Author Archives: altocat

The “Golden Rule”

Main Piece:

B: The golden rule is like “treat others the way you want to be treated,” so that’s the golden rule.

Me: How did you first learn about it?

B: So basically, during soccer, this kid bumped into another kid, because he was trying to get the ball from him. But the other kid- who got bumped into- thought it was on purpose, and he thought the other kid was trying to hurt him or something- so he like- he thought it was on purpose so he tackled him. And then a teacher- she saw it so she came over and she said, “Don’t do that anymore,” and then after we went inside, the principal went to every classroom and said, “Treat others how you want to be treated. If you treat somebody good then they will treat you good back.” So that’s the whole story.


My informant is my cousin’s 10-year-old son, who is in the fourth grade. He lives in a suburban neighborhood near Des Moines, which is the capital of Iowa. He goes to a public elementary school in his district, which is where this soccer incident happened. At the time, he was in the 1st grade, and the lesson from it still stays with him today. He tells me that believes in the golden rule, and has applied it in his own life to resolve issues between friends. He explains that every year, he and his friends have a nerf war that involved building forts. Each time, his friends would get into an argument about where and how to build the forts. He tells me that one year, he was tired of them fighting and told them the golden rule, which made them stop, and in his words, “hear each other out.”


This is a transcript of our conversation over the phone. Lately, he has been telling me stories about what goes on during school, though this conversation was prompted specifically for this collection project. I was curious about what he learned the “golden rule” to be.


I remember learning about the “golden rule” when I was also in elementary school, though it came from another child on the playground. Often, it was said in an instance where someone was being mean to another person. Hence, it was used as a sort of chiding for bad behavior. It was interesting to find out that my cousin’s son understood and believed the rule to be “treat others how you want to be treated,” as it was relayed to him by teachers, and to also continue the lesson to his friends since another variation I learned from other students was “do unto others how they have done to you,” as a way of justifying revenge. Because the “golden rule” is so ubiquitous, the choice of what its definition is can be very telling of what principle or virtue is valued. In my cousin’s son’s case, kindness is most important. 

“Don’t Flip the Fish”: Vietnamese Folk Magic

Main Piece:

D: When I worked at the train station– that was the very first train station at– the area name is called Cà Ná– that’s the region, the name– so that area has a village, the fishing village, so everybody there goes onto the boats. So you know when you eat fish– you know how [the] Vietnamese cook fish or fry the whole thing– so when you eat one side, you don’t flip it. You’re not supposed to flip it. Just take the bones out and then eat the other part.  

Me: Why?

D: Because they all go on the boats, they don’t want the boat to flip. So even if you don’t go on the boats, everybody has to eat like that. So you don’t have to, but nobody is gonna let you flip it, even if you don’t go on the boats. If you flip it, other people are gonna stop you.


My informant is my father, who was born and raised in Vietnam. He explains that he used to work at a train station in a fishing village called Cà Ná, which is on the southwest coast of Vietnam. While he worked and lived here, he has told me about how he would eat fish every day because that was the main food source in this village. Mealtimes are often communal, in which main dishes are shared, fish being one of them. Thus, being a part of this community, my father had to follow the practice of never flipping the fish when eating.


This is a transcription of a live conversation between my father and me. He often tells me stories about his life and past and has told me many about his time working at the train station. He told me this story when I asked if he knew about any kinds of folk magic.


My father has told me many stories about his time working at the train station in Vietnam, but this was the first time I heard about this practice. I had just finished our lecture that day, where we talked about folk magic, with homeopathic magic superstitions being common for fishing and boating communities. I told my father about one, where you are not allowed to whistle on a boat because it is thought of as “whistling up a storm.” That is when he was reminded of this story. Thinking back to our family mealtimes, I cannot recall an instance where our fish was flipped. I believe this must have become a habit for my father. As he explained, being a part of the fishing village, it did not matter if you got on the boats or not. Since everyone was a part of this community where fishing is the main source of food and work, everyone contributes to the prevention of bad luck, which would come from mimicking the flipping of a boat through flipping a fish. Though my father has immigrated to the US now and is no longer a member of the fishing village, he still continues the practice. On the sea where weather and safety are unpredictable, magical folk practices are common to resolve and alleviate the tension of uncertainty. Such is the case for Cà Ná and the prevention of boat flipping. In this case, this belief is both homeopathic (mimicking the flipping of a boat) and contagious magic (the fish was in contact with the boat).

“Cây muốn lặng mà gió chẳng chịu đừng” Vietnamese Proverb

“Cây muốn lặng mà gió chẳng chịu đừng”

  • Transliterated Proverb:
    • Cây: tree
    • Muốn: want
    • Lặng: still (motion)
    • Mà: but
    • Gió: wind
    • Chẳng: do not want
    • Chịu: bear (endure)
    • Đừng: stop
  • Full translation: The tree wants to stay still, but the wind refuses to stop
    • Explanation: This proverb is referring to two people. One is the tree, and the other is the wind. The person who says this proverb in conversation is the tree, to say that the other person will not stop whatever they’re doing, which is directly affecting, pushing around, annoying, etc. the speaker. This implies that if the annoyance will not stop, then the tree will be forced to take action and make them stop. My father explains to me that sometimes, this entails a physical altercation. In his words, “Stop, or I’m gonna punch you.” 


