Author Archives: Irene Wang

You don’t have friends; you have associates.

Information about the Informant

My informant currently lives near USC, near enough that he likes to ride his bicycle around the campus to relax and swim in the John C. Argue Swim Stadium. He grew up in downtown Los Angeles. He spent his childhood and adolescence in the impoverished parts of the city. Even now, though according to him, he has a “nice place” now with neighbors that don’t bother him if he doesn’t bother them, he still sees people he knows to be either gang members or pimps or prostitutes, and he avoids them as he doesn’t want to get caught up in their ways of life. In this account, he tells me about how he avoided falling into a bad way of life in the first place.


“You know, when I was coming up, I have a lot of friends down, you know, and most of them, they dead or in jail, right? Or sprung out on crack somewhere. All the drugs. So, um, when I was like, uh, I don’t know. I’d say about, I’d say about thirteen, fourteen years old. Mom used to say this. She used to say, “Yo, you think you got friends out there, but you really don’t have friends,” you know. “You got ‘ssociates,” that’s what she said. “A friend is somebody that’s gonna be with you, you know what I’m saying? Through thick or thin, you know; that’s a real friend. But these people you meet, they out here, they’re trying to, you know, they drinking with you, they doing wrong with you, wanting you to do wrong, those is not your friend.”

So, you know, I listen to Mom, and then again, there goes these old, these old winos used to be out there on the corner, drinking their little wine, you know, not, not, not like bum winos, but they just be out there on the corner drinking wine and just getting together, you know. So one time, they, they would stopped us, you know, they say, “Man, you, whatcha’ll going? Where y’all going? Whatcha’ll doing?” “Well, we’re just going around, just, you know, just chilling, just, just going around, you know.” “Y’all gonna get in some trouble. Now, let me tell y’all,” and you know what, he explain to us just like what my mom said, you know, same way, you know. And it, it, it got to me, you know. Now, a lot of kids nowadays, they don’t believe what their mother tell them, you know what I’m saying? They, they, they go out there and do things and—but I took notice. I said, “Now, why would this guy just sit there and tell me something that my, my mom just told me, you know. So what she’s saying must be true. She don’t even know this guy. Right?” So, right then, I cut with those friends a loose. I slowed down with them. And I basically, ‘cause you know, ‘cause we was done, we headed for the wrong way, doing things out there, the wrong thing. And so these guy—you know, I cut them loose, and as I did that—I, I didn’t just like, bam, going out, I won’t see y’all no more. But I, you know, when they wanted me to do things, oh, I got something, you know, I’d tell them that. You know, I’m doing something else.”


I would not have entered this as a piece of folklore if not for the fact that I too have heard people say this. The one specific instance from my life that I can remember came from my mother. Searching for this possible proverb on Google turns up an article called “Friends vs. Associates: How Do You Know Who’s Who?” It may be coincidental, but the article is featured on a site called Single Black Male, and my informant himself is African American, as was, presumably, his mother. I could also speculate that my own mother may have heard this from the African American community in Baltimore where she lived while she was in America. No matter where it came from, it is a useful piece of advice. While not always phrased the same way, therefore not making it a true proverb, it does always feature the same two key words, that is, “friends” and “associates.” These two words are the most important as they are the types of people being compared in the advice, considering whether the person in question is truly a friend or merely an associate who may not want the best for you as a friend would. In this way, the advice resembles a metaphor or a simile, although it is never stated in either form, comparing and contrasting two concepts in order to define the qualities of both. In this case, of course, the important thing is how the concepts differ and not how they are alike.

Growing up in the neighborhood that he did, my informant told me many stories about the terrible tragedies and crimes he’s seen in the darker parts of Los Angeles. Many of them involve gang-related activities, and he constantly expressed his relief that he never truly got involved in any of that and his determination to never be dragged into it through associating with the wrong people. If indeed this is a piece of advice that specifically circulates throughout African American communities, then my informant’s case is certainly indicative of why this is. The unfortunate reality is that impoverished African American communities still suffer a disproportionately higher rate of crime, and specifically gang-related crime, and the poverty in those communities plus the temptation of the benefits one gets from being a part of a gang does drive many young kids growing up in those neighborhoods to becoming a part of the lifestyle that my informant is glad he avoided. This piece of advice then would be helpful in telling those kids to re-evaluate the peers they associate with and determine whether or not those peers have their best interests at heart.

