Author Archives: Colin Chao

The Moon Festival

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Subject: I feel like The Moon Festival for us is like the lowest key of the holidays, I think because the activity is usually just like, eating mooncake? And my parents aren’t like, particularly handy with baking, so we always just like, buy it from the store…maybe like Ranch 99, or Sheng Kee (subject laughs). And then…we’ll like have, maybe like, two sets, and then we just like, have it our house, and like, we’re sneaking bites up until the holiday, and then, the night of, I think we just like, prop up a couple of chairs, and like, sit outside and observe the moon and my parents will like, tell the same stories. Um…and then, you like, go back inside.

So like the whole…the whole observing of tradition takes, maybe like an hour. But, I think, like having the mooncake in the house is like pretty common, like having it for two or three weeks before and after.


The subject is a 22-year-old Taiwanese-American woman in her fourth year at USC. Her parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and celebrating Chinese festivals have been a family tradition since childhood.

The interviewer is a 21-year-old Taiwanese-American student in his third year at USC. As someone who is from the same folk group, he is familiar with most major Chinese festivals.

By “tell the same stories,” the subject is referring to myths about the Moon Festival. Previously in the interview, the subject was asked to retell the myth of Chang-E (嫦娥), the immortal lady in the moon. However, the subject was unable to tell the myth in full without the interviewer being requested to fill in several gaps in the story.


Growing up, the subject considered the observance of Chinese festivals such as this one a normal part of life. She grew up in Sunnyvale, California, where there were many Taiwanese people also participating in the tradition of celebrating these festivals. For her, the tradition was analogous to a Catholic family going to mass—something that was specific to that family and its folk group, that not all families (especially those outside the folk group) did.

The subject thinks about her family’s observance festival within the greater context of her family having a tradition of observing major Chinese festivals. She values the comfort of how the annual routine of returning home to celebrate these festivals reaffirms the stability of her family’s dynamic, relative to other Taiwanese-American families she has grown up with. Over the years, she has witnessed the families whose children are closer in age experience dramatic shifts in parental dynamics, after the children have left for college. Because of those shifts, those families tend to be less consistent in maintaining festival observances.

Unlike other families whose children are closer in age, the subject has two younger sisters. The middle sister is seven years younger than her. Because of the children’s large age gaps, her parents have continued to stick to the same everyday routines, such as driving the kids to high school, that the subject has known growing up. In a way, the family’s annual festival observances parallel the seemingly timeless everyday routines that the subject has grown up knowing.

Interviewer’s Analysis

Despite the brevity of the festival observation described, there are several notable items of folklore within. One is the iconic mooncake, which, beyond visually resembling the moon, was historically used to convey secret messages during wartime. Some modern, factory-produced mooncakes still reference this tradition, by including paper messages inside the mooncakes themselves, or by printing Chinese text on the surface of the mooncake. The sharing of messages through mooncakes, once done in personalized privacy, has now become commodified and publicized. The fact that the subject’s family eats mooncakes while sharing traditional Moon Festival myths adds a postmodern twist to the sharing of mooncake messages. It is a repetition of stories from the past in a present where a family watches the moon in private, while consuming mass-produced mooncakes with mass-produced text inscriptions. Moreover, the parents repeat this tradition every year, telling the same stories, only for the subject and her siblings to continuously forget them, almost as if so they can be annually reminded of them again. Is this truly a preservation of tradition, or is this an observation of selective tradition decay?

Cutting Tofu in the Dark

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Subject: One day, a young man who had been a scholar for many years, was like, mother I have been writing calligraphy for many years, I’m really good at it and I am going to drop out of school, because I’m, like—this is as good as my calligraphy is going to get, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic. (Subject chuckles.) And then the mom is like: okay. Like. That.

Interviewer: (Interviewer laughs.)

Subject: So she turns off the light, and she made him write, like, ten lines calligraphy or something, and she is like, you will—in that time, I will be cutting my vegetables. And when she turned on the lights, her like, knife cuts were like, really beautiful, all these like, perfect little equal, equal squares. And his calligraphy was shit. And so I think the moral of that was like—(subject laughs)—don’t do—like, you can’t, you’re not allowed to quit something unless you’re as, you’re good enough to do it in the dark.


The subject is a 20-year-old Korean-American student at USC. Her parents frequently told her tales from Korean folklore or Korean books throughout childhood. She first heard this tale when she was five.


