Author Archives: Jaemyeong Lee

Three Pats: “I’m not gay.”

The custom:

…is performed when two males give each other a hug. If they wish to convey/confirm that they’re not homosexual, they pat the other three times to indicate, “I’m not gay.”

The informant, from Houston, Texas, learned the custom in the 8th grade in a public middle school. He also included that he thought he learned it from one of his peers who played sports (the informant did not play sports.) When asked about why the custom may have started, he replied, “I’m sure that it started because of a transition into physical male interaction becoming less taboo. Meanwhile, homosexuality is still taboo.”

The informant: “My sister’s husband and I do it for fun now every time we hug.”

I think he hit the nail on the head with his speculation. And by acknowledging that there should be a taboo nature of homosexuality seems to suggest that Houston continues a trend of homophobia.

As for the gesture itself, by virtue of its existence, it would seem that there is an underlying continuing homophobia. Along the same lines, there also exists the need to affirm that one isn’t gay each time he hugs another male. On this point, it’s interesting that the informant has suggested an awareness of a shift in the norms of physical contact between males, hugs in themselves having once been a taboo gesture. But while all this may have once been the case and still may be the case around Houston, the informant’s final comment regarding his brother-in-law, who by the norms of marital union is clearly heterosexual, seems to suggest that the use of these gestures have gone out of fashion. For the informant to enact pats with a brother-in-law would be at the very least redundant, and yet there’s something “fun” about it.

The “Hair and Chair Company”

A Los Angeles based theatre company, A Noise Within, back in the ’90s (and perhaps even today) referred to themselves as a “hair and chair company.” The company was constantly in repertory, so they didn’t expend a lot of effort in the production value. Often they put up plays with nothing more than nondescript furniture populating the stage, and instead of period-specific costumes, actors performed in contemporary attire with “crazy hair” suggestive of the period they were playing in. In short, the “hair and chair” nature of the company was referring to their emphasis on the story rather than spectacle of their productions.

The informant, herself a Los Angeles based theatre artist and professor, had learned the phrase during her first commissioned job with the company. The phrase, she said wasn’t written in any manual, but was  simply learned. She figured it out “just by hanging around.” “The thing about these phrases though, I think,” she said, “is that they exist because of a phenomenon they’re speaking to. I don’t think the company would have come up with their little motto if other theatre companies all prioritized story over production value. No, I think they came up with the label to separate themselves from the companies that emphasize the spectacle.” What the informant is speaking to, of course, is what some may refer to as the shadow meaning of mottos and proverbs.

Following the informant’s own analysis further is that this type of lore not only distinguishes one groups identity from another but also establishes a pride in that identity. If we were to follow that identity is established in binaries, this case would certainly be an illustration of this type of identification: those who emphasize story vs those who emphasize production value.

As for the informant, it would seem that she must constantly acquire lore such as this one being that as a freelance director/choreographer/actor, she is frequently thrown into a new collection of people with their own established codified vernacular. In other words, she is constantly in a liminal space having to transition from one community into the next. Granted each of these communities are all composed of similar freelance theatrical artists, but each theater most likely develops their lore unique to how they distinguish themselves as being unique. More research into what lore might exist to depict the freelance nature of the work may prove fruitful.

“Little Piggy” – Russian Folk Song

Little Piggy

Transcript to Audio file (condensed and edited):

Informant: Okay, this one…in my broken Russian, she [my mom] wakes me up, takes my hand in her hand and with her finger circles my palm and sings [song], and then she’s taking my fingers…one by one [chant], and then when she gets to my thumb [chant] and then tickles me. It’s basically a “this little piggy” equivalent so she’s taking each of my fingers and when she gets to the last one, she’s not giving it to me.

Collector: Can you do the entire thing through? Here…[offering my hand] do it to me.

(Informant does so.)


When I asked him when he first learned the chant, the informant said that his mother had probably been doing that since he was baby. When asked whether he knew where she had learned it, he replied that he did not. “I would guess probably from her mother…It never really mattered to me,” he said. “I mean of course now I’m curious and I’ll probably ask her later today, but it had never crossed my mind to ask her. For me it was just a way she showed that she loved me.”

In this instance, the folklore functions as a link for the informant to his childhood, his mother, and his heritage. In the beginning of the recording, the informant prefaces by saying, “In my broken Russian…” Nevertheless, despite any uncertainty he may have regarding his language skills, he doesn’t stumble with any of the examples of folk speech he shares, having grown up with all of it. As soon as he was able, he began performing the chant for his little sister who is now in the ninth grade since she was a baby. “When I do it nowadays though,” he chuckled, “she gets annoyed.”

