Author Archives: Sarah Kirby

Chinese Proverb About the Farmer and the Rabbit

Context: The informant, a 19-year-old Chinese-American college student, shared this proverb with me on the Lunar New Year. We were discussing how her parents raised her to embrace her Chinese-American culture. She explained how the lessons she was taught as a child still impact her outlook on life today.


Informant: I know an old Chinese proverb. Um… it’s from, I think, a famous philosopher. Basically, I learned it from my parents and then again in Chinese school. I can’t remember the Chinese translation, but basically the gist of the proverb, or what the proverb literally means is… um “waiting by the tree for the rabbit.” And the story behind it, because all Chinese proverbs kind of have like a story behind them, um… is that there’s this farmer who um basically lived off his land and sold his crops and sort of lived that way. But one day, while he was plowing his land, um a rabbit ran into a tree and died. So, the man got his dinner that day and he had the bright idea of basically… he decided, “Screw farming! I’m just going to wait by this tree for more rabbits to crash into the tree, so I can eat, you know, rabbits for the rest of my life.” And then, he waited for a really really long time and, no surprise to anyone else, no rabbits crashed into that tree again. And, it’s kind of confusing, but basically the proverb means that you can’t wait for things to fall in your lap. Like all good things that are like worthwhile um… take a lot of work and a lot of dedication. And if you sit around and wait for that rabbit to come, it will never come.

Informant’s relation to the item: The proverb is important to the informant because it was taught to her by her parents and then again in Chinese school as a young child. Thus, the proverb has both significance within her family and also cultural/educational significance. Additionally, the proverb, which stresses the important of hard work, continues to impact the informant’s work ethic today.

Interpretation: This particular proverb does not make much sense to a listener who does not have much knowledge of Chinese culture. Without the context of the folk tale surrounding it, the proverb seems like an insignificant phrase. However, knowing the story as well as the importance of hard work and industriousness within many Asian cultures, the proverb clearly holds a lot more weight. This is a common occurrence when analyzing proverbs, which are usually very hard to translate across cultures due to language and cultural barriers.


Venezuelan Folk Dishes: “Moros y Cristianos” and “Pabellon”

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old college student who was born in Venezuela and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, was describing various rituals and superstitions that relate to both her passion for theatre and her Venezuelan nationality. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant describes two Venezuelan folk dishes


Informant: So, in Venezuela, but I think this is also like throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, there is this dish called “Moros y Cristianos” and it means “The Moors and the Christians.” It’s basically just rice and beans. Because, you know, race relations are very prevalent in South America, especially with the slave trade and the differences in how races were treated. So, this plate is meant to represent the difference between the two races. I have always found it interesting because my dad makes this meal and he calls it that and I’ve always been like, “What? That’s so weird.” He just says it’s like a thing that people have done since people were slaves in Latin America. And I’ve just always thought it was so weird because you’re like calling a plate like Moors and Christians, which usually relates to like darker-skinned and lighter-skinned people. So it’s just really interesting because I’ve definitely eaten that plate since I was a child. There’s another dish that’s called “Pabellon.” It’s just rice, beans, plantains, and shredded pork. It’s supposed to also represent all the different races, including indigenous people. That’s why is contain plantains because the yellow part is supposed to represent the indigenous people. I don’t really know why it’s called “Pabellon.” That’s a really common dish… that’s just kind of like, “Oh, we’re going to have this for dinner.” You really eat it on any old day. It’s not like both of these dishes are used in any specific celebrations or events. It’s like a home food or a comfort food.

Informant’s relationship to the item: The informant grew up eating “Moros y Cristianos” and “Pabellon,” two Venezuelan folk dishes. The dishes were so integral to her childhood, that she only realized their historical significance later in life. The meals served as an important piece of folklore for her and her dad to use as a means of starting a dialogue about Venezuela’s complex history and the multiculturalism of its citizens. Both dishes remind her of her family and her birth country; she considers them “comfort food.”

Interpretation: Both “Moros y Cristianos” and “Pabellon” hold a lot of symbolic and historical significance to the people of Venezuela. They are more than just the traditional cuisine of the country, which citizens tend to eat on a regular basis; the ingredients that make up both dishes are important symbols for the country’s history of complex race relations and rich multiculturalism. While Venezuelan’s history includes shocking atrocities such as the nation’s slave trade, which made up a large part of its economy for centuries, it is interesting to see how Venezuelans have immortalized this history within their cuisine. Like in the case of my informant, the meals seem to serve as important folk dishes capable of sparking dialogues about Venezuela’s complex and problematic history of race relations that ultimately led to the diverse population seen in the country today.



Venezuelan Yellow Underwear Superstition on New Year’s Eve

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old college student who was born in Venezuela and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, described various rituals and superstitions that relate to both her passion for theatre and her Venezuelan nationality. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant recalls a Venezuelan superstition that people take part in during New Year’s Eve celebrations.


Informant: On Venezuelan New Year’s, we have a tradition that… it’s kind of weird… we have a tradition that you’re supposed to wear yellow underwear on New Year’s Eve. It’s supposed to be good luck, but I don’t really know. My mom always told me it was thing, but she and my dad never did it. Then I was like, “Well, I want good luck!” So, I started doing it. Maybe it’s like yellow and like gold and gold having to do with riches or something… maybe it’s something like that. But we always would talk about it and do it. I purposefully bought a piece of underwear the other day, so that I know I would have it for this year, because my other pair is too old. So yeah, I definitely intentionally do it and it’s another integral part of my New Year’s Eve experience every year.