This was a tale the subject’s mother told her every time she said she wanted to quit piano or viola, which is why the subject feels like it’s “really Korean.” At five, the subject argued with their mother about it, protesting that cutting vegetables and writing calligraphy were two entirely incomparable things. She felt that the premise of the tale was unfair and illogical.

Now, the subject thinks the tale is funny—she thinks the mother is right to put “the small man” in his place. As a child, the subject devalued the domestic labor of cutting vegetables, thinking calligraphy was clearly the superior and more useful practice—but as a present-day college student, she understands and appreciates the difficult labor involved in vegetable cutting. The subject also disagrees with the moral of the story, for different reasons. She thinks that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, and that being able to do something perfectly is no reason to quit.

The subject shared this tale to a friend at a majority-Asian social event recently, when she was making fun of her friend for being bad at cutting tofu. The friend had never heard of the story, and did not respond with hostility to the folkloric jab.

Interviewer Analysis

Tracking the subject’s changing relationships to the tale show how power dynamics between a performer and their audience can really affect the interpretation of folklore. As a child being told the tale by a mother who was using it to essentially scold the child for wanting to quit undesirable extracurricular activities, the subject naturally had a resentful narrative interpretation. The subject likely identified with the son in the story, who was forbidden from quitting calligraphy even though he wanted to.

Once the subject grew up, and the power dynamic between them and their mother became less unequal, the subject was able to go beyond interpreting the story from the perspective of the son, and empathize with the perspective of the mother. In addition, the subject felt comfortable enough with the lack of true psychological threat in the story, to jokingly using it to make fun of a peer, and have a little fun with the power dynamics that once wounded her as a child.

Kalo Farming and Menstruation Superstition

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Subject: There was a superstition. Um…that, like, while we were helping with the kalo fields. Was that, um, anyone, anyone who is menstruating at the moment, couldn’t help. Um…basically like, plow the fields or whatever. Because like, native Hawaiians, they didn’t have as like, strong, as like…um…like gender binary, misogynistic, like, beliefs. But…more that like…that, and so like everyone was expected to help for, um…agriculture and harvesting and all that. But that like, anyone who is menstruating, like, the smell of blood attracts like, evil spirits. So like—and, when you’re…when you’re farming, like, any energy that you have while farming, um, will…be put into, like, will grow with the food, so if you have like, negative thoughts while you’re farming, um…like you will have, like, negative energy in your food. Um…so like, not that like people who are menstruating have like, negative energy on—already, but that like, they will attract like, negative energy to the field. While it’s being plowed.


The subject, a 21-year-old Chinese-American student at USC, went on a service learning trip to Hawaii, as part of the Alternative Winter Break USC program. The trip lasted five days. The goal of the trip was to learn about native Hawaiian culture and the independence movement and contemporary struggles the state experiences.


The subject first learned about this superstition from a Native Hawaiian student majoring in Native Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii. That student shared the superstition while people on the Alternative Winter Break trip were helping Native Hawaiians prepare a plot of land for the planting of kalo, a staple Native Hawaiian food. During the initial sharing of this superstition, people who actually were menstruating were not allowed to help in preparing the field, out of respect for the cultural significance of the superstition.

The subject recalls a similar superstition with regards to cooking, which they learned from a Hawaiian botanical garden tour guide. Traditionally, Hawaiian men would make food, because if women were menstruating and cooking, the evil spirits would enter the food as well.

The subject once shared this superstition about menstruating in the field with a person outside the Native Hawaiian folk group. The person hearing about the superstition called it misogynist, because it purposely excluded women from the fields. The subject thinks it is not right for themself to pass a judgment on the superstition, because they are not Native Hawaiian.

Interviewer’s Analysis

This is an example of Frazer’s concept of homeopathic magic in practice. Homeopathic magic is the idea that like produces like—in this case, that negative energy from menstruation draws evil spirits or other types of negative energy into crops and food. In addition, outside the context of Hawaii, farming superstitions are quite a common phenomenon, due to the uncontrollable environmental risks that are involved in growing crops. Any superstitions that provide any additional sense of personal control over the environment helps to ease anxiety.

As someone who is also not Native Hawaiian, the interviewer agrees with the subject’s opinion that it is improper to judge the morality of this superstition. The interviewer would like to further argue that trying to evaluate whether a folk belief is discriminatory is unproductive. Folk beliefs are not necessarily adopted with social justice theory in mind—nor should they be coerced into forming some sort of coherent ideology. Folklore is unofficial discourse with no predestined direction of development, and to treat it as if it were a systemic institution would be scientifically inaccurate.

