Author Archives: Mu Fan Shih

A Chinese Chopstick Custom and Folk Belief

My informant says this about her background:

“I was born in Connecticut, left when I was two months old, went to Taiwan. For elementary school, went to Hong Kong and went to Shanghai when I was starting middle school, and finished high school there. My parents are typical Taiwanese or Asian parents who only came to America for school and they don’t know that much about American culture and aren’t that great at English. So I was raised in a very “Asian” atmosphere/family.”

One time during dinner at a shopping mall, she brought this folk belief up, reprimanding one of her Caucasian friends for sticking his chopsticks vertically into his rice:

“If you stick chopsticks in the rice straight down into the rice bowl, it’s a bad, a very bad omen. It’s disrespectful because it’s like you’re putting incense on a grave and yeah, okay.”

Before I elaborate on this custom, I just wanted to talk about my own background first. I’m a third generation Chinese Taiwanese male student who was born in Taipei, Taiwan. I speak English and Chinese. I lived in Taipei for two years before moving to New Jersey, where I lived for seven years. After that, I returned to Taipei where I finished high school.

Returning to the topic at hand, in Chinese culture, it is customary to use incense as a way of communicating with spirits or as a way of indicating something is an offering to the spirits of our ancestors. My informant reprimanded her friend for sticking his chopsticks vertically into his rice because it is similar to putting incense on foodstuffs Chinese people offer in front of graves.

I grew up in a Chinese family too so I’ve heard this “rule” before. But, varied as folklore should be, the version my parents told me was that sticking chopsticks (or anything similar in shape to incense) in my rice would invite spirits to feast on the rice, which is at once disrespectful and uncanny–you wouldn’t want spirits eating your rice at the same time you are eating it.

She mentioned another folk belief right after talking about the chopstick “rule”:

“Ok, I heard this from my mom. So another thing is, depending on how far you hold the chopsticks [she picks up her chopsticks], so depending on how far you grip the chopsticks, it depends– they say that…this is for girls, like if you hold it like here [she notions to the bottom of the chopsticks], you’re going to be married off to some guy who lives really close to you and like vice versa, like if you hold it like super far they it’s like ‘oh, you’re going to be married to like, you know, to a distant country or something like that’. Like it depends on how far you hold the chopsticks [she notions to the top of the chopsticks] , like around the tip.”

While I never heard of this belief before, maybe because I am male, this website (a sort of online journal) has a writer who brings up the same belief: thestar. This belief reveals a heavy emphasis on marriage in Chinese culture, which seems to be targeted at young women, that is passed from parent to children or in this case, mother to daughter. My informant elaborated that she heard this from her mother when she, herself, was caught holding the chopsticks near the tip. Her mother lamented that my informant was going to be married far away from home. From that background, we can see that marrying and residing far away from home carries a certain stigma-like quality to the extent where parents will warn their children that they will marry away from home (home as in the sense of city, town or country).

“Gook” and “Tianmu” Origination Legend/Starcraft and Koreans.

My informant is a third generation Chinese American male student. He grew up in Irvine, California. During dinner in a shopping center, he mentioned the following origination legend of the word “gook” (He was eating Korean food, which prompted his anecdote):

Informant: Ok, so, why are Koreans called gooks?

Collector: Why?

Informant: Well, during the Korean War, the South Korean troops would applaud the American soldiers when they came walking through the fields to liberate them and they’ll cry out, “Megook! Megook!”, which means “America” in Korean. However, the American soldiers, in all their wisdom, felt that the Korean soldiers were identifying themselves as gook, “me gook”; hence they started calling them gooks. So the Koreans are called me “gook!”, me “gook!”. “Oh, you call yourself gook! I get it, you guys are all gooks!”

Collector: Ok, so where did you hear this?

Informant: I heard it from my Korean friends.

Collector: Do you know where he heard it from?

Informant: He’s Korean [laughter]. He was probably born knowing this story, kind of like how he was born knowing how to play Starcraft, and born knowing that they created the sundial.

Collector: [laughter] Well, what do you think is the importance of that little tidbit of history?

Informant: The term “gook” is often used to apply to Southeast Asian populations, as well as Koreans. This kind of says that Koreans are indeed number 1.”

This legend is set during the Korean War from 1950 – 1953 and explains the origination of the racial slur “gook”. My informant’s tone of voice implies that the Americans are, as he says, liberators (“the good guys”) but nonetheless foolish. The foolishness of the American soldiers lies in their assumption that everyone speaks English and in their misunderstanding of the Korean that the Koreans are speaking. The legend suggests that the American soldiers hold a sort of bigoted assumption that everyone naturally speaks English.

Interestingly, I, myself, have heard a variation of this legend in 2005 from a cram school math teacher in Tianmu, Taipei, Taiwan. Here’s a bit of background on me: I’m a third generation Chinese Taiwanese male student who was born in Taipei, Taiwan. I speak English and Chinese. I lived in Taipei for two years before moving to New Jersey, where I lived for seven years. After that, I returned to Taipei where I finished high school.

