Author Archives: Kevin Tian

Dumplings for Departure and Noodles for Return

One of the most enduring and universal traditions in Chinese culture is captured in the saying “上车饺子下车面”, which may be translated literally into “when they get on a car to leave you eat dumplings with them; when they get off a car and arrive you eat noodles with them”.

The origin of the tradition is very much unclear. A great number of Chinese people still practice this tradition today, but no one seems to know when it started. Some believe that it’s a younger tradition than many would assume – after all, it hasn’t been that long since dumplings and noodles became universally recognized (and eaten) in all regions across China.

Explanation for this phrase varies from person to person. The informant’s belief is that dumpling has the shape of ‘roundness’, and therefore produces a sense of ‘completeness’ and ‘reunion’. (in Chinese the character for ‘roundness’, 圆, also has the meaning of ‘completing’) A dumpling also has the same shape as a traditional gold or silver ingot (元宝), and is therefore an omen for good fortune. A dumpling, thus, is a wish for reunion and call for fortune to bless the departing. Noodles, on the other hand, have the shape of ‘long strings’, and therefore represent ‘ever-lasting attachment’. It’s celebration of the person’s return, and a wish that this person would stay here for long this time.

THE INFORMANT

The informant is my mother. She would know of this tradition because, well, she’s Chinese. But amongst the numerous pieces of folklore legends and traditions that she brings with her, this simple piece carries an enormous weight – it’s about departure and reunion. Seeing that the four members of our family are living in four different cities spread across the globe, departures and reunions play a rather important role. It’s a tradition, but more than a tradition – it carries a wish, a hope, a blessing.

THE ANALYSIS

The importance of food in Chinese culture continues to be observed in its folkloric traditions. It’s intriguing to see how much poetry and meaning are imbued by the Chinese people into everyday food items – especially when contrasted with what seems to be a general indifference western cultures hold towards everyday objects. This may be seen as a perfect demonstration of what the Japanese call ‘物の哀れ’, or ‘Mono no aware’, or ‘an empathy towards things’. It is of course the departing or returning person who we are truly concerned about, but we convey our feelings using objects as vessels.

The quinzhee

The informant notes that despite its immense popularity among outdoorsman, the origin of the quinzhee is very much uncertain. Unlike the Eskimo igloo which is less popular but more well-known, it seems to her and many of her colleagues that the quinzhee has never really been associated with a specific culture.

The quinzhee is more or less an easier and more convenient version of the igloo for short-term housing. Building an igloo would require an ice saw and hours of meticulous work in sawing snow into blocks of ice – and then hours more of actually assembling the blocks. On the other hand a quinzhee needs nothing more than a shovel and can be easily built in half an afternoon. It certainly isn’t as photogenic as the igloo, but it gets the job done for cross country skiers and snowshoers.

All you have to do as a start is just to make a big pile of snow. At the most basic level this can be accomplished by simply shoveling snow into a pile. Most people, however, would choose to throw in a couple of backpacks as a starting point – the pile will later have to be hollowed out anyways.

But it’s not a simple hollowing out. An entrance needs to be dug, and then an elevated sleeping platform – if the sleeping platform is on the same level as the entrance then much of the heat will simply dissipate out the entrance. The dome must be smoothed out, or otherwise parts of it will be melted over the night by the heat and drip onto the people inside.

THE INFORMANT

She was my instructor in the outdoor education program that I enrolled into at my high school. She knew of the quinzhee because every year as part of the program’s curriculum she would take the class on a snow-shoeing or cross-country ski trip. She would teach the class how to build a quinzhee as very much necessary knowledge for survival in the snow.

THE ANALYSIS

A demonstration of the crucial role folk knowledge plays in outdoor education. The informant commented that as far as she knew, all written recordings pertaining to quinzhees were taken from pre-existing folk knowledge, first developed by First Nations and adopted by early settlers.

Kayakers’ myth about “white caps” and the 25 knots wind speed

In a sense this is very similar to our cold remedies: both are widely-accepted folk beliefs that have never been substantiated by science. Are they true? Who knows. Are they useful? Well… many would answer that it doesn’t hurt to try.

Kayakers don’t carry around anemometers. (they are devices that measure wind speed. You know, the thing that has four half-spheres attached perpendicularly to one axis.) Go figure why. Before we set out into the ocean we rely on weather forecasts on the radio. After we are already paddling then we’ll have to rely on estimates and our folk belief.

The fact version of this belief would go like: don’t paddle if the wind is faster than 25 knots. The more useful version is: don’t paddle if you can see “white caps” on the water. Even the definition of “white caps” is unclear; it’s more or less just, well, white caps, or spots of white on over a water surface. Note that these white caps are distinguished from the white caps created from waves; they are created when wind blows strongly enough over a water surface that it lifts up and then drops down water along with it.

But the truth is, as we discovered on our kayaking trip, white caps can often be created by wind as slow as 20 or 15 knots, and the difficulty (and safety) for paddling really depends more on the body of water than the wind. For example, 25 knots wind speed is still fairly easy to paddle against when we were kayaking along the coastline. But crossing a strait is an entirely different story – even 15 knots in a strait can prove to be very dangerous.