Red Envelopes and Lucky Money on Chinese New Year

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Subject: So…I think the idea is that…the rule that my family uses is, if you’re still in school…you receive. And once you have a job, like a full-time job, then you give. Um. And then so, when we were kids, like, each set of parents would usually give an envelope to each kid. And I think when we were younger it was like…just like, pocket money, like, maybe five bucks, 10 bucks. And like, as we got older, maybe 20, 40.

Um. And then I think for…for all of us I think when we graduated high school it was like, a bigger sum?


The subject is a 22-year-old Taiwanese-American woman in her fourth year at USC. Her parents are immigrants from Taiwan, and celebrating Chinese festivals have been a family tradition since childhood.

The interviewer is a 21-year-old Taiwanese-American student in his third year at USC. As someone who is from the same folk group, he is familiar with most major Chinese festivals.


The subject was describing a ritual associated with the festival of Chinese New Year, called red envelopes (紅包), which contained lucky money (壓歲錢).

The subject additionally describes two contexts where lucky money was given. The first is a situation involving a family friend named Annie, who had been working this year and stated she wouldn’t be accepting any red envelopes. However, the subject’s parents still brought Annie a red envelope, causing “a little bit of conflict.” Annie ended up taking the envelope anyway. The subject reflects on the absurdity of the incident, thinking about her own future as a grad school student. She wonders if, by that point, the decision rule would still continue to make sense, given that she will probably be in school until the age of 30.

After the interviewer mentioned that there were lawsuits going around for children suing parents who had taken their lucky money, the subject laughed, and brought up an instance when her dad took her lucky money. During the sophomore summer year of high school, her family went to visit Taiwan for the first time in a couple of years. Her grandma on her dad’s side had given her a really big sum, supposedly for college. When her grandma gave the money to her, her dad told her that she had to turn over the sum of money to him, and afterwards, she “never saw a dime” of it.

Interviewer Analysis

These two contexts illuminate the purpose of red envelopes with relation to Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is one of many festivals that celebrate the passage of time. In the instance of Annie, the red envelope serves as a rite of passage. One demonstrates that they have grown up, by demonstrating they have earned enough money to handle the financial obligation of giving red envelopes to the children who haven’t. The conflict for Annie arose because even though Annie had believed she had earned the right to play the grown-up role in the red envelope ritual, the subject’s parents disagreed, and still put her in the position of being a child receiver. The fact that Annie still ended up taking the red envelope shows her lower status with regards to the more established adults in the ritual.

The second instance in Taiwan further shows the purpose of red envelopes as a coming-of-age ritual. Parents, like the subject’s father who took her red envelope money for college, have reasonable anxiety over whether children have the financial responsibility to handle large sums of money. They feel that as adults, they have the duty to safeguard that money. Safeguarding the money is not only a financial practicality—it is a social signal. It demonstrates to other adults that the parents are fulfilling their social duties as financially responsible adults, and it also teaches children about their cultural status: adults are higher than children, and the way to attain that height, is through practicing financial responsibility.

Playing the Dozens and Bagging in the Navy

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Subject: Okay so my, my dad had a bunch of sayings that…felt…both very particular to him, but also of a culture that I don’t quite understand? So…for instance, as, as a child, he would regularly tell me, if ugly were a stop sign, my face would be all over town.

If, uh…again, because they felt quick, and they felt like shit that people said, uh, but they also didn’t…he also had one that, you know, when referring to a con man, or a huckster, you know, that guy’s full of more shit than a Christmas turkey, uh…you know, ‘cuz you stuff turkeys.

Uh…other ones. Uh…similar about my uh…I guess he did fuck with me for being ugly a lot. Uh, looks like you got into a hatchet fight and forgot your hatchet. Uh…was there. And uh…what was some…oh, uh, you know, uh, sort of referring, you know, she looks like she’s been dead for two weeks and nobody told her. So I guess a lot of them, again, were…um. Yeah, visual in their base, and sort of thing.


The subject believes that, despite being white and Italian-American, much of his father’s sayings were rooted in the “playing the dozens” and “bagging” traditions of African American Vernacular (AAVE). “Playing the dozens” and “bagging” are forms of tit for tat expressions of mild hostility among peers, similar to “yo mama” jokes. Though on the surface, “playing the dozens” and “bagging” can look like bullying, it is different from bullying because it is performed among social equals. Rather than the “big kid messing with a little kid,” it is more like “two smart kids going back and forth with each other” while a group eggs them on.