The value of this example of folk speech is in how easily it’s become transmitted from mother to child and then from child to sibling. Though it’s no surprise, it’s funny that a fourteen year old girl would be annoyed with her twenty year old brother for continuing to perform it with her, since the chant is so intertwined with childhood – pre-adolescence. But also, perhaps being that the chant is interlaced with a Russian heritage given that it’s in Russian, it’d be interesting to inquire into whether the annoyance of the transmission is also tied to a reluctance to associate with the heritage through its traditions.

What’s also worth noting in this example is that the informant himself made the connection between the two cultures he’s affiliated with; in fact, he gave me the title “Little Piggy” for the song, when in fact there is no literal mention of a pig in the Russian version. Of course, as one who knows very little about the Russian language and culture, I appreciated the connection from one piece of folklore into another, as well as witnessing how someone of two heritages can reconcile what necessarily seem like they must be separate through common lore. Why not? Considering that both the Russian song and the Western “little piggy” chant both involve the child’s hands and specifically the fingers.

The Jersey Devil

The informant had heard the tale from his cousin whose primary residence was in Delaware. The informant was around 12 years old when he heard it.

The Legend:

Long ago, there  was a woman notorious for her promiscuous affairs with many men. After having birthed her 11th child each from a different father, she met an old man who warned that if she continued her behavior, her 13th child would be a demon. Sure enough, the woman birthed the 13th child, who was born with the head of a goat and the wings of a bat. The demon then killed its mother and the mid-wife. Subsequently, while the Jersey Devil has never been spotted, mysterious claw marks have appeared in new homes and construction sites, among which was the middle school that the informant’s cousin attended.



It seems that this urban legend gives rise to the taboo nature of a woman’s sexual promiscuity. Being that Delaware’s predominant religious denomination is Catholic, the story’s chastisement of adultery appears consistent. Also worth noting is that the the cursed child was the 13th. In many cultures, including our own, the number 13 often connotes misfortune and dark magic superstition (i.e. “Friday, the 13th”). But beyond the sexual undertones of the story, I would guess that the appeal of the story to middle schoolers lies in the possibility of a mythical creature that has survived the test of time. As for the aesthetic of the story, that this creature has not been sighted while “evidence” (the claw marks) of its existence is prevalent scratches away at a community’s fear of what cannot be controlled. Further inquiring into how the informant’s cousin first learned the story would be useful in determining whether the tale serves as a tool by parents to keep children safe or if it merely functions as a means of entertainment, as it did in the transmission from the cousin to informant.

For another reference to the Jersey Devil, see also:

Haunted Hotel of the French Quarter

The urban legend:

“Back in the ’20s or so, a couple visited a hotel in the French Quarter. The only room that the hotel had available was rumored to be haunted, but not believing in superstitions, the couple took the room. Weeks after the trip, they received in the mail pictures of themselves in the hotel room – pictures taken from the ceiling of the room.When they called the hotel and asked where these pictures came from, the owner replied, ‘I warned you. The room is haunted. A man hung himself in that room years ago.'”


The informant first heard this story when she was 17 and on a ghost tour of the French Quarter in New Orleans, which was also her home town at the time. Ghost tours are perhaps more on the edge of folklore being that one of their objectives, in addition to preserving lore, must be to make a profit, and the stories the employees share surely come from an authored text of some training manual. Nevertheless, by virtue of a ghost tour existing in New Orleans, I would venture to guess that ghost stories play enough of a part in the culture that even the manual’s stories has its origins in native lore.

Keeping this in mind, I think it appropriate to first note the aesthetic of this ghost story. Like many ghost stories, the scare tactic of this story lies in the use of an unobserved presence: the Ghost that was in the room that the couple didn’t recognize was there. Then again, while no physical harm comes to any of the characters, they experience a subversion of belief through the evidence of what they previously didn’t believe to exist. What is also unsettling is that a haunted room in a hotel would be available despite the owner knowing it’s haunted. The ghost illustrates a continuing discomfort over the liminal space between life and death. While the story (as the informant told it) excludes any details as to why the man hung himself, the informant herself seemed to fear that he would reach out to the living even without considering that the ghost’s motivation may not have been out of malice. When I asked the informant if she remembered a more specific date for the occurrences in the story, she said she did not. It seems then that perhaps the element of time, the ambiguity over when the story occurred is less important, that the story’s having survived over the years is enough to be unsettling. Something to note, however, is that while the date is unspecified, both the fact that the story is placed in the reality of our world – in fact, an existing construction – and the ambiguity of whether it’s true contribute to the overall aesthetic of the piece.

However, being that the informant heard the story in a ghost tour, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the story serves as anything more than entertainment in the existing culture. As for the informant herself, she explained that she shares the story to peers that tell her that they’re going to visit the French Quarter to “psyche them out” and also get them interested in the area. Interestingly, a story that very well could have come from lore, entered authored literature for tourism, and has returned to the realm of folklore to further tourism.