Author Archives: monje

Flat Chopsticks

Context: MC is a Vietnamese undergraduate student at USC. She’s currently studying cinematic arts and is my friend. One day when we were hanging out I asked her if she had any beliefs she and her family followed. 

YM: So what are some beliefs or superstitious things you and your family follow? 

MC: Well a big one is that when we use chopsticks we always lay them flat when we aren’t using them. if they’re vertical that kind of means you’re offering to feed the spirits

YM: can you give more insight about the chopsticks belief ? Do you happen to know why this belief came about ?

MC: When we worship our ancestors, it’s tradition to bring them food like the dia de los muertos altar 

MC: So we stick chopsticks vertically to signal that it’s for the spirits…and they say not to do that in everyday life to not signal them if we aren’t actually offering it. 

YM: Would something bad happen if you were to leave your chopsticks vertical when you aren’t using them ? 

MC: Hmm I’m not sure, I dont think it’s bad as a spirit will try to haunt you but maybe you’ll invite spirits into your home because you’re offering to feed them, and no one wants spirits in their home !…. it’s just one of those things you aren’t supposed to do

YM: Yeah right ! so you believe this? 

MC: I don’t really believe it but since its tradition I still follow it 

Background info: MC identifies herself as Mein and she grew up following this belief, which was told by her mom and grandma. 

Analysis: It seems this folk belief sets up the way the Lu Mein people think about the world. Having done some research during a funeral one leaves the chopsticks upright because it’s a way to portray the ritual of incense burning which symbolizes feeding the dead or death in general. As well as belief, laying your chopstick flat is also a form of etiquette (custom) when eating. This belief and custom also seems to be liminal since it’s in between this world and the spiritual world. Since it has to do with the dead or death itself, not following this etiquette may bring bad luck. 

Chinese New year

Context: XZ is a 25 year old from Wuhan China. She is a graduate, international student at USC studying marketing and communications. She is also my friend and coworker. I decided to call her and ask her how she and her family celebrate New years. 

YM: Tell me about your new years

XZ: Our new year is lunar New Years

YM: What do you guys do for new years? How do you guys celebrate ? 

XZ: The “year” in Chinese is actually a monster, so on New year eve, the family will gather around, the elder will give children a red envelope with money because that money is called “ya sui qian” meaning: suppress evil; and when the new year come, every family will shoot off firecrackers to scare the “year” monster away

YM: that’s interesting.. Where did this monster come from ? 

XZ: So some say it came from deep sea and the others say it lives inside the mountain

YM: when do you guys celebrate again?

XZ: our official celebration starts from Lunar new year eve and will last until Lunar year’s January 15th

YM: Do you believe in this monster, what are your personal thoughts? 

XZ: Personally I don’t believe it, and most of Chinese don’t believe it. Maybe little kids will…like western kids believe in Santa. But all the traditions are around the story, and I love the family getting together and applying those customs makes me feel a sense of the sacred to mark closure and restart. Although the government  has banned firecracker because it causes to much air pollution and sound pollution, which I actually agree with it… and I believe receiving red envelope is all kids favourite part, friends sometimes compete with each other to see who received the most of money

YM: aww that’s really nice, thank you for sharing 

Background info: XZ has celebrated Chinese New Years since she was a child, and even now that she’s been far away from home she still celebrates. She’s from Yiyang in Hunan Province, China. 

Analysis: XZ’s new year seems to be based on a Chinese legend about a monster named Nian who would terrify the villagers and eat children at the end of the lunar year. The new year’s celebration seems to be about defeating this monster and starting a new year free of a ferocious monster. This legend seems to bring a symbolic meaning for chinese new year, like XZ mentioned for her its a “sense of the sacred to mark closure and restart.” From my research in the story when an old man got rid of the monster, red papers, firecrackers, and candles were found. This is why new years are celebrated with red envelopes and the firecrackers. I find it really interesting how in Chinese culture new year one celebrates the defeat of something that was bringing calamity to the land, whereas American new year one celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. One is based on a legend and the other is based on a religious myth. 

Not Everything Is About You

Context: AH is a 26 year old from Karnataka, India. He is a graduate, international student studying environmental engineering. He is also a really good friend of mine. I asked him to tell me some folklore while we had lunch one day. 

AH: Back home we say “kumbalakai kalla andre, hegalu mutti nodikonda”

Translation: “When we said the pumpkin is stolen, he checked his shoulder”

YM: what do you mean ? 

AH: Well there’s the saying “When somebody shouted Pumpkin Thief, the person who heard it, touched his shoulders to check if that person was referring to him!’

AH: This idiom is used for “People who are usually in the habit of assuming that everything said or done is referring to HIM/HER only!!”.. These people just assume everything is pointing towards them even though the person did not mean or refer anything to them. These kinds of people make a ‘Hue and Cry’ over nothing, build a mountain out of ant-hill and thus make fools of themselves 

AH: it’s a common proverb used

YM: that is interesting, and why a pumpkin ? 