Citation for the article on Single Black Male:

Streetz. “Friends vs. Associates: How Do You Know Who’s Who?” Single Black Male. Web. 1 May. 2014. <>.

USC Haunted House

Information about the Informant

My informant is a USC undergraduate student majoring in Theatre. He used to have a major in the cinematic arts, and acted in a few student films produced by his fellow students.


“So I was filming a student film here on campus a couple years ago. Uh, it was a–I was like–the film never actually got produced but I was a killer. I was like a serial killer or something. With all his–it was real–all like themed killings. It’s all pretty…insane. And, uh. We didn’t have a permit. So we got approached by a DPS officer. And we were all scared we were gonna get like…or the director at least was scared that we were gonna get busted. I didn’t care ’cause, you know, I’m just the actor. I can’t be held accountable for any of this. Uh. And… But she doesn’t say anything, she actually, uh, starts…talking to us and I forget how…this came up. But she starts talking about this house near campus. And uh, this is at night. And apparently this house near campus is haunted. And…because she said that like fellow officers have been in it to like…look at stuff or whatever, and there’ve been voices and moving things, spooky stuff. And uh, she said that apparently a family lived there, and…two–I’m pretty sure it was only two of the members of the family are…actually there as ghosts now. And they’ve been…messing with stuff, and…I think she said–yeah, she said one of them is friendly and the other one’s pretty…spiteful and vindictive. Uh. And so basically it’s not a place you wanna go. And I don’t know where it is. But…it’s around here somewhere.”


Finally, a ghost story about USC. According to my informant, he had no real personal reason for remembering this story that the DPS officer told; he remembered it because it was part of the larger story that almost got their filming crew “busted.” But for me, and possibly for any other USC student hearing the story, it’s interesting because it presents a side to the DPS that we as students don’t normally hear about. It raises interesting questions as to why the DPS investigate this house that often in the first place and how the story is told amongst themselves. When one of them is told to go investigate it, how does he or she feel about this if he or she has been told about the supposed history of this house? It is curious that this story does not circulate amongst the student population of USC as ghost stories usually thrive amongst young adults around college-age, especially when it involves a location near them. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that this house is probably not one open to the public and thus the only legal reason a person would have for ever entering the house is to investigate it for some official reason, as the DPS officers do in this account. But it is still odd that even rumors of this house have not appeared en masse amongst the students and that even a Google search for haunted locations in the USC area turns up nothing except staged haunted houses for the purposes of Halloween celebrations.

Math Classroom Ghost

Information about the Informant

My informant is an English teacher at a high school in Southern California, and has been teaching for over twenty-five years. She has been featured as an Influential Teacher of the Month within the last five years, and has received great reviews and praise from her former students as a teacher who cares about and motivates her students to succeed. I met her next to Tommy Trojan when she brought her class to USC campus on a college visit and she gave me this school ghost story in the short time before she had to collect her class.


“I teach at the oldest high school in [school name and location removed]. And there is a common story that, um, circulates. And that is that one of the math classes is haunted. And so everyone goes in, I–usually on a Thursday morning, and you can note the differences in air temperature. Um, on a Thursday morning, you can, at any other time, on any other day. So, we really believe that something is going on in that school, or in that room, or something occurred there that–and that is an ongoing reminder to us that something negative occurred in there, because it’s always cold.”

Collector: “Is there any, like, theory as to what it might be?”

“From my kids? No, we’ve no theory. We have no idea because we cannot, um, there’s no accounting of anything had ever happened in there. So it could be that prior to the building being built, that some violent occurrence was there. Maybe, you know, some, uh, early settlers or maybe some of the indigenous people, or something like that that was in–that was, gave that piece of land or that little area kind of a negative quality.”


When asked how this possibly haunted classroom affected people at the school, whether staff members or students, my informant told me that all it seemed to do was reaffirm the beliefs that the students or staff members already had. For those students (and possibly members of the staff) who already believed in an afterlife that included ghosts or some sort of spiritual remnant left in the world after death, the story “gives credence” to that belief. But for those who did not believe in ghosts, they simply believed the unnatural cold was due to “wind pattern or something.”