The subject’s father first encountered AAVE when he was serving alongside African Americans in the Navy during 1965. As the sailors formed a community through the commonality of sharing the same military routine and struggles, the subject’s father participated in playing the dozens/bagging to strengthen that social connection. The subject’s father retained the social practice upon returning home.

Interviewer’s Analysis

Though the subject mentions that playing the dozens/bagging were meant to be performed among equals, the majority of the subject’s examples come from his father bagging him as a child. Would that violate the “performed among equals” requirement?

Perhaps post-military, away from the regular company of his fellow sailors, the father’s bagging became less of a form of normalized social bonding, and more of a generalized speech habit. The purpose may have shifted to reaffirming the shared social identity and social bonds built during service, by continuing to perform bagging in the absence of community members.

Allerleirauh (Donkey Skin)

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Subject: So one day, it was like, in this kingdom, the queen is very ill, and she’s dying. And the king says…or she, the queen tells the king: I want you to promise me one thing, and it’s that if you get remarried, you will only marry a woman as beautiful as I am. And then she dies.

And then…for…the next, like, I’m going to say 20 years. but we know that fairy tales, and like way back when people were getting married at 15 years old, maybe 15 years. For the next 15 years, he did not get married. And, you know, eventually his advisers and like everyone in the court is like, okay, it’s time, like you’ve mourned for a really long time, but for the sake of the kingdom we need a queen again. Maybe it was because their only child was a daughter, and they wanted a son, or maybe they just need a queen. Maybe they just needed him to get out of mourning. But they tell him, it’s time, like you have to stop mourning, let’s get you married.

And so he has people search the kingdom and neighboring kingdoms and everywhere, for someone who’s as beautiful as his last wife, but he can’t find anyone. And as he’s despairing the fact that no one is as beautiful as his wife used to be, he hears someone singing or playing music outside, and he looks outside, and he sees a girl who he believes is as beautiful as his wife is. Problem is, that’s his daughter, who he hasn’t really seen, because he’s been like, mourning. There, but like, she’s his daughter, and he is aware of that fact. And he’s like, this is a woman who is as beautiful as my wife. If you want me to get married, I’m getting married to her. And the entire kingdom is like, no, you can’t do that you cannot marry your daughter, and the daughter is…

I read this in a really Christian context first. Like, the, the original version that I read “Donkey Skin” in was very Christian. And so the daughters is a very pious Christian girl, and she is like, horrified. She’s like, God will smite us down. Or I think, just like. Like that’s just a terrible, terrible precedent. Do not marry your daughter. Um…

And…so she is scared, of rejecting her father. Or, she doesn’t have the, like, the autonomy or authority to, because he has final say as king of the land. So, she gives him impossible tasks instead. And she’s like, I want you to first get me a dress that is as blue as the sky. And unfortunately he does, he like, hires master craftsmen, and this is a dress that truly captures a piece of the sky. And then she says I want you to get me a dress that is as golden as the sun. And once again he manages to like, defy her expectations, and she’s forced to admit that he has fulfilled the task. And then,  she says I want you to get one new dress that is as silver as the s—the moon. And he gets her the dress. Oh, the order is mixed up, I think it was sun, moon, and sky (the subject taps on the table as she counts off each of the dresses).

And then she’s like, okay. Like, I have to pull, like, a big one, I have to like, make sure he cannot do it, or else…like. It’s over. So she’s like, the kingdom is very rich and prosperous, because they have a donkey that shits out gold, twice a day. Or, jewels. And that’s like the biggest, that’s like the prize of the kingdom. And he has a place of honor, he has like a fantastic stable, and she’s like, I want you to kill the donkey, and skin it, and give me a cloak made out of its skin. In which case the donkey will no longer be able to excrete gold. And the kingdom will be over. And he does.

And so she’s forced to, like—she cannot escape that in any way. So she decides to flee. Um…

And then the French film on adaptation that I watched, well, I can talk about that at the end. There’s a fairy godmother in that one. But in most versions that I’ve read there isn’t a fairy godmother, which is why I like this one. Um…

So she dons the donkey coat, and…in her…like, her mother, before she passed away, gave her a few gift. Or, left her, bequeathed her a few gifts, which is a bag that could hold anything. So she puts the three dresses into the bag, a gold thimble, a gold, like, spindle, and a gold ring. I think? Yeah.