AH: It’s just a story.. They wanted something heavy a person would carry.. So a pumpkin was used. The story is from simpler times, ruled by kings. When these petty thefts were common.. If it was something lighter, he wouldn’t have to carry it on the shoulder

AH: So, the proverb to make sense they just added pumpkin as a logical assumption

YM: that makes sense, what are your thoughts on it ? 

AH: I think it’s a good proverb to point out those people that need to get their act together… I also think it’s used to point out the guilty conscience in a person. As in, he touched his shoulder because he stole it…

AH: In our generation generally will use it to mock someone, it’s like saying “GOTCHA”, when you find your friend is guilty of something, and is not disclosing it

Background info: AH heard this from his parents growing up and would use it with family and friends. 

Analysis:  I agree with the interpretations AH gave about the proverb. I don’t think the proverb is necessarily about giving advice but rather about pointing something out or calling someone out. It is more of an indirect way to expose someone for something they have done. In this case it seems to be a metaphorical phrase.  Personally, I haven’t heard of any proverbs that are similar to this one in the common everyday language. However, there is a quote by Plato that similarly touches the concept, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” 

Champ

Context: SF is a USC sophomore studying journalism and he’s also my classmate in Anthropology class. I decided to have a zoom meeting with him and talk about some folklore from vermont. 

SF: Vermont has this big lake named Lake Champlain which is the next biggest lake after the great lakes.. Between vermont and new york

SF: People believe there is this dinosaur or sea monster named champ living at the bottom of the lake because there have been a bunch of sightings… uh and like some very fake pictures.. But you know people like to believe 

SF: And uh yeah the local baseball team is named after him and they’ve scanned the lake for it but um I don’t think they’ve found anything yet

YM: They’ve actually scanned it ? 

SF: Yeah they scan like part of it, it’s really murky and for a really long time it was really badly polluted by paper mills.. So there’s a lot of algae blooms and it’s really hard to see in it which is kinda disgusting but also adds to the mystery of it 

SF: It’s supposed to be like yeah kinda the same humps in the water and then the head, loch ness sorta vibe.. Big dinosaur

YM: Do you know of anyone who claims to have seen it ?

SF: My cousin and I thought we saw it but we were like seven hahaha 

YM: ahahah awww

SF: It was definitely a stick.. The people are into it.. It’s a cool story to have.. But uhh yeah no proof yet

YM: who did you hear this from 

SF: My grandparents actually lived by the lake and they told me about it when I was a kid… but it’s very prevalent in the community and you’ll see little cartoon drawings of it in Burlington which is the main city, every now and then

Analysis: Champ is a mythical creature that lives at the bottom of Lake Champlain, it seems to be an important part of the community since a lot of people believe in this lake monster to the point where the lake has actually been scanned. There have been more than three hundred sightings of this creature since 1609. Real or not it has definitely been something that distinguishes Vermont, since not all states have a “20 ft long serpent, thick as a barrel.” The belief in this creature has also been passed down for generations and has even created a revenue generating attraction since the local baseball team uses it as their mascot. After some research, there is even a “champ day” on the first saturday of every August. It’s clear that this monster brings a sense of identity and representation for people in Vermont. 

Vermont Maple Syrup Foodway

Context: SF is a USC sophomore studying journalism and he’s also my classmate in Anthropology class. I decided to have a zoom meeting with him and talk about some folklore from vermont. 

YM: Tell me some folklore 

SF: Oh! Every year we have a food way 

SF: So maple syrup is massive in vermont, right ? because we have a lot of maple trees and maple forest. It the second biggest producing region behind Canada quebec, just cause its bigger um but we have the highest density per capita

SF And uh there’s this big tradition called sugaring which is the process of tapping trees and getting maple syrup.. And you have to do it at the right time of year because it needs to be cold at night and then during the day.. so the sap can melt and flow down the lines 

Sf: You have to collect a massive amount, maybe 60 gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup.. And then you just sit in this shareshack.. And you just sit there and boil it for a really long time 

SF: Basically an excuse to hang out.. Kinda like ice fishing .. with some buddies or something like that

SF: There’s this thing some people do when they’re sugaring, called sugar on snow.. Um that is you boil the sap beyond syrup but not all the way to sugar… and then while it’s still boiling hot and pretty thick you take it outside and you pour it on fresh snow and you take a stick and you stir it in the snow and it basically turns to maple syrup taffy

SF: And it’s so amazing tasting because it’s just sugar.. It’s just a really fun thing to do when you’re a kid or when you’re hanging out in the cold

YM: That’s really cool!

SF: And you know we are legit because trader joes sells vermont maple syrup

YM: hahaha.. So you grew up doing this? 

SF: haha yeah with buddies we would tap trees

Analysis: The making of maple syrup seems to be exclusive to Vermont and the practicing of sugaring is a form of socializing. It forms identity and cohesion within a community and the state. It is a tradition as people like SF grew up doing this to spend time with friends and family. The making of maple syrups is important in defining the culture, environment, geography and history of Vermont.