Author Archives: Andrea Nguyen

Game – Turkey

“Yag Satarim Bal Satarim Ustam Olmus Ben Satarim”

“I sell butter I sell honey my boss is dead so I sell everything”

“You sit around in a circle and one person has a tissue in their hand behind their back.  They go around saying the phrase over and over and drop the tissue behind someone’s back.  You can’t turn around to see the tissue, but you can feel for it with your hand on the ground.  Once the person drops it, the person sitting has to realize it and chase them.  If you don’t realize it within one turn, that person gets to keep hitting you in the head.”

Hande told me that this is one of the most common games in Turkey, and one she used to play frequently in her childhood after she learned it in elementary school from other kids on the playground.  Similar to an American version, the children’s game called “Duck Duck Goose,” this Turkish version contains a few differences.  Rather than patting the heads of the players sitting in a circle and announcing whether they are chosen to be a “duck” or the “goose,” the player moving about has to maintain a sense of slyness and secrecy.  Instead, they try to silently drop a tissue in hopes of fooling their victim.  On the other hand, in the American version, the “goose” must chase the chooser and try to tag him or her before the chooser runs around the circle and replaces the goose in his former spot.

Another difference lies in the concept of punishment or consequence in the game.  While the unsuccessful chaser or unlucky runner must sit in the middle of the circle (the “Mush Pot”) or continue to be the chaser, in the Turkish version there is a physical consequence of hitting the loser.  While this may seem cruel or out of hand, Hande said that in Turkish schools, especially public ones, it is common and even accepted for teachers to slap the students as punishment.  Though her personal experience with this was different because she attended a private school and only had to deal with one teacher about this, Hande explained that the reason why physical punishment is so accepted is because her parents’ generation and that of her teachers was already used to much worse treatment.  She told me that she had heard stories of “how they would just line up kids and start slapping the back of their hands with rulers.”  Though she said that schools today are much better concerning such behavior, it is certainly intriguing to hear about a cultural perspective and social norm that is so different from that of most of America.

Interestingly enough, the English translation of the saying is supposedly insignificant.  Hande explained that, when recited in Turkish, the phrase is just a rhyme, but in English it makes no sense.  She said that when she asked her parents if they knew about the saying’s meaning, they said no as well.  This Turkish children’s game is an example of folklore’s multiplicity and variation.  Although the origins of the game’s concept are unknown, the game has certainly spread to regions all over the world.

Legend – Ontario, California/Missouri

“There was this tree with the bark kind of shaped like a menacing face.  If someone climbed up on it, evil devils or like Satanic spirits will come out and push you off.  Once this boy climbed up and he fell off the tree and died.”

Joseph said that he heard this local legend about a cursed tree in Missouri during the second grade from a female classmate.  Though he was living in Ontario, California at the time, his friend whom he heard the legend from had moved there from Missouri.  He said that she drew a frightening picture of the gnarled tree and after seeing the drawing and hearing of this story of the cursed tree, he frequently had nightmares and would always shudder at the thought of the tree.  Though he is unsure of the exact details that his friend told him, Joseph reported that the Missouri town’s newspaper included a story of a young boy around his age who climbed the tree and later fell to his death.  Joseph said he does not know how exactly the boy fell, but he doubts it was an accident because of his belief in the legend—he considers the idea of evil spirits rushing out of the tree to push the boy off as a real possibility.  This, in turn, proves the influence of legends and their ability to invite discussions about belief.

This particular local legend indeed deals with the supernatural—in this case, demonic forces rather than a heavenly deity.  It also speaks volumes about the (probably rural) town in which it arose.  For a second grader to be able to recount its unpleasant details, the legend must be of major significance to the town’s identity, or at least to young people’s perception of that identity.  Now, I cannot help but be amused at the idea that an old legend can still frighten the likes of a tough, grown male.  Yet ultimately this demonstrates the lasting power of the legend and its continued relevance to contemporary society.

Joke – Irvine, California

“How many dead babies does it take to paint a wall?

Depends how hard you throw them!”

Gruesome and disturbing, “dead baby jokes” are nonetheless becoming increasingly popular in contemporary society.  Dealing with the death of infants and how they are treated, these kinds of jokes never fail to shock or horrify their listeners.  Aaron told me that he first learned of dead baby jokes during his senior year of high school, when he and his fellow cross-country team members would exchange jokes and humorous musings to pass the time during warm-up stretches.  Aaron also mentioned that girls were rarely present when the jokes were told, if at all, and that for this group of guys, telling sexist, racist, “yo momma” and dead baby jokes was a method of boosting camaraderie and killing the tediousness of routine exercise.  Upon first hearing a dead baby joke, Aaron recalled that he felt caught between laughing and shaking his head in disapproval while simultaneously marveling at the joke itself (My own reaction was actually very similar to his.)