Informant’s relationship to the item: Though the informant’s parents do not take part in the New Year’s Eve tradition, the informant has taken it upon herself to buy multiple pairs of yellow underwear in order to take part in the Venezuelan tradition. This demonstrates her belief that the practice holds some form of validity, in spite of the fact that no one in her immediate family practices it. Additionally, she expressed some embarrassment while she was describing the superstition to me, due to the nature of the tradition. Yet, she still reaffirmed her belief in the folk ritual.

Interpretation: The Venezuelan New Year’s Eve tradition of wearing yellow underwear is a good example  of a superstition that involves a color that holds symbolic significance to a group of people. Throughout the world, colors are culturally-encoded; sometimes a color’s symbolic meaning is more universal and other times it varies throughout communities. In this case, the yellow underwear seems to represent good luck and good fortune because yellow and gold are often associated with money, wealth, and riches. In more recent years, which has seen Venezuela living through one of the worst economic collapses in the world right now, the New Year’s Eve superstition likely is even more significant to Venezuelans than before. The tradition could also serve as a very tragic reminder of current misfortunes.

Proverb: “This, too, shall pass”

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant relayed a personally significant proverb and the legend associated with it.


Informant: Okay, so I’ve heard this story told a lot of different ways because like apparently Jewish people tell the story as part of a Jewish religious moment, but I’m not Jewish and my mother used to tell the story and she would take all religion out of it. So, what I know is that basically this king was on a journey to find a ring that would make a happy man sad and a sad man happy. The king eventually finds this ring with the words “This, too, shall pass” engraved on the inside. And so, for the happy man, it’s supposed to remind the happy man that bad things can come at any moment, so you really need to be like in the moment and present and enjoy that and try to extend it. And it makes the sad man happy because it’s also supposed to tell you that bad things come to an end, so like good things will eventually have to come. So, I don’t know… I just really like that proverb: “This, too, shall pass.”

Informant’s relationship to this item: Though the informant is unsure of the proverb’s true cultural and/or religious origins, the proverb’s meaning and the legend surrounding it has remained with her for years. The proverb almost appears to be a family mantra, as it was taught to the informant by her mother. The informant appears to refer to the proverb during times of happiness, as a remainder to savor every moment, and during times of sadness, as a reminder that her misfortunes will also end.

Interpretation: The proverbial phrase is simultaneously metaphorical, rhetorical, and short — all the criteria for a proverb. It is interesting to hear the tales and legends surrounding such phrases, as many of them would lack the same impact or clarity without the context in which they first originated. While proverbs are usually fixed phrases, the double meaning of this proverb demonstrates how they typically do not have fixed meanings, and their significance can readily change in different contexts. Additionally, the fact that the informant was told the proverb by her mother shows how proverbs typically hold a lot of vernacular authority. Her mother likely could have taught her the same lesson using different wording, but the history of the proverb and the fact that it is commonly heard in society gives the impression that her mother is imparting community wisdom on her daughter.






Cowlick Tea

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old female college student who was enrolled in ANTH 333 during a prior semester, was eager to participate in my folklore collection. She shared some folklore with me that she has collected throughout her childhood and her time at USC. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant described a folk medicine used by her immediate and extended family.


Informant: So, one of the folk things my family does is that when I’m sick my father will give me this thing called cowlick tea, and basically it’s tea with cow droppings in it. I think it’s because cows eat grass, so their droppings are really good for you. And my dad’s grandmother was the one that started this apparently and she always insisted that my dad drink it. And now my dad believes in this cowlick tea because they’re from Oklahoma… and apparently that’s relevant. My dad’s grandmother was from Marshall, Texas, and she also has Native American Cherokee roots, so it could possibly be from that. But it’s used to alleviate the symptoms of sore throat, headaches, and other head colds. It’s also known for clearing nasal passages and it’s basically just made of cow droppings. And it’s given to anyone of any age to relieve themselves of the common cold.

Informant’s relationship to this item: Though the informant does not fully understand the proposed scientific benefits or the cultural origins of cowlick tea, the folk medicine is a practice she took part in growing up. The fact that the folk medicine has been passed down through multiple generations in her family makes her more inclined to take part in the family tradition and folk belief.

Interpretation: There are often folk medicines used for the goal of relieving people of symptoms of the common cold because there had not yet been a scientifically-proven method to cure someone of a cold. There is often a belief in American society that western medicine is a superior approach to other healing methods. However, many western medicines find their origins in folk medicines that have proven scientific health benefits. Additionally, western medicine is based on the belief in the mind body split, a theory put forward by philosopher René Descartes. The theory describes how a person’s mind and body are two separate entities and encourages people to think for themselves, rather than trying to find all of life’s answers in religious doctrine. While many folk medicines have proven health benefits, even the ones that do not point out a major flaw in the theory of the mind body split: the placebo effect. Sometimes simply the belief that one has been given healing medicine can actually improve their condition. Whether or not cowlick tea has any health benefits is not known by the informant. Regardless, her family members report feeling better after drinking it, and that could be a result of the placebo effect.