“‘The walls have ears,’ you know, everyone is listening, shut your mouth, don’t talk. Don’t talk bad about the government, don’t talk…don’t say stupid things, because there’s always someone listening. That’s my parents’…their Soviet upbringing. Because, like, everyone was listened to… I had relatives who, for a joke, went to prison. So that kinda…got pretty well ingrained, just don’t…don’t talk bad.”
My informant moved to the US when he was less than two years old, but the memory of Soviet oppression was so strong for his parents that they taught him to hold his tongue about the government, and authority in general. Obviously, this stems from the horrors of the GULAG and other ways in which the Russian people were oppressed during the Soviet era. The fact that even the Americanized children were taught how to survive in a communist country shows how enduring an impression the repressive Soviet regime made on those who lived under it.
“In this family, there’s a mother, a father, a grandma, and an older brother, and a daughter. And they’re eating pears. And what you’re supposed to do, like you can never split a pear. You can only eat a full pear. And I actually remember, fairly recently, I asked my mom if she wanted to split a pear, and she wouldn’t. The story started off with the littlest child gets the smallest pear. It’s about filial piety. The elders get the best pears. And you also can’t split pears. Because that splits your relationships with people. Keeping the pear together keeps the family together.”
There are two different stories going on here: a tale about a family who gets differently sized pears depending on age, and a folk belief that it is bad luck to split a pear. My informant told them so that they were interconnected. The story of the family eating pears is related to filial piety – the head of the house gets the biggest pear because he deserves the most respect, and the size of the fruit diminishes until the youngest child has the smallest pear.
When viewed in this light, the belief that splitting pears with someone is bad luck makes perfect sense. If a pear represents filial piety and the relationships between family members, splitting it would be terrible for the family.
“You never take the trash out before you leave your house. It’s just bad luck. You don’t–you can take it out earlier, but once you leave the house, you don’t take any trash with you when you go out.”
Russians have a vast number of superstitions that revolve around leaving the house. Perhaps because setting out on a journey was traditionally so dangerous, they have a number of rituals that place a great deal of gravity on the act of departing one’s home. They usually involve a sort of introspection on the idea of leaving and the possibility of not returning; however, there are others, such as this one provided by my informant, that are more demonstrative. Taking out the trash brings back luck, and no one wants bad luck on their journey.
“In China, there’s this thing called your ben ming nian, which is pretty much the year–for example, I am the year of the ram. So when it is year of the ram, so every twelve years–so when I’m twelve, twenty four, thirty six…every day of that year, you should wear red. For example, my mom’s ben ming nian was last year. She wore red underwear every single day. Red is not a normal color in her normal wardrobe, but she was just like, ‘I have to wear red every day somehow,’ so she went to Victoria’s Secret and bought seven pairs of red underwear. Red is just a good luck color in China, and especially when it’s your zodiac year.”
The zodiac is a powerful belief in Chinese culture; many Chinese people believe that the year of your birth strongly influences your personality. As told by my informant, wearing the lucky color red during your zodiac year, or ben ming nian, makes the luck stronger and gives you a good year. The belief is so strong that her mother, who normally never wears the color red, went out and bought enough underwear so she could wear the lucky color year-round.
“My mother comes from a Mormon family, and none of the women in her family are supposed to have middle names, because you’re supposed to get married and take your original surname as your middle name and then take your husband’s surname. But then she gave herself a middle name when she became forty because that had frustrated her.”
My informant told me this story about her mother and made it seem as though this is a common practice among Mormon women. In a strongly male-dominated culture that values marriage as much as Mormonism does, this did not come as a surprise to me. By taking your husband’s surname, you become part of a new family unit, and keeping your original surname as your middle name keeps a connection to your original family. The name her mother gave herself, incidentally, was her father’s first name.