer is piña, a pineapple.

Throughout my time collecting folklore, I’ve noticed there are a lot of rhymes and riddles in various cultures that are meant to teach kids simple things like manners or words. These riddles stimulate creative thinking at a young age. Riddles are not always obvious and you have to connect the puns or wordplay to come up with the right answer. Folklore is a prominent part of children’s development. I believe a majority of what children learn in their early ages is through folklore; before they can read, kids pick up what people are talking about around them. Learning culture is just as important as learning to read and write, and folklore teaches this.

Fan Lhor

LS is from Thailand. She explained the folk superstition surrounding eating. According to L, “If you eat the last piece of food on a plate, you’ll get a hot boyfriend, or a fan lhor as we call it.” Food is generally shared in Thailand, served family style with a bunch of plates in the middle of the table that everyone eats from. L told me that this was a favorite custom of hers because all her family and friends took it very seriously. She explains how you say “fan lhor” as you reach for the food. “Whenever we were at the end of the meal,” L recounts, “me and friends would all shout it [fan lhor] and race for the last piece. We always wanted a hot boyfriend, obviously.”

I love this custom because it is so much fun. I have seen L perform this in person at a few dinners. It is a natural thing for her to do at the end of a meal because she is so used to doing it at home. The custom captures the spirit of Thai meals, which are meant to be lively affairs with a big group of people.

I believe the custom exists because it encourages people to finish all of the food served by making a fun game out of it. Table manners are such an interesting part of a culture because they vary greatly. In some cultures it is rude to be aggressive and loud at the table, but in Thailand it is encouraged. Furthermore, these dining customs encourage good eating habits in a fun way. Folklore has this power to stick in our minds because it is performed for us in such casual, quotidian ways. It is easier to remember folklore than traditional rules or literature because it is so informal that it can be repeated and reheard daily.