Author Archives: Andrea Nguyen

Superstition – Irvine, California

“If I didn’t go to bed early, the ‘tiger witch’ would come get me.”

My friend Marilyn told me that as a young child, her parents would coax her into going to sleep early by frightening her with stories of the tiger witch.  She said that it’s an old Chinese belief that if children did not go to bed early and stayed up late, the tiger witch would appear and bite one of their fingers off.  After hearing of this scary figure, Marilyn would always sleep early and did not start to disregard it until she was almost entering middle school.  She mentioned that there is even a song about the tiger witch, but she cannot remember it.  Just as children in America are often told to sleep early to avoid being taken by the ghostly bogeyman, Marilyn grew up with a Chinese version—even though she grew up in New York and California.  As a result, this is evidence that heritage plays a key role in the development of identity.  When I asked Marilyn what she considers her nationality to be, she responded, “Chinese” and gave this superstition as an example of how she did not grow up with the exact same ideas and values as did the other children around her.  Since she only came to fear the tiger witch because of stories passed on to her from her parents and not because of her own experiences, she feels like she has truly inherited her identity and cultural links.

Again, the idea of folklore’s multiplicity and variation comes up with this example.  Whether it is a bogeyman or a tiger witch, it is interesting to note that parents often utilize a kind of ghost story or image of a scary figure to get their children to listen to them.  This says that generally most cultures grant a great deal of power to the parents, but also that a great deal of expectations are imposed on children.  In order to shape children to becoming obedient and respectful followers of their parents’ wishes, sometimes the only way is to frighten them into doing so.

Superstion – Irvine, California

“During tennis matches, don’t drink red Gatorade.  Also, during breaks, only drink one sip of Gatorade and one sip of water each time, if at all.”

As a tennis player with two years of highly competitive Varsity high school tennis under her belt, Charlyne said that she developed these superstitions after personal experiences in a plethora of doubles matches.  She explains that early into her high school tennis career, she began to form these beliefs when she and her partner drank nothing but red Gatorade sports drinks during matches and consequently played horribly each time.  So horribly, in fact, that she even attributes what she considers the worst match of her entire life to the consuming of red Gatorade.  Charlyne even went on to say that red Gatorade was initially an aversion to her because of its bright color and prominence whenever it would accidentally spill onto the team’s light-colored uniforms.

In this way, Charlyne demonstrates several practical reasons for not drinking red Gatorade and for only drinking one sip each of water and Gatorade during matches.  She reasoned that the sip of water would wash down the Gatorade’s aftertaste and not leave her mouth sugarcoated and parched as she continued to play.  However, her belief that only one sip of each beverage should be allowed is unique to her, but again it derives from personal experience.  Charlyne relates that during one match, both she and her doubles partner drank two large gulps of the drinks during their break and afterward would consistently feel cramps and never play to the best of their abilities.

It is interesting that Charlyne’s personal superstitions are not simply superstitions passed down from family members or picked up from friends, but were formed of her own accord.  Personal experiences and bouts of bad luck led to her creation of these rules, proving that the formulation of superstitions and folk beliefs can be entirely dependent on the individual and his or her own identity, without the influence of society and already widely-held beliefs.

Superstions – Irvine, California

“If you look in the mirror in a dark room, you’ll see a really scary face.  If you look in the mirror at midnight, you’ll go to ‘mirror land,’ which is a really scary place that’s all mirrors, so basically you just see yourself everywhere and there’s absolutely no way out.”

Marilyn told me that she learned of these superstitions from a classmate when she was in the second grade.  She said that at such a young and impressionable age, the superstitions became ingrained in her beliefs and she continued to fear them well into middle school.  Now, she said, she still gets “the jitters” when she thinks about the superstitions and will not willingly attempt to test them out.  She confided that she was afraid that the mirror superstitions really affected her and that they will have a lasting effect on her for the rest of her life.  These specific mirror superstitions also bring to mind other mirror superstitions such as the ideas that breaking a mirror will bring seven years of bad luck or that spinning around in front of a mirror three times in a dark room while chanting “Bloody Mary” will inevitably bring the demonic female ghost to life.  When I asked Marilyn what she thought of these other mirror superstitions, she said that while they also made her uneasy, they were never as frightening to her as the ones she had picked up from her young classmate probably because she learned her classmate’s superstitions before anything others.  In this sense, age plays a critical role in shaping beliefs and identity.  For Marilyn, it helps her to define who she is today.