I love this proverb because, in Vietnamese, it sounds quite poetic. However, per my father’s explanation, its usage can conversely be quite gritty and unromantic. I find this dichotomy humorous. Looking at the proverb alone, I first thought that it referred to a person’s tough journey, and how their obstacles will not seem to cease. I thought it was melancholy and meaningful to how a person can endure so much. I was shocked to learn from my father that it instead is more of a warning, or in some cases, a threat. 

“Thầng nào cùng muốn làm cha” Vietnamese Proverb

“Thầng nào cùng muốn làm cha”

  • Transliterated Proverb
    • Thầng: kid, brat (informal and familiar word to refer to a person; people of the same age can call each other this without it being disrespectful unless the disrespect is intended. An older person can call a younger person this without it being inappropriate, or a person in power can call their subordinate this. However, if a younger person calls an older person this, or a subordinate calls their superior this, it is very disrespectful and inappropriate)
    • Nào: every, all
    • Cũng: also
    • Muốn: want
    • Làm: do, be
    • Cha: father
  • Full translation: Every brat wants to be the father
    • Explanation: Vietnamese society is patriarchal, so the position of the father is the highest authority and demands the most respect from those under them. My father explains to me that this phrase can be used in a critical way, in contexts where a person may be overstepping their authority or is inappropriately or annoyingly trying to exert power over others. It can also be used more casually to call attention to a situation where everyone in a group is trying to give orders, and no progress is being made. In this way, it can also be used to diffuse a tense situation where everyone is trying to lead at the same time.


I like this proverb because it succinctly describes a complex situation. The word “thầng” is difficult to translate directly into English because it captures a dynamic of social positions that depends on the context of its usage, which does not really exist in the same way in the English language or American culture. Depending on who is saying this proverb and to whom they are saying it to can change the meaning. I like how it can be used in a critical way; to criticize someone overexerting power. Yet, it can also be sarcastic and playful within a group of friends to point out the silliness of people not listening to each other.

“Thôi nôi”: Vietnamese 1st Birthday Celebration

Main Piece:

A: It’s like a birthday. Your friends, family [are invited], cook food, give you something like– like baby clothes, toys… but it’s different like, I have to do a tray. I put on scissors… hammer… mirror… cái này là gì– chỉ, everything like on the tray. Then let the baby pick. The first thing the baby picks up, we think, “Oh, in the future, she will do thợ may, thợ cắt tóc, một cái người designer, hay là bác xĩ, này kia đó. 

  • “ It’s like a birthday. Your friends, family [are invited], cook food, give you something like– like baby clothes, toys… but it’s different like, I have to do a tray. I put on scissors… hammer… mirror… what is this– just, everything like on the tray. Then let the baby pick. The first thing the baby picks up, we think, “Oh, in the future, she will be a seamstress, a hairdresser, a designer, or a doctor, this and that.

Me: So what kinds of things are on the tray? You said scissors, thread…

A: Everything you can think of…. But, don’t put anything like– not lucky. 

Me: Did you do this celebration for anyone?

A: You. 

(Dad interjects: You did?

A: Yeah!

D: What did she pick?

A: Nó bóc cái gương với là cái micro. Chac là [our son] không có làm.

  • “She picked up the mirror and a microphone. I don’t think we did one for [our son].”

D: That’s why he’s not going anywhere [we all laugh])


My mother is the one telling me this story. This is a traditional way of celebrating the baby’s first birthday in Vietnam. Thus my mother, who was born and raised in Vietnam until immigrating to the United States in the 1990s, became familiar with this practice while she was there. She likes this celebration because of the fun of predicting what the baby’s future career will be, however, she does not fully believe in it. She explains to me that when she was younger, before she had me, she believed that these predictions would come true, but now, it is simply a fun activity. 


This is a transcript of our live conversation. We were in the process of eating dinner when I asked my mom if birthdays are celebrated in Vietnam. She responded no. Instead, certain milestones of a baby’s life are celebrated. She explains the baby’s 1st birthday after explaining how guarded the baby’s first month of life is.


I had known other cultures in Asia had this celebration of a baby’s first large milestone, such as Korea’s 100-day birthday, where they practice homeopathic magic to predict the baby’s future career, but I did not know that there was something similar in Vietnamese culture. To further explain how this is homeopathic magic, the act of the baby choosing symbols of a career mimics the career the child will have in the future. This is the first time I learned about this celebration. After my parents’ generation immigrated to the United States, I was never old enough to recognize if my cousins’ first birthdays were celebrated in this traditional Vietnamese practice. When one of my cousins had children, at that point, our family celebrated birthdays in the American way, as my mother explained that birthdays aren’t celebrated in Vietnamese culture aside from a baby’s first milestones. Such is a common occurrence in folk practices pertaining to the life cycle, where a baby’s life is more unpredictable in the beginning stages, and thus is celebrated when they pass markers that indicate better chances of survival. Though my mother said she doesn’t believe in the prediction, it is interesting that you could make a case that my selection was pretty accurate (I am a theatre major).