And, and this is where my memory gets fuzzy because I didn’t know what a spindle or thimble or whatever it was when I was reading this. So she puts those in the bag, and she flees the country. She…I might be giving this mixed up with All-fur, A-thousand-fur, Allerleirauh. She…is hiding in the woods, and the, like, in a neighboring kingdom, in a faraway kingdom. And the prince, sees like, this strange animal…and they’re like…they’re about to shoot, and then they realize it’s a person, and they’re like, what are you doing? Um…and…they take her back, and she like gets employment, in the castle kitchen. Where like, the cook doesn’t really like her, but makes her work hard, and she’s a good worker, so…you can’t really do anything.

And…there is a grand ball, where the prince is kind of seeking to get married. Or, just one ball. And, so, she rolls up in that golden dress…or she begged, she begs the chef, she’s like, please I’ve done all my work, can I have some time off? I just want to peek at the ball from the top of the stairs. I won’t do anything, like, they will never see me. And he’s like, fine. And this whole time, she’s still wearing that like donkey skins that people are like. (Subject whispers.) Are you a furry?

(The interviewer and the subject laugh.)

But they are like, okay, like something’s up with, you know. (Subject laughs). But…yeah (subject laughs), so she takes off her robes, she washes her face which she normally covers with soot, and she goes to the ball in her golden dress and she dances with the prince, and everyone is like, where is, it’s like, this is clearly a princess, she has all the training, where is she from? And…at…she disappears, um…and then the prince is like…darn. He’s like…also I want some soup. And he asks the chef to bring him some soup. And the chef is tired, and he’s like, and he’s—Al, er, Donkey Skin, All-fur, she’s like, I’ll make soup. And so she does, and she like, drops one of the gold items—I think it’s the spindle, into…into the soup.

And he’s eating the, the prince is eating the soup, and he’s like the, chef delivers it to the prince, and prince is eating to soup and he’s like, this is the most delicious soup I’ve ever had. Who made it? And he goes like—the chef goes like, me! He hits the bottom of the, like the bottom of the bowl, and he sees that golden item. And he’s like, what is this. And the chef is forced to admit like, I didn’t make it, let me get the person who made it. So now that it’s time to throw someone, someone under the bus, he’s like, okay, Donkey Skin made it, let me go get her. And the prince is like, what is this. And she’s like, I’ve never seen that before in my entire life. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Um…so he gives up. But he decides like he wants to see the woman he danced with at the ball again, so he throws another ball. And she wears the silver dress. And they dance, and they have a good time, and then she leaves again. And that happens one more time.

Um…the third ball he throw—the chef is like, yo, like…you keep…doing like, he’s like, every time there’s soup, like something sus happens, like do not do that again. He’s like stop pulling the shit. And she’s like, yes, oh and like I promise. Um, she goes to the ball, in like her, in like her…I think it was her sky dress?

But I remember getting this confused, because I thought in my head that the most beautiful dress had to be the golden dress, which is the sun dress, just ‘cuz I liked gold as a child, I was like, blue is a pretty color, but how, like, like beautiful and amazing could that be in comparison to something as bright as the sun?

Though it’s not really important, what the order of the dresses were. So, she dances and he’s—the prince stalls. Like, he makes the orchestra play longer, and she’s like getting antsy, and she’s trying to leave, and while she’s distracted, he slips—I think the last item was a gold ring. And he slips the gold ring onto her finger. And she doesn’t notice. And then she leaves, but she—like because the ball was delayed, like the chef is waiting, he is like okay, he wants his soup like normal, but like where were you? She doesn’t have time, before she sees the chef, to take off her dress, before she puts on the like, donkey skin. So she throws the donkey skin over, and like, throws it on, but under she’s still wearing the dress.

And then, she…does the, drops the gold item in there again, the Prince calls her up, and then, as she’s like, taking the bowl I think, he notices the ring. And like, they take off her coat and she’s the princess, and she washes her face. And they’re like, she is like, yeah, so I’ve been a princess all along. And I think, as they’re about to get married…the news comes that like, her father has died in a fire. Like, shortly after she left, he went like, mad mad. Though he was already mad, and, he’s died in some accidental fire. So she’s now like, the ruler of two kingdoms.


The subject is a 20-year-old Korean-American student at USC. She heard this rendition either online, or in an anthology. Reading during her leisure, she encountered several versions of the tale under different titles, most notably a German version known as “Allerleirauh” and a French film adaptation known as “Donkey Skin.”

The subject was raised deeply religious as a Southern Baptist Christian.