My cram school math teacher performed this legend as a joke item in between math tests.

For more information on Tien-mu, click this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tianmu,_Shilin_District.

As I remember, the story goes:

“Do you know where the name Tianmu comes from? Back in the 1960s, when American Soldiers occupied Tianmu, they would come into the fields and ask the Taiwanese farmers, “Where are we?” But, the Taiwanese farmers, unable to understand English, said, “Tee-yah-buo?” (‘Tee-yah-buo’ means ‘I don’t understand’ in Taiwanese), “Tee-yah-buo?”. The American Soldiers misunderstanding the farmers said, “Oh! Tian-mu! Tian-mu. Ok. OK.” Hence, Tianmu is called Tianmu.”

*My cram school math teacher performed the legend in Chinese; however, it’s been too long for me to remember the exact way he performed it.*

Both my informant and my legend deal with post-world war affairs in East Asian. While the “gook ” legend originated during or after the Korean War, the “Tianmu” legend originated during or after the American occupation of Taiwan in the 1950s, when the U.S was still fighting the Pacific front. However, the story could have also possibly originated in the 1960s when U.S soldiers stayed in Tianmu to help the reconstruction of Taipei’s economy. The legends both show a cultural remembrance in how the U.S shaped East Asia in the 1950s to 1960s post world war II and overall, portray the Americans as a positive influence yet foolish in their approach. Moreover, the tone both the legends were performed do suggest a sort of respect for the work the American soldiers did in Korea and Taiwan.

Another interesting thing my informant mentioned in his performance of the “gook” legend was:

“kind of like how he was born knowing how to play Starcraft, and born knowing that they created the sundial.”

There seems to be a widespread belief on the internet and in online gaming folk culture that Koreans are really good at Starcraft, a online real time strategy game. A simple Google search on “koreans are good at starcraft” yields 2,770,000 results.  More information can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StarCraft_II:_Wings_of_Liberty.

Also, there seems to be a widespread belief that  Koreans think they invented everything, hence my informant mentions that his Korean friend was born knowing that his country created the sundial, which is not a widespread belief. A quick Google search on “koreans invented everything” yields 2,670,000 results. This is possibly a result of widespread rumors of legal claims that Korea has made to the World Heritage Foundation on several cultural artifacts, which are generally considered Chinese cultural items, such as Confucius, soybean milk and the Dragonboat festival…etc.

A Variation on Macbeth Superstition

My informant grew up in Los Angelos. His father is from the Michigan and his mother is from Indonesia. He performed the following variation on the Macbeth theater superstition during a casual hangout with a friend group:

Informant: So the myth is amongst theater professionals that if you say the word Macbeth, it depends on how serious you are, sometimes people say on stage, in the theater, the most serious people won’t ever say the word, they’ll say ‘Mac B.’ or the ‘The Great Scottish Tragedy’ or whatever because it’s bad luck in the theater, because there’s all kinds of weird superstitions around the theater and I was taught this by my technical theater teacher who was also a guy who had been in it for years and years and years and he was running like an introductory group kids at school called Shakespeareans or Shakespeare Plays. And he to-told them about the rule about how you’re supposed to never say Macbeth and like some kid in the front row like was being a joke and during an entire performance, he kept saying Macbeth, Macbeth just trying to scare the actors and when the intermission came and the lights went down, a light crashed from the ceiling and landed right in front of this kid…and like, it would have killed him if it landed on him, like a huge light, that had never fallen before and never had any problems just like crashed right in front of him and that’s sort of the reason that I’ve been given to believe in the Macbeth rumors that some dark force will drop a light on you if you say it.”

The Macbeth superstition is common among theater groups. The rule remains the same: “Don’t say Macbeth”, but there are many variations on what happens to people when they say it or what one is supposed to do if they say it by accident. In my informant’s story, he attributes the reason for the light crashing to the “dark force” or curse behind the Macbeth superstition and furthermore, he changed from a non-believe of the superstition to a believer after “witnessing it in action”. My informant repeated emphasizes the safety of the light before the accident and after the accident to make his audience (a group of friends) believe that it was truly Macbeth that caused the accident. Ultimately, this is a good example of a personal account that adds to an already existent pool of knowledge that surrounds a superstition or belief, much like how UFO stories add to each other.

Hispanic Folk Food way – Chilaquiles and Chinese Folk Food Way – Eggs

My informant says this about his background:

“My parents are both um…from Mexico… and then they moved to the uh…Sacramento, California in uh ’88 and had my sister and I was born shortly after that in ’91…um…we lived in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood until the time I was in third grade at which point my Dad’s career brought us to a point where we could move into a high income neighborhood elsewhere in Sacramento and I lived there since until I moved to Los Angeles this year for college.”

