Author Archives: madeleiw

守株待兔 – Guarding the tree to wait for a rabbit

“In Chinese, we have 成语, “cheng yu,” which are four word idioms that can refer to stories or just general lessons, or any bit of common wisdom”

Original script: 守株待兔

Phonetic (Roman) script: Shǒuzhūdàitù

Transliteration: guard tree wait rabbit

Full translation: 

The following is from a conversation with the informant, talking about the story behind the cheng yu:

EW: Okay so the story of this is that one day, there was like this wood-cutter guy and he saw a rabbit in the forest. He saw the rabbit run into a tree stump and it like, died immediately. And so he took it home and ate it and he was like, really happy. So he was like, oh if I just wait by this tree stump another one will come and kill itself, so I never need to hunt anymore! And then, he like, died of hunger.

MW: So then what does it mean?

EW: It means that like, basically if something good happens and then you get lazy, you’ll…die of hunger, I guess! It’s basically a way of saying, “don’t be lazy” or don’t think that good things will always happen the same way. 

Context:

My informant was born in America but her parents are from China, and she herself lived in China for a year. She learned it from her mom, who she still speaks Chinese at home with. Her mom would tell her this story when she was being lazy, and she enjoys this story because it reminds her of her time in China and just generally makes her feel connected to Chinese culture. Especially given that she lives in America now, she notes, staying connected to chinese culture is important. 

Thoughts

I think the idea of good things not always happening in the same way is really interesting. It’s interesting because it’s of course an idea that we have in western culture, but no one ever really puts it into words like this, and I think that’s the beauty of the Chinese cheng yu. They are full of concepts that we don’t have words for in the West, yet still perfectly encompass these nebulous ideas.

Scissors on the bed during pregnancy

HK: When I was pregnant my mother in law said that I shouldn’t have scissors on the bed because then that will make you have a miscarriage. So don’t cut anything on the bed, don’t put anything that can cut on the bed. Related but not the same, it also means no remodeling, no hammering, no knocking down walls or anything. 

MW: And what did you think of this?

HK: Well…you don’t wanna believe it but when they tell you stupid shit like that…it’s like walking under a ladder. You know nothing’s gonna happen probably, but now you wonder about it. And then it leaves this little scab in your heart when you do do it, because now you’re like, ah, well, what’s gonna happen to me? It just always makes you wonder, you know? So annoying.

Context:

The informant, HK, was born in New York but has parents who are from China. She married and has three children. This story was collected over a Zoom call when she was talking to my mom.

Thoughts:

The “little scab on your heart” that the informant mentioned is interesting because it makes me think that that must be how superstitions get perpetuated. While people might not believe on an intellectual level that it will happen, if you do it it will still stick with you, like a residual fear that clings to your mind; so because of that, it’s easier to just not do it in the first place. I think that’s important to realize, because sometimes the negative effect of the superstition might just come from your own guilt (or at least be related to it).

The Aswang – Filipino Demon

Main piece:

BR: My grandmother is very religious and even more superstitious, and she was raised in the northern part of the Philippines. And one bit of folklore that she always talked about when I was a kid was the concept of the Aswang, a creature who appears human during the day but becomes a hideous beast during the night. And the Aswang brings bad luck and death wherever it goes, and is considered to be one of the stealthiest demons in Filipino culture, cause it can shapeshift, and usually slips by unnoticed. So my grandma always brought up the Aswang whenever anything bad happened, and it terrified me because she seemed dead serious about it. 

Context:

The informant, BR, was born and raised in the Bay Area. His father is from Hawaii, and their family immigrated there when he was very little from the Philippines. BR was always scared by this story when he was little, and even to this day he is still afraid of the dark. This story was collected over a phone call.

Thoughts:

We talked about in class how there are always a lot of stories that are meant for scaring children, and I think this one is interesting because it appears human during the day as a normal human. This not only encourages children to be on their best behavior (as most other children’s tales that we talked about) but also brings into question your relationships with other people, which is very important. It kind of seems like a metaphor for if you’re in a toxic relationship, or someone is giving you trouble. And that’s an important thing to be scared of, and so it makes all the more sense to scare children of that when they are young because young children have those same issues.

Naming your children with things like water for good personalities

HK: Chinese people are really superstitious about how you name your child––so all the Chinese children have like, names that are made up of Chinese characters, right? And within those characters, there are characters that mean certain things.

MW: What’s your name?

HK: Well, let’s just say that basically my name has a lot of fire character in it. Too much probably, that’s probably why I’m such a bitch.

MW: Haha. So then what did you name your kids?

HK: All my kids, we decided, had to have water in their names. In Chinese you know it as the part of the character, the “radical,” known as san dian shui. It’s basically three dots at the edge of some characters that denotate that the character is related to water. We did that so they would balance me out. Cause now I’m such a bitch, by my kids are pretty cool. Keeps the family balanced.

MW: And how does this make you feel?

HK: Well, again, it’s that superstition feeling where you feel like you should just do it because if you don’t you worry about what might happen, and then otherwise your mother in law can blame everything bad that happens on you because you didn’t name your kids water or whatever. But they all have nice names. I like them.

Background:

The informant, HK, was born in New York but has parents who are from China. She married and has three children. 

Context

HK now lives in Texas––I collected this story over a Zoom call. She has been one of my mother’s closest friends since college, and often, they would commiserate together with all of my other Chinese aunties about certain things their Chinese parents would make them do, or general annoyance over Chinese tradition. This was one of those calls.

Thoughts:

With a lot of other superstitions from any culture, you do it to avoid a consequence; but with names, it’s more fun, especially if you’re born in America. American names generally don’t have any meaning, or at least any meaning that everyone knows. In Chinese, every name means something, and generally, everyone knows that meaning. So of course there will be superstitions surrounding names because the meanings are so clear, but it adds a lot of beauty to the literal title of your identity. It’s something that I feel like a lot of Americans might miss out on.

Brown sugar in the bathtub – a treatment for rashes

Main piece:

AW: When I was little, I would get eczema––you have it too, you probably get it from me. Our side of the family has all the allergies, haha. Well, so, my mom, your grandma, would put me in the bathtub with a little block of brown sugar. It’s like, that Chinese brown sugar block that is brown and has a white stripe through the middle. So she would put me in the bathtub and tell me not to eat the brown sugar, and I’d have to sit there and not eat it, and apparently it helped my eczema. I don’t know if it actually did though, haha. But sometimes I would eat it anyways. It was very delicious, of course. That was probably my favorite Chinese medicine that my mom ever gave me. A very fond memory, too.

Context:

The informant, AW, is my father. Our family is ethnically from Shanghai and Guangdong, China. This story was collected over a phone call about when I was little.

Thoughts:

I agree with AW. When I did this brown sugar treatment when I was little, I also don’t know that it truly yielded any results––I still have eczema to this day and I don’t think brown sugar ever made it any better. My assumption when I was small was that the sweet taste was supposed to distract you from how itchy you were, and I think in that sense, it did work. I think it’s important to realize that, especially when you are that little and you have an ailment that’s not that serious, sometimes it doesn’t take that much to make you feel better. And there’s nothing less valid about that kind of a treatment.