The subject found this tale particularly memorable because, in her experience, most fairy tales she read never mentioned Christianity and God. She contrasts this to the French adaptation, where there is no God, and the princess is much more wishy-washy about rejecting her father. Replacing God as the voice of reason is a fairy godmother, who adamantly convinces the princess not to marry her father and flee the country. But it turns out, the reason why the fairy godmother insisted on this plan, was because she was romantically pursuing the father, who eventually comes to his senses in the film. The idea of the fairy godmother only intervening to stop the princess to marry the king for selfish reasons made the subject uncomfortable, and she wasn’t sure what the moral takeaway was supposed to be.

Interviewer Analysis

The central motif that catches the subject’s attention seems to be the role of Christian religion in preventing moral debauchery. By replacing God with a morally bankrupt fairy godmother, the French adaptation may have been making fun of God’s role in the German version of the tale, suggesting that even without the guidance of God, moral debauchery finds a way to solve itself. However, the subject mentions she prefers the version without the fairy godmother, suggesting that the subject probably prefers that debauchery be resolved through absolute moral guidance.

The performance of this tale is an aesthetic mashup of traditional and modern vernacular narrative style. On one hand, the subject seems to be striving to imitate the solemn, “traditional fairy tale” language recorded in her childhood readings, to speak in the fantasy medieval tone of once-upon-a-time. On the other hand, aware of her modern audience, the subject can’t seem to resist peppering her narrative with contemporary slang and humor. She seems slip into modern lingo when she wants to speed up or add excitement to slower parts of the narrative. Her dynamically chaotic performance of this tale is arguably unique to oral tradition. Other methods of narrative, such as the novel or the film, are too structured to permit drastic whiplashing between aesthetic styles.

Becoming A Cow

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Subject: When I was little my mom told me that if you—this is like the whole story. My mom was like, oh, if you lie down after you eat, you turn into a cow.


The subject is a 20-year-old Korean-American student at USC. She remembers her mother telling her this folk belief from the very beginning of her memory, and estimates she was probably four when she first heard it.


The subject’s mother told this folk belief to the subject, once when she was lying down on the couch after eating lunch or dinner. Her initial reaction was not wanting to be a cow. For several months, she was also convinced that the folk belief was true. She worked very hard to avoid the fate, while also attempting to convince her younger brother to test the folk belief out, before she eventually tried to test the folk belief out herself, after convincing herself that it was “not bad to be a cow.” Upon testing the folk belief out, she “was so scammed.”

The subject confronted her mother after discovering the falsity of the folk belief, recalling that she was “very accusatory.” The confrontation devolved into her mother questioning her why she would want to be a cow. The four-year-old subject argued that being a cow meant an easy lifestyle, because cows just had to sit in the backyard and eat grass all day. Her mother asked her if she knew that their family ate the meat of cows. The subject then countered that she would have lived a good life for a worthy cause. Her mother accepted this and ceased the debate.

Despite having discovered that the folk belief false, the subject still felt uneasy about lying down after eating, and still took folk beliefs from her mother seriously. She felt that even if the folk beliefs were not factually true, they were still “a little more true” since they were supposedly passed down from her grandmother to her mother.

Interviewer’s Analysis

Bizarrely enough, this is a case where the subject transformed a folk belief that had been “proven” untrue, into a “true” superstition. The subject derived her superstitious beliefs, seemingly from the folkloric origin of the belief itself. She seemed to believe that there was a mystical power inherent in the act of passing information down through generations. One could argue that this is a highly abstract form of contact magic, where information “touched” by what was considered truth in past generations, will transfer as the information continues to be passed down the family line. One could also argue that the subject probably derived her superstitious beliefs from romanticized visions of the folk as a “primitive” people with “primal” knowledge.

La Llorona

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La Llorona is a story about this grieving, um, it’s a grieving mom who lost her children, and that, she goes around taking kids from, from other families, screaming, “¡Ay! Mis niños, ¿donde están?” which translates to, “Oh! My kids, where are they?” You know what, you know he’s just—she’s, they’re looking for them, because. They died or, they were lost.


The subject is a 21-year-old Mexican American in his third year at USC. He recalls first hearing the legend of La Llorona at around the age of four or six. Through childhood, he was frequently told the story of La Llorona by his parents as a form of discipline. If he or his siblings misbehaved, their parents said that La Llorona would come and take them away. The subject mentions that this usage of La Llorona as a form of parental discipline was common in every Mexican-American household, along with corporal punishment via the chancla (a flip-flop) or the belt. In terms of disciplinary severity, the subject as a child would have considered La Llorona to be less of a threat than the chancla and the belt. The subject stopped believing in the literal existence of La Llorona around the age of seven, eight, or nine—around the same time, he says, that most children realize that Santa Claus isn’t real.