This is an interesting example as it’s an instance of a ghost story where there is no actual ghost, but merely an unnatural phenomenon that could easily be attributed to a natural cause. It’s interesting to observe because, rather than attribute the cold to a problem with the cooling system or weather patterns, it seems like people at the school are more than willing to try to find a “supernatural” explanation for the cold, even undertaking, it sounds like, research into the history of the school to find out if anything violent had ever occurred on the school’s property. It’s an interesting example because it provides a look at how an experience may turn into a memorate, the process by which an experience can become a memorate, where the experience is something strange but explainable and those involved instead search for a way to incorporate it into the genre of ghost stories, using the tropes about ghost stories that they already know (e.g. that if there is a ghost, there must have been some violent incident in the past; that settlers or indigenous people may have cursed the ground long ago).

Crow’s Mouth

Information about the Informant

My informant is a freelance editor and translator living in Taiwan. She was born in Taiwan and has lived there essentially her whole life, except for a few years in America. I asked her specifically about this proverb that I’d heard my grandma tell me when I was young as I’d never really understood it, and she told me the origin of the proverb and how it became the version that I heard as a child.


“‘Having a crow’s mouth.’ Because we Chinese believe—no, not believe, Chinese always claim that crows are bad luck. The story’s very simple. It’s just…we feel the crow—because it’s black, so it’s bad luck. So when it—and other people say…uh…most of the time, it’s just that we believe, it may go against biology, but we believe that most of the time, crows don’t speak. That they don’t go, ‘Wah, wah, wah, wah.’ So when they do speak, it’s that bad things are about to happen. That it’s kind of like…a…prophet, can predict, can tell you that bad luck or bad things are coming. So, so, when they speak, they just…they tell you that you will have misfortune—not necessarily you, not you specifically, just somewhere around there or Taiwan or something. Just that there’ll be misfortune.

So then people started saying ‘having a crow’s mouth,’ became like ‘you’re acting like…a crow.’ That is to say, what you say, after you say this thing, it’ll actually happen. So they’ll say you have ‘a crow’s mouth.’ But if…if a person says something and then it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t count as ‘crow’s mouth.’

Collector: “But you…you—when you say someone has the ‘mouth of a crow,’ you don’t know yet if the thing will happen. Just, as soon as they say, ‘Oh, this bad thing might happen,’ then you need to say, ‘CROW’S MOUTH.’


Collector: So you haven’t even checked, to see if it’s really happened.

‘Yes. And, when it—when it first started, ‘crow’s mouth,’ this term was…was…changed—it was that the thing the person said, if it really happened, then we would berate him, saying, “It was you having a crow’s mouth.” That is, for instance, uh, we at NTCH [informant’s work place], each of us wishes…wishes that our boss won’t, won’t do a certain thing. And then a person then, then says, ‘Oh!’—never mind, if we, let me give an example, for instance, we have our first day off, we just had, let me see, Memorial Day. And the day before we get Memorial Day off, someone says, ‘Let’s hope that…after the holiday ends, the first day we come back to work, we don’t get called to a…kind of…meeting…that starts at 8 in the morning and lasts till 7 in the evening kind of meeting.’ I’ve heard that the person who likes our English writings, that boss has that kind of meeting a lot. And then…and then—because everyone thought he was just kidding, ‘No, no, no, that won’t happen,’ and then, yeah, the first day back at work, it actually happens that there’s a meeting from 8 in the morning, as soon as you get to the office, you get called to the meeting, lasting until the afternoon, 7 o’clock, getting home at 7 pm. And then people will yell at the person who said it, ‘You have a crow’s mouth.’ However, if it was this person, it happens that every thing he says like that always has this kind of effect, that is, whenever he says something, it always has this effect, for instance, he eats lunch, that one, that one, at that place that [a coworker of hers] took you to eat once, and then, the dish that they like to eat, they say, ‘I hope they’ll have that dish today,’ and then that person says again, ‘They won’t have that dish today because it’s that…um…that—lately that dish has been going up in price. They definitely won’t use that dish.’ And then when they go, they really don’t have that dish, they’ll say, ‘You had a crow’s mouth!’ And then…um…in the future, when he talks, people will say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth,’ to stop him first. So when he’s prepared to—before he, um, starts to talk, you have to say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth.’ But then, that is, nowadays, um—actually, Taiwanese people are becoming more and more superstitious. Because we’re having more and more bad luck. Don’t we say a lot that we are a bad luck family? The whole country, it has more and more of a workload, things like that. Less and less money. Then everyone starts to become really nervous, whenever someone starts to say something, they say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth!’ Meaning in case, meaning if you say it, then it’ll become a bad thing. So, this phrase became a sort of ‘stop someone from becoming’—it’s superstitious, in case what they say becomes a thing that, um, comes true.”


