Author Archives: bdevera@usc.edu

Haircuts Kill Uncles

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as HZ.

HZ: This involves a Mandarin wordplay, so it might not translate into English, but I think it’s funny. So there’s a saying in China, that in January—like lunar calendar January, the whole month of New Year—you can’t cut your hair.

BD: Why is that?

HZ: Because it will kill your uncle on your mother’s side. Your mother’s brother. Because in Mandarin, we differentiate your mother’s siblings and your father’s siblings.
So your mother’s brother is “舅舅” (pinyin: jiù ji), and your father’s brother is “弟弟” (pinyin: dì di). The saying goes “正 月 剃 头 思 旧” (pinyin: zhēng yuè tìtóu sī jiù) meaning that if you cut your hair in the first month of the year, your uncle is going to die. In the Qin dynasty, when the Qin government took over, they forced all the Hun people to shave their heads, and change their hairstyle. So if you look it up, the first half of the head is shaven, and there is hair only in the back half. But a lot of people who didn’t like the new government and were reminiscent of the old regime, they protested by not cutting their hair. Being nostalgic, the word for that are the last two characters in the saying, “思 旧” (pinyin: sī jiù). But it sounds very much like “死 舅” (pinyin: sǐ jiù), which means “to kill your uncle.” So people just started saying that cutting your hair will kill your uncle. A lot of people still choose to not cut their hair in the New Year’s month.

BD: Does your family believe it?

HZ: It’s obviously silly, and I don’t think it really matters. But everyone keeps saying it, and Chinese people are very superstitious. So if they really don’t need it, they will try not to cut their hair. It’s totally baseless, but people still avoid that. Old barbershops just close their businesses in the lunar new year month.


 

Analysis:

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-03/06/content_12126196.htm

The article above discusses the same saying, as it is thought about today in modern day China. The informant is quite accurate in that many people today do not believe the idea that an uncle will die, if they cut their hair during the first month of the lunar year. But the article also introduces another saying into the mix—”a time for the dragon to raise its head.” So there’s two contrasting ideas about getting a haircut during the lunar new year month. The photo caption introduces another superstition, that “getting a haircut on the second day of the second Chinese lunar month, which falls on March 6 this year, is likely to bring good luck.”

These varying superstitions around hair cutting and luck (whether it be good or bad) are all related to how words are spoken and thought of in Mandarin, or related to numbers and numerical values. I feel that this marks the significance of attributing specificity in meaning in Chinese culture. My informant, a linguistics major, would definitely agree.

German Christmas Traditions

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as SH.

SH: It’s a German thing to open presents on the evening of the 24th. Christmas in Germany isn’t the 25th—the 25th is nothing. My family celebrates in the morning of the 25th because my brother and I grew up in here—Christmas is at its peak when you’re young, and my brother and I lived in Michigan, and I feel like it’s more exciting to wake up as a kid and think “There are presents!” as opposed to like, seeing them there the entire evening.

With Germans, it’s the thing where you go to church and then come back, and the presents have magically appeared. But like, if you don’t go to church, like my family, the presents would have have just kinda been… sitting there.

I guess it’s also a family tradition that my father always tries to force us to go to church, and the rest of my family always resists. Didn’t happen this year though, my dad gave in. He didn’t even mention church. He was like: “It’s fine, it’s whatever. We aren’t doing it.” I’ve found that a lot of other families make a big deal out of doing like—a home cooked meal for Christmas eve, or Christmas dinner, you know. We usually go out.

BD: But not to church?

SH: Nope.


 

Analysis: The German tradition to open presents the night before Christmas Day reminds me of a tradition my family celebrates, called Noche Buena—celebrated in Spain, the Philippines, and some places in Latin America, this holiday also puts more of the emphasis on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. I was unaware that Germany had a similar idea, and I find it interesting that my informant’s family changed their traditions upon being in America. Though she did not consider her family to be “very German” to begin with, the ease with which they adopted a more “Americanized” tradition for Christmas is very interesting. It helps to show what their family values as well—the excitement of Christmas for the younger generation is emphasized, and in a way, the children are prioritized.

Korean New Years Traditions

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as KP.

KP: New years. For Koreans, new years is huge, right? New years, for us at least, we have like a family reunion, with like our other extended family. If you are like, considered a child, you bow, and you get money, and it’s wild. So obviously, the bigger the family reunion is, the more money you get. So that’s great. We always eat ddukguk, which are rice cakes. Traditional korean foods on the holiday—ddukguk is the main one. Every Korean family eats that on New Years—that’s just a thing you do. This is just typical Korean tradition, and it’s even way more intense in Korea.

BD: What do you mean way more intense?
KP: Well, I mean, New years is a way bigger deal there. Everything is closed. Here, all the American places are closed, but for some reason the Korean places are open. I don’t know about that. On Christmas all the Korean places are open. Straight up, we don’t care—we’ll work. Money is money, right?


Analysis:

This piece of Korean folk tradition covers two topics—money and food. Food is a central part of many holidays, but the ubiquity of a particular dish is pretty interesting, especially that it has also become a thing here in America. The discussion of money is also very interesting. “Red envelope money” is a tradition in Chinese culture as well. It is likely that this tradition is tied with the ideas of “good luck” and “good wealth” for the coming year in Korean culture, as it is in Chinese culture.

Stick Games

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as DG.

DG: Over the summer, I learned the stick game. Basically how it works is that you’ll have sticks, and you play with a group of friends around you in a circle. You tell them you’ll put the sticks out to signify a number, but you start putting them out in a random order, and what you’re actually doing is tapping the number out on your leg. So, they’ll try to guess it, but they’ll keep getting it wrong because it’s not actually a number from the sticks. You keep telling them that they’re focusing on the wrong thing or looking at the wrong thing, while you keep tapping out a different number. Usually people won’t get it for a good fifteen minutes, and so it’s something you do when you’re bored, or if you want to irritate your family and your friends. So usually, it’s people you know, because if it’s people you don’t know, it’s not that fun.

BD: Where’d you learn this game from?

DG: I learned this over the summer from my supervisor.

BD: Do you know where your supervisor learned this from?

DG: I have no clue.


 

This is the first time I have heard of this game, and searching for it on the internet yielded close to no results, because of the vague nature of a game with sticks. However, it is very similar to game played by children that are meant to trick each other. It is likely that there are variations of this game with different objects, but seeing as the informant does not know the origin of this game, that would be a poor inference to make.

 

Don’t Point at the Moon

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as MW.

MW: My mom told me not to point at the moon. I don’t know why, but she said that if you point at the moon with your hand, your ear will get cut off.

BD:Where did your mom get this belief?

MW: Her mom told her, like my grandma.

BD: Your mom’s from Taiwan, right?

MW: But my grandma is from China.

BD: Is this belief common? Like, do other people believe in it?

MW: I think it’s common, in Taiwan.


 

Analysis:
Upon researching this piece of folklore further, I found that there is a story that accompanies this belief. The goddess of the moon is angered when she is pointed at, because that is disrespectful to her. As a punishment, she will cut off the pointer’s ear in their sleep. A Taiwanese publication includes this belief in list of some more surprising superstitions: http://focustaiwan.tw/news/afav/201603200005.aspx.