Growing up, the subject often discussed the legend of La Llorona with other Mexican American children in his hometown of Van Nuys. The purpose of such discussion was less to ascertain whether La Llorona was real, and more to affirm a shared folk experience of being disciplined by parents in the same manner. He felt that only other Mexican Americans would understand the normalcy of the disciplinary method, rather than reacting judgmentally and mischaracterizing the discipline as a form of child abuse.

Over time, the subject’s childhood fear associated with La Llorona dulled into nostalgia, and he began to view La Llorona as a central part of his cultural history. Based on this current perception, the subject says that he finds it fascinating the legend was even used as a disciplinary tactic to begin with. He characterizes its use as a disciplinary tactic as “negative”—as the opposite of how he believes folklore like La Llorona ought to be used. He thinks folklore like La Llorona should be used as a “positive” way to build a shared sense of cultural identity through the passing down of traditions.

Another “positive” use of La Llorona, the subject argues, is for entertainment. The subject mentions an instance when his Spanish teacher showed the class a cartoon adaptation of La Llorona, to give the class a simple task to occupy their attention on a relatively work-free day. The class, which was majority Latino, was familiar with the legend; as such, the teacher had offer little explanation for what the plot of the story was. The subject especially enjoyed the video retelling of La Llorona because of its “authenticity,” which he defined in terms of aesthetic choices, such as including all the major motifs in the legend (e.g. the river, the ghostly spirit), and casting Mexican voice actors who spoke Spanish with a proper Mexican accent.

Interviewer’s Analysis

When asked to elaborate on what constituted “authenticity” in folklore adaptation, the subject compared the La Llorona video to the Scooby Doo film, The Monster of Mexico, which he felt portrayed both an inauthentic version of the Chupacabra (another legendary Mexican monster), and an inauthentic version of Mexico. The Monster of Mexico made the Chupacabra look like Bigfoot, characterized Mexicans through stereotypical sombreros and maracas iconography, and most condemnably, featured an all-white cast. For the subject, authenticity in Mexican folklore adaptation hinged on the folklore not being whitewashed. Here, the interviewer asked the subject how one might strike a balance between fighting the hegemony of whitewashed folklore, and not establishing a new hegemony by claiming to have a singularly authoritative “authentic” interpretation.

Briefly, hegemony is defined as the total control over the terms of a narrative. The subject replied that he didn’t think ought to be a singularly authoritative authenticator for adaptations of folklore. In the context of Latino folklore, the subject suggested that his concern was less with defining authenticity, than fostering a sense of accountability. He didn’t want people to create adaptations of Latino folklore for a mainstream general audience, without creators being mindful of what portrayals of Latino culture they could potentially misinform non-Latinos with.

While the subject’s answer certainly adds nuance to defining the boundary between artificially authoritative authenticity and hegemony, the question of where that boundary is still remains—and, in the interviewer’s opinion, cannot be answered without defining what precisely “whitewashing” is. Is whitewashing the same as Americanization? Who defines and authenticates what is American, when America houses multiple types of cultures? What counts as “white” culture? Is any insertion of “white” culture into a historically nonwhite folklore adaptation automatically considered whitewashing? For instance, in the La Llorona video, the children are portrayed as trick-or-treaters, to appeal to a broader American audience—does that count as whitewashing?

These questions are complicated, and any definition of “whitewashing” for the purposes of evaluating “authenticity” of folklore will inevitably struggle to cover every scenario. Perhaps a more appropriate starting point, would be to consider folklore adaptation in terms of social power structures. What cultures does one group get a “pass” to freely adapt from? Who authenticates the “pass” under what circumstances? How do dynamics play out when authenticity gets contested?  Who is contesting authenticity, under what definition, and why?

The Seamstress

Main Text

Subject: I think the one that is…the details I remember most, is about…like, the mother daughter story? And I think my mom called it like, the seamstress or something?

Interviewer: Hm, okay.

Subject: But basically it was about a daughter who was like, leaving their home village to work, or something? And then the mother like, was really sad that she was leaving, and then, I think the night before she left, she ended up sewing this entire quilt that night? Uh…of like, memories, or something, something mystical. And then, and then like, the daughter like, brought it, away. And then I think she ended up like, not being able to come back, and then she just like, always had that like, quilt, as, like, a symbol of her mother’s love.