THE INFORMANT

She was my instructor in the outdoor education program that I enrolled into at my high school. She knew of this folk belief because every year she would lead the class on kayaking trips, and teach them the basic seafaring knowledge in navigation and safety.

THE ANALYSIS

Much like our cold remedies this case reminds us of the importance of folk beliefs in many different areas of our lives. Often it isn’t that science cannot answer the question, but that the scientific answer is not as convenient. Kayaking often requires decisions be made immediately and improvisationally – and under such circumstances folk beliefs provide quick, direct references.

The sweat lodge ceremony of the First Nations in Stein Valley, BC, Canada

Note: the informant wishes to note that although the word “First Nation” – a general term that encompasses all Native Americans in Canada – is used, the traditional sweat lodge ceremony depicted here is in no way representative of all First Nations. This depiction is about and only about the Stein Valley First Nations.

The following is a transcription of the informant’s recollection. There are some rephrasing.

“F (the First Nation leader who was our guide) tells us that he treats the sweat lodge ceremony a lot less formally than his people traditionally would. In the past the ceremony would involve meticulous preparations and rituals before and after. But he believes that what’s truly important is really only the ceremony itself. So this is the simplified and more efficient version of the ceremony that he invites us to attend.

After everyone changed into bathing suit we stand outside the lodge, uncontrollably shivering a little in the cold. Naturally the students were more or less a little surprised when F suggested that we could take a dip in the cold bath before we enter the lodge. After the ceremony began they soon understood why.

The sweat lodge looked curiously small from the outside. A lot of students were joking about how we could possibly fit 15 people inside. It was built entirely out of spruce, as is the tradition in Stein Valley. Spruce branches and leaves formed the entire dome of the lodge, as well as serving as padding on its floor. There was a small fire pit in the middle: a few rocks formed into an empty circle amongst all the spruce leaves.

We trailed into the lodge and sat down in a tight circle, our backs against the spruce wall of the lodge and our sides against each other. F heated half a dozen rocks in the fire outside until they are a burning red, and then dropped them into the fire pit inside the lodge. Then he brought in buckets of water and poured them onto the rocks. Sweet hisses were heard as the water kissed the stones. Steam with the sweet scent of spruce leaves instantly filled the air; it was as if we were surrounded by tea steams.

He closed the sweat lodge’s door behind him and sat down. It was pitch dark. He said the traditional prayer – a few terse sentences of gratitude, to nature, to his people, and to us, his guests. The ceremony began.

And its procedures were rather simple. He would throw out a prompt, and then we would go around in the circle, each person answering the prompt and talking for as long as he or she would like. The prompts were simple and profound. In this darkness filled with sweet heat and sweeter aroma, simple questions and requests like ‘tell us how you feel right now’ or ‘tell us about a woman in your life who you’d really like to thank’ gained a kind of weight and profundity as they never could in our busy everyday life. Perhaps it was the gradually increasing temperature. Perhaps it was the suffocating heat – but not really suffocating, for it was sweet and encompassing, rather than overwhelming and asphyxiating. Perhaps it was because we had begun to sweat in a way we had never sweat before. It felt healing; it felt clean rather than dirty. It felt like we were not really talking; it was a confession. It felt like we could, for the first time in a long time, be closer to honesty.

Then we’d take a break outside. Many students would dip into the cold bath with sighs of relief. We’d then head back in, and this time it would a bit hotter inside. This process would continue for many more times. No one was required to stay; if anyone felt too hot he or she could simply leave the lodge.”

 

THE INFORMANT

She was my instructor in the outdoor education program that I enrolled into at my high school. She knew of this ceremony because every year as part of the program’s curriculum she would take the class to Stein Valley for three days with F as the guide.

 

THE ANALYSIS

This is a very traditional form of folklore; well, it is a tradition after all. But cultural traditions like this continue to astonish me no matter how many I come across. It’s always saddening how little we understand of other cultures, and always beautiful how much they can help us.

The use of “People die if they are killed!” as an insult in the anime community

The 2006 anime series Fate/stay night was a tremendous commercial success. But to most of the anime community the show’s artistic accomplishment is questionable at best, and laughable at worst. Our informant, for one, stands as a rather harsh critic of the series.

The series’ most quoted line is almost always quoted as a joke or an insult. At one point in the series our protagonist Shiro says, with quite the indignation and dramatic posture, “People die if they are killed!”

It is perhaps not surprising at all to see that this line – sometimes in the form of a screenshot of the original scene with subtitles – has now become the go-to meme as a response or insult to when someone makes an utterly redundant statement.

THE INFORMANT

The informant has just finished his undergraduate studies. He would consider himself to have been an avid fan of Japanese anime, manga, and games for more than 6 years. More than simply watching and consuming, he also actively contributes to the community, in the form of reviews, articles, discussions, and translation works. He told me of this folklore as a part of his collection of interesting facts/tales from the anime community.

When asked why he decided to select this piece of folklore, he replied simply that it was one of the most popular and enduring legends in the anime community.

THE ANALYSIS

This can be seen as yet another demonstration of the post-literary trend in our communication. It seems to have become far more efficient and effective to simply comment/respond with a meme/reference. More than just conveying the insult/response/joke, the reference is also funny (or at least amusing). Why that is so, I’m not sure. I don’t think anyone is