While at first the dead baby joke may seem utterly horrible and completely inappropriate, one must look at the world and times in which it is emerging.  As examined in such works as Peter Narváez’s novel Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture, jokes about death and destruction represent “the convergence of humor and death” and dead baby jokes are not an exception.  Often, jokes about death can serve as moments of brief psychological coping, and are becoming more and more pervasive because of the media and Internet.  Also, jokes like the dead baby ones are prime examples of the idea that jokes can be representative of the freeing of repressed impulses by polite society.  It is my opinion that dead baby jokes are so absurd and horrific but at the same time unforgettable and unique because they cross the line and dare to step into forbidden territory.

Proverb – Vietnam

“Ð??ng ?i khó, không khó vì ng?n sông cách núi, mà khó vì lòng ng??i ng?i núi, e sông.”

“The road is hard, not hard because of mountains and rivers, but hard because your heart is not willing to take that road.”

A true statement about perseverance and self-determination, this proverb is one of my father’s favorites.  Told to him by his own father when he was growing up, the proverb reiterates the importance of believing in oneself and one’s willpower and courage to continue along the journey; it is not the obstacles that accompany the journey that make it difficult but rather one’s level of determination and battle with one’s own demons.  My father said that as he was complaining about various difficulties and injustices in his adolescent life, his father would pull out the proverb and remind him to stay strong and unwavering.  When he immigrated to America, my dad said, learning English and adapting to the new culture was infinitely difficult, but whenever he would find himself complaining about it or on the verge of giving up, his father’s words would find their way into his mind again, providing him with the next push he needed to become a successful Vietnamese-American.  In this sense, the proverb can be particularly addressable to immigrants and all others who set out on a risky path.  This proverb is indeed a piece of “wisdom for the ages” and proves to be inspiring, timeless, and eternally meaningful.

Folk Ritual/Festival Celebration

“On the last day of the Vietnamese lunar calendar year, around early February, we would get up early and help our parents clean up the house to prepare for T?t.  My sister and I would go to the market with my mom, and we would help with two or three big baskets with groceries to prepare for the feast and ceremony offerings to the ancestors to give thanks.  We’d get home in the afternoon and get together to clean the house very clean inside and out, and clean up the dust because the dirty house means the ancestors won’t come and visit.  We cleaned up ourselves while the parents prepared food and set up a big table like an altar, and set up food there like moon cake, rice cake, Vietnamese traditional New Year’s sweets and fruits, especially watermelon which is considered the traditional New Year’s fruit.  Around midnight, we would gather around and pray to the ancestors and give thanks for the year that’s gone by with all we’ve had, and pray for the coming year with luck.  When the clock strikes midnight, my dad brings out a lot of fireworks and we played with them to ring in the New Year.  Then, the adults mingle and talk about the New Year and congratulate each other while the kids go to sleep.  Most times the kids couldn’t sleep because they were too excited about the lì-xì they would get the next day.”

While living in Vietnam as a young boy, my father picked up on these traditional T?t, or Vietnamese New Year, rituals after witnessing them year after year.  Just as children in America gain understanding of rituals performed during holidays like Christmas or the Fourth of July, my father and his siblings realized the importance of celebrating Vietnamese New Year, the most important holiday in Vietnam, with family members.  Proving again Dundes’ idea that most other cultures besides America are past-oriented rather than future-oriented, these rituals reveal a deep sense of love and respect for ancestors of past generations.  However, this is not to say that thought for the future is disregarded; my father mentioned that prayer for a lucky new year was an essential part of the holiday ritual.

Like in other Asian cultures, the emphasis on family ties and togetherness in the Vietnamese culture is exemplified most during these celebrations for the New Year.  Even before the celebration started, my father and his siblings would work together with their parents to ensure a successful celebration.  Everyone had his or her own duties and contributions to make, whether it was cooking or cleaning.  Special foods—like the moon cake which represents the beginning of a new lunar calendar year—are even reserved for the occasion, and my father said that he and the other children would look forward most to those treats which they would only get to eat during this time of the year.  Also, unlike the American tradition of only celebrating the night before the first day of the new year, Vietnamese New Year rituals continue to take place on the days following the first day of the new year.  Lì-xì, or red envelopes filled with “lucky” money, were given to each child in the family the day after, similar to the American tradition of giving presents to family members on Christmas morning, perhaps after celebrations on Christmas Eve.  Also, these rituals performed during the Vietnamese New Year are basically identical to those of Chinese New Year, and both are celebrated on the same day.

My father says that now when he celebrates Vietnamese New Year in America with his family members, it gives him a sense of comfort and familiarity.  In continuing his family’s traditions and passing them down to my brother and me, he feels that he is instilling in us a lasting concept of heritage that we can eventually pass on to our own children.

Annotation: Welch, Patricia Bjaaland.  Chinese New Year. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pg. 37.  Parallel to those of Vietnamese New Year, the folk rituals of Chinese New Year include giving children “their first red packets of ‘lucky money’ at some point on New Year’s Eve, after New Year greetings have been given and dinner consumed.”