Legend – Irvine, California/China

“There were two poor brothers.  One was really nice and one was evil.  The nice one had a very faithful dog, and the evil one decided to kill the dog.  After he killed the dog, the nice one was really sad and buried the dog in the yard.  Later, a tree grew over the dog’s grave, and the tree had fruit.  The nice brother picked the fruit and ate it, and realized that it had a magical power! It made his farts smell really good.  So, he told a few people and nobody believed him until he actually farted, and then they were all really amazed.  They suggested him to go around and make money off this cool talent.  So he went into the town square and started hollering ‘mai xiang pi!’ (which means ‘I’m smelling aromatic farts!’).  And people just laughed at him, but gave him a bit of change anyway to see what he could do, and when he did it, butterflies and birdies circled him and everyone was amazed at the crazy-good smell.  So, he started making a huge fortune off his farts from the fruits in his backyard, and eventually rumor reached the King.  The king is, of course, incredulous, and so he orders people to bring in the guy who can fart so well.  So when he arrived at the palace, the king tells him to prove it.  So the brother farts, and all these butterflies fly into the room and it smells great of course.  The king is so awed that he gives him money or something.  Basically, this nice brother is no longer a poor man.  Well, the evil brother gets really jealous, and so he steals the fruit off the tree in the yard and eats it.  He then marches directly into the palace and proclaims that he, too, can fart lovely smells and deserves the recognition and money too.  So the king tells him to proceed, and the evil brother farts right in front of the king.  But, his fart produced the most abhorrent smell ever sniffed by the king and the royal subjects, and the ugliest noise! So, the king punishes him and his reputation was completely ruined.”

A perfect example of good versus evil, reward and consequence, this legend was an old Chinese story that Marilyn said she learned from her parents (who learned it in China) when she was a young child in elementary school.  A humorous tale that also demonstrates the consequences and benefits for those who are malicious and those who are kindly, this legend was told to Marilyn as a piece of light-hearted entertainment that would keep her and her siblings from restlessness or boredom.  At the same time, it was a legend with a lesson, instilling in Marilyn and her siblings the ideas that along with goodness comes rewards and with rottenness comes punishment.  The legend therefore served as both a story to appease unsatisfied children and a method for Marilyn’s parents to subconsciously pass on bits and pieces of admonishment.

Also, the concept of a traditional Chinese legend that focuses on flatulence is quite unexpected.  Marilyn said that her initial reaction to the story was that it was hilarious and outrageous, but that she was also mildly surprised at the rather “gross” subject matter portrayed in a normally conservative culture.  However, the lack of conservativeness in the subject of the legend is probably due to the fact that it might not have come from conservative elites in the upper classes of society but from the folk themselves.  Another aspect of the legend that should be noted is that Marilyn concluded it with the social downfall of the evil brother rather than, say, his imprisonment or any specific details of his punishment.  The important part of the conclusion is that the brother’s reputation was ruined forever; this reflects the values of honor and social upstanding in the Chinese culture.  Without his reputation, the brother loses his identity and worth in the social hierarchy.

Proverb – Vietnam

“Cá không ?n mu?i, cá ??n con c?i cha m? tr?m ???ng con h?.”

“Fish without salt, fish rots, children who don’t listen to their parents, one thousand ways the children are bad.”

“Fish without salt easily rots, just as children who are disobedient are bad in a thousand ways.”

My mother told me she first heard this proverb from her own mother when the whole family was living in Vietnam and my mother was just a small child.  Spoken as a kind of admonishment, the proverb was always used to remind my mother and her siblings that obedience and filial respect were of utmost importance and that any other kind of behavior would not be tolerated.  This ties directly into the Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese values as well.  As argued by Dundes, America is very much future-oriented and focused on the new and young: “The favoring of future over past also has correlates in the penchant for new rather than old, and for child rather than parent.  On the other hand, most other cultures, like the Vietnamese, channel their attentions to tradition and what has already been established.  However, although it may seem that more emphasis is put on the child in American society, it is not true that in other cultures all attentions are directed away from the child and showered on the elders.  Rather, in those cultures and particularly the Vietnamese culture, children are favored through their behavior towards the older generations.  Certainly, there is much attention put on children in order to help them grow into upstanding and respectful individuals.

Though my mother never actually said this proverb to me during my childhood, it nonetheless had an impact on me the first time I heard it.  Just as the same values were instilled in my mother from her parents, she has passed on those same values and familial expectations to me my entire life.  Just as a fresh fish can spoil without the right care and seasoning, an impressionable child can lose all sense of manners and respect and become a terrible person without obedience or lessons of love for their parents.

Annotation: Brown, Raymond Lamont.  A Book of Proverbs.  New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1970, pg. 56.