Author Archives: Paulene Ng Chee

Opening Windows in a Tornado

“Whenever there’s a tornado, you’re supposed to open up all of the windows in your house… which scientifically does not make sense, but you’re supposed to do it… you’re supposed to do it to balance out the anger of – the supposed anger of the storm… it’s thought that if you’re inviting it in, it will be less hostile to you…”

Background: The informant was raised in the lower midwestern region of the United States, specifically Kansas, and now goes to college in California.  He learned of this custom from his elementary school librarian.

Context: I was told about this tradition in USC’s Annenberg Hall during a quick interview.

It was interesting to sit down and hear about unique experiences of natural phenomena, especially as someone raised in a tropical country and subsequently California.  I have never needed to consider the stories and beliefs that people may hold who come from a different region in the United States who have to live through different natural disasters such as tornadoes.  The thought processes for “inviting” a tornado in to minimize its damage is compelling, and would definitely be unique to an area that experiences such weather often.

Palabok, New Year’s, and Circular Shapes

On New Year’s Eve, I always cook palabok… it’s a, it’s a rice noodle dish with shrimp stock and pork… but the most important part is the stuffs you put on the top.  You know how I always have you arrange everything in a circle, right? Have you ever noticed that even the toppings are circles?  So I put the noodles in a circular serving platter, and we have the slices of hard boiled egg, the chopped green onions, the boiled shrimp, squid rings, the calamansi halves.  All of that is supposed to be circular to invite wealth and abundance in the coming year.  Di ako sure kung talagang Pilipino yung tradition na ‘yun… (I’m not sure if that tradition really is Filipino) because the idea of circles is usually part of the Chinese culture.  Maybe it’s an influence, I don’t know, I didn’t really ever think much about when I started doing it or why.

Background: The informant is a 48-year old Filipina immigrant to the United States who is married to a Filipino-Chinese man.  She learned how to cook traditional Filipino foods from scratch from her mother and oldest brother in the Philippines, where cooking meals from household items was essential to maximizing the volume of food when money was scarce.

Context: This conversation happened at the dinner table, where the informant and I were eating store-bought palabok that was not arranged in circles.

I am not really very well-connected to the Chinese aspects of my identity, since I was raised only in the Philippines and the United States, where even my Chinese relatives had largely assimilated to the cultures of their respective environments.  Arranging food in a way that invites wealth from a different culture’s beliefs is a practice of my mother’s that I found more interesting after I began to reflect upon what she told me.  The circular food and arrangement is a call back to her previous life in the Philippines, where financial stability was a primary concern at every turn.  The sprinkling of a different culture’s traditions (likely my father’s influence) reminded me of myself, the way that they are mixed together.  Food is an incredibly important aspect of family life in the Philippines, and families in a household scarcely eat their meals separately.


“So basically, aguinalduhan is a gathering we do in our church every year on the last Sunday before Christmas where all of the adults go into, like, a parking lot and bring bulk snacks and toys and stuff like from Costco… Like those 28-pack chips or candy boxes.  They all sit in a big circle with their big packages of food and snacks.  Then the kids all line up outside the circle in order from youngest to oldest until you’re like 20 years old and it’s like a long line of trick or treaters that get older as you go… the funniest part is that we’ll usually bully our oldest cousins out of the line once they get to be around 22 or 23 because at that point, like, they’re just being greedy.  But then what ends up happening is that they have a kid a couple years later and get to go to the front of the line when their kid is the youngest out of all of us.”

Background: The informant is a 19-year old college student who was raised a Christian in a church that was led and run by his extended family members.

Context: This tradition was shared with me over FaceTime.

I experienced aguinalduhan annually with the informant when we were children, and it was a cyclical tradition that marked the end of another year.  Participants in the tradition slowly made their way to the back of the line as new lives began entering through the front.  As an adult, many of our older cousins are now the ones bringing the goodies (like Oreo snack packs, fruit snacks, Caprisuns) to hand out to all of the younger cousins.

According to limited information available about the idea of “Aguinaldohan” online, our church’s tradition stemmed from a custom named after the first President of the Philippines, Emilio Aguinaldo, where people gave back to the needy during Christmastime.  This version is definitely more sanitized and family-friendly, and serves as a way for everyone to get together and see how we’ve grown throughout the years.

Number Games and Familial Ties

“A game that my family has given meaning is we play a number guessing game, especially on road trips and it started out as a joke by my dad because my sister and I would always ask for things to do or things to play.  But it’s evolved into something that we unironically choose to do because we’ve given it such meaning. To me, it, it, it symbolizes … it’s hard to describe, it symbolizes, like, the nature of friendly competition and always loving to challenge each other to silly little things. It’s really a simple and rather stupid game.  You give them a range and you give them a certain number of tries to guess the number, and you tell them ‘higher or lower’ to see if they can guess the number.  and while it may seem like it’s sort of just luck, we’ve gotten to the point where we can make more informed guesses based on who came up with the number because we know each other so well. and then that way it also just symbolizes our connection…”

Background: The informant is a 19 year-old college student who went on road trips often with his family growing up.  The game shared with me was created by his father when he was 9 and has become a staple part of their traveling as a family in the years since.

Context: I was told about this game in USC’s Annenberg Hall during a quick interview.

It’s interesting how simple games can become a symbol of a family’s close connections to each other.  Shared activities like the number game can become a small group of people’s defining characteristic, and the informant was enthusiastic about how they could guess the patterns that each player used in the game as an indicator of how well they knew each other.

Pulling Feet from Beyond the Grave

“When I was younger, Lolo Nani would sit me down almost every day during when I would eat my snacks after school before we did my homework together.  He always would remind me to visit and clean his grave once he died.  He said that if I didn’t, he would come back to pull my feet while I was sleeping.  That sh*t was so scary dude, I would barely be able to sleep at night because, like, all I could think of was what it would feel like, or if he was gonna pull me hard or where he would take me.

It’s a pretty messed up way of getting a kid to regularly clean or visit your grave, but honestly… it makes sense now.  Even before he died when we would go to, like, other people’s funerals I would look at stones that had grass growing over them and it just looks lonely.  I don’t know, maybe that’s what he wanted me to see then.”

Background: The informant is a 19 year-old college student whose grandfather was his primary caretaker after school before his parents would come home from work.  He would feed him after school, teach him his homework lessons, and ensure that he took naps.  The grandfather passed away in 2018, but the informant regularly heeds his request to clean and visit his grave often.

Context: This superstition was shared with me over FaceTime.

The mentioned relative in the story often used scare tactics against children in order to keep them in line growing up.  He used to tell me that if I kept a towel on my head for too long after a shower, all of my hair would fall out; in reality, he just didn’t want me to catch a cold.  Using superstition as discipline happens often in our culture, and preserves family dynamics that the older people in the family see as valuable.  The informant’s grandfather also told him as a child that he had eyes in the back of his head that could see whenever he was doing wrong at school, which contributed to his continuing obedience.  Such beliefs instilled in children, like cleaning and visiting their graves or adhering to adults’ wishes even when out of sight, preserves the power dynamic between parent and child.  The child trusts in the truth of the parent’s words, and cultivates a sense of respect that persists even after death.