The meaning behind the proverb and how it became a preemptive warning instead of a way to blame someone after a misfortune is pretty clear in the transcript. I do agree with her that this change from a comment or exclamation after the fact to a warning (and the time I remember hearing my grandmother tell me the proverb, she did sound pretty horrified and frantic) does reflect a change in the culture of Taiwan. I don’t believe necessarily that it is due directly to a sort of economic crisis or “bad luck” for the whole island, but it does seem to at least reflect a change in behavior from a more relaxed one where such prophecies were not welcome but tolerated, to one that actively tries to prevent these prophecies from ever being made in the first place.

Original Chinese

Continue reading

Ghost leaving hairbrush on the dresser

Information about the Informant

My informant is the father of a high school girl who was visiting USC campus for a college tour.


“And then her mother passed away just a few years ago. Um, and she was close to her mom. And her mom, you know, died suddenly. They didn’t expect her to die. And she may have been not taking her medication or something of that nature. So it’s like maybe preventable. Preventable. Um. So her old–and this woman’s fifty, so she’s not like a kid. Um. The mom–the woman–her mother was in her…maybe close to 80. Um. So she went to a psychic. Someone had said, ‘Oh, maybe you’ll feel–get closure from this woman,’ so she goes and listens to this woman. And the woman said, ‘Oh yeah, your mom’s here with you and she’s sorry that she had to leave. But she’s looking over you,’ and all that stuff. And the– my friend was still thinking this was just kinda, ‘Ok, this woman’s just telling her [inaudible].’ And then she starts saying–she said, oh, there was things that– she left some stuff in her house for her. But they had already gone to the house to clean it. Um, clean the apartment. Um, so she said but there was things that were left there for her. So she said, ok, whatever. So she went back to the house. Another day, not even that day. She was–a couple of days later. And there was–there was things sitting on the…the dresser. That weren’t there. I mean, she says they weren’t there before. She says, ‘I’ve–we cleaned, everything was in boxes.’ And it was a brush, like her mom’s brush, that she would brush her hair, like, my friend when she was a little girl, her mom would use this brush. And there were a few other little things that were sitting there. On the–on the dresser. And, like she said it was–it–the whole house had been cleaned and packed up. So she went back to that woman–the woman. She says, ‘Oh, can you tell me more?’ And she says, ‘Oh, she’s always looking out for you,’ and all that kinda stuff, ‘and will always be here.’ That was like two years ago. So she’s…totally believes all this stuff. You know, my friend believes that, oh, her mom’s looking out for her.”


This is a prime example of a memorate. The friend in this account experienced the events in the account for herself, but her story is also part of a larger narrative about ghosts and contact from the afterlife. The significance of the experience for her is pretty clear; she was close to her mother and most likely was grieving the loss of such a beloved figure. The possibility that her mother could still interact with her even after death is a comforting one, especially reinforced by the hairbrush being left on the dresser, an item that she associates with her childhood experiences with her mother taking care of her by brushing her hair for her. My informant, however, when telling this story, sounded less than convinced that there was a supernatural reason behind the experience. I felt that, to him, this story was more important because his friend was involved in it and it marked a turning point in her life, as my informant stated that after this incident, his friend did start believing that her mother was looking after her from the afterlife, when, in his story, she too had been skeptical of the psychic being able to offer her anything substantial.