My informant was raised in a Catholic family. He provided this Hispanic folk food way in the following conversation:

Informant: So this is a folk food way, it’s interesting because I’ve heard of it outside of my family’s context and outside of the town that I grew up in, but uh…only rarely and never in the same way that I’ve seen with them. Uh…this food way is Chilaquiles, which are a uh… breakfast food in Mexico umm is basically a uh…chopped up tortilla, fried and served with, in uh… via you mix it with eggs umm, sometimes peppers… and then it’s served with really hot salsa on top and on a rare occasion, served with soul scream on top…that, at least in my home, this was a very uh, weekend-y thing because it takes time to prepare, we didn’t really have time for it on a weekday, um, at least for my parents growing up, it was very much, very much a luxury, um, because this has meat in it, you might get meat once a week and eggs were also…not quite as much and so, these ingredients, so…is very very simple. This was uh, uh, quite the, it was uh, a rare deviation from the usual diet, a very luxurious one.

Collector: What do you think is the significance of this uh, food way?

Informant: Uh, the significance is that it’s rarely reflective of the way that, at least the way that people who grew up in that town, um, it’s a very modest upbringing um…you don’t get fancy breakfast like you see in America where traditional breakfasts are pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, orange juice…very very simple, but it’s not as appreciated by the children who grew up with that because they don’t recognize the luxury of that sort of breakfast.”

This folk food way is very much reflective of the living standards of what my informant describes as a modest upbringing in a Mexican village. The addition of meat, eggs and soul cream, which are considered expensive food items in a small town like the one my informant’s parents grew up in, show the Chilaquiles’s role as a luxury or celebratory food–it’s a special food, something different from what is usually consumed. I find that many folk food ways are created out of this situation, where a specific food, such as eggs or meat, are main ingredients of a special dish (special as in special occasion) because it was considered a luxury food back in the day.

To show an example, my father often recounted to me about luxury food items in the past.

Here’s a little background on my father:

My father was born as a farmer’s son into a veteran’s family in Taipei, Taiwan. His father and mother ran away from China to Taipei during the Chinese Civil War. Many of his cultural practices and beliefs are taken from mainland Chinese culture. Because of his background, he is considered a “mainlander” in Taiwan (Chinese in Taiwan are divided into Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese or indigenous). My father graduated from Iowa University with an MBA. His B.A was obtained in Taiwan.

While my father often tells me how precious sweet foodstuffs, such as jawbreakers, watermelon and rock candy, were to him in his childhood, he never forgets to reinforce how precious eggs are. He said that in his childhood, eggs were extremely expensive so much so that families couldn’t afford to eat eggs. The only chance he would have to eat an egg was on his birthday. He came from a family of five and on their birthdays, his mother would make ??? (Yang Chun Mien, which directed translated would be “not complicated noodle” or “simple noodle”), which is basically water, noodles and scallions, and put an egg, one egg, in the soup, as a sort of luxury food. Thus, nowadays, when eggs are a lot cheaper, my father never forgets to add egg into the noodles.

From these recollections, we can see how historically rare food items have shaped folk food ways.

For more information on Chilaquiles, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chilaquiles

For pictures of Yang Chun Mien, go here: pictures.

Preventative Chinese Childhood Folkbelief “Genitals on Head”

My informant is second generation Chinese American female student. She grew up in Chongqing, China but moved to America when she was six and a half. After coming to America, she has moved around from Texas to California to Iowa and finally to Missouri. She mentioned the following childhood belief during a group study session when we were discussing our childhoods:

Informant: Ok, so, this was in kindergarten. Like…we had bathrooms where the boys and the girls went to the same bathroom and so like the thing was if you like looked at the other person’s genital area, you’re supposed to grow the thing on your forehead [laughter] and so if girls looked at a guy’s penis [giggles] they’ll have a penis grow on their head [laughter].

Collector (me): So did you believe in this? Where did you learn this?

Informant: No, I was in the bathroom when someone was talking about it and I overheard.

Collector: Why do you think this belief spread?

Informant: Um…I guess…probably parents told their kids not to do it and that’s how they were going to scare them.”

I consider this folklore homeopathic childhood magic in the sense that it carries the quality where “like attracts like”. In this case, looking at genitals of the other sex, causes one to grow said genitals on one’s head. And children, especially little girls (in my informant’s case), believing in this magic and unwilling to grow genitals on their heads, will try not to look at the genitals of the other sex. As my informant believes that Chinese parents told their children this folklore to scare them, this folklore is obvious in its preventive nature–stopping childhood sexual curiosity. In that nature, this folklore reaffirms the perhaps university and global belief that children are meant to be kept innocent, naive and sexless. Moreover, this folklore implies the gender/sex division of children as early as kindergarten, which seems to be an aspect of preventing sexual curiosity.

However, considering how the “scare effect” is achieved, the belief “don’t look or you’ll grow one on your forehead” doesn’t scare one unless that person is relatively familiar with what genitalia looks like. That is to say, the only reason a little girl wouldn’t want the male genitalia growing on her head would be because she knows what it looks like. So, this folklore also implicitly shows us that children might be familiar with or already exposed to the other sex’s characteristics in an period as early as kindergarten (or at least in China where this folklore originated from).

It also begs one to consider, if there was such a focus on sex/gender division and naivety, why were boys and girls made to go to the same bathroom at my informant’s school.