The subject is a 22-year-old Taiwanese-American woman in her fourth year at USC. She was around four when she heard this story for the first time. She remembers her own mother telling her this tale as a bedtime story, and that it was so sad it moved her to the point of tears. Her mother had framed the story as an example of how a mother’s love was so deep, it could travel with you wherever you would go.


This was the first item of folklore the subject brought up in a broader interview over folklore that the subject knew. As a child, the subject had a very literal interpretation of the tale. She thought her mother was literally going to make a her a quilt in the name of motherly love, just like the mother in the tale did for her daughter. As she grew up, she realized this interpretation was not grounded in reality, and that her mother had intended the tale to be taken no more literally than other folk stories she told at bedtime.

Interviewer’s Analysis

As a college student preparing to graduate this semester, the subject likely was thinking about reuniting with family again after an extensive institutionalized period of separation, much like how the daughter in the tale was extensively separated from her family by the institution of labor. Now, at a different stage in life, her identification with the daughter in this tale has become more literal, albeit in a way her four-year-old self had not considered.

The Basement Nazi Flag

Main Text

Subject: USC has like, a Nazi Germany flag in the basement somewhere. Of like, Mudd Hall or somewhere, st…stashed away. Cuz’ like…it was hanging up during World War II or whatever? In this very building…I guess?

Background Information

The interview was conducted in the Von KleinSmid Center library basement, which is the “very building” referred to by the subject in the interview. The subject is a fourth-year anthropology student at the University of Southern California. During the year of this interview, they heard this legend from an acquaintance, who heard it through word of mouth.


The subject has spread the legend “once or twice […] within the same group circle” in the context of “shitting on USC.” Given the university’s recent admissions scandals, they consider sharing the legend timely, as yet another example of “all the shit that USC has been doing, and that people have been frustrated about.” They have even experienced the urge to share this legend and other similar anti-USC rumors when campus tour groups are passing by, as an “exposé” of the university to otherwise blissfully ignorant potential and incoming students. The subject considers “shitting on USC” a personally significant activity in their life, because it annoys them that people laud USC for being a great school with great resources, when people ought to be more critical of the university’s blatantly unethical actions. They don’t want USC to “get away” with its corruption, and even though sharing the legend does little to bring tangible justice, it still challenges general perceptions of the school.

However, they mention they are “a little hesitant” to present it as a confirmed fact in their pursuit of encouraging others to “shit on USC.” They juxtapose the legend with other anti-USC legends that have had more factual verification, such as Traveler being a Confederate horse and Von KleinSmid being a eugenicist.

The Basement Nazi Flag legend is also not the first Nazi-related USC legend that the subject has heard. They draw parallels between this legend, and the legend of the Nazis having donated a tree to the university. They discuss how the Nazi Tree legend is similar to the Basement Nazi Flag legend, because the truth of both legends are difficult to confirm. On the other hand, they mention that the two legends are generally shared with different intentions: the Nazi Tree legend is sensational and often restyled as a tree that was donated by Hitler, whereas the Basement Nazi Flag is symbolic and meant to directly criticize the hidden corruption at USC.

Despite the questionable factuality of these legends, the subject argues that most people do take legends such as the Basement Nazi Flag seriously, given the political gravity of the subject matter. They mention that, even among those who share similarly critical opinions of USC, the reaction to hearing these legends is usually aghastness.

Interviewer’s Analysis

This legend is an example of folklore as counter-hegemony. Briefly, hegemony is defined as the total control over the terms of a narrative. In this case, USC maintains hegemony over its public image as a prestigious, top-tier university that is desirable to attend. The Basement Nazi Flag legend subverts this hegemony by presenting a visceral example of USC’s politically damnable history. What makes this legend such a powerful attack on USC’s character, is that it not only implies that USC is condemnable for having been affiliated with Nazis in the past, but that it ought to be doubly condemned for concealing that history from present company, essentially pretending like the affiliation never happened. The fact that there are several other similar, much more factually grounded legends such as the USC mascot Traveler being a Confederate horse, and former USC President Von KleinSmid being a eugenicist, suggests that even if the Basement Nazi Flag legend is not factually true, the anti-USC sentiments motivating its spread are rooted in historical reality.

For Further Reading

Two collections of the Nazi Tree legend reference by the subject appear in the Digital Folklore Archives. They are linked below here: