Author Archives: Patra Childress


“Break one chopstick at a time.”

            Danny doesn’t know where he first heard this ancient Chinese proverb, but he knows he hears it often in his family, particularly from his parents. He was born in the United States, but his parents were born in China. He is a pre-med student at the University of Southern California He interprets this as meaning “If you want to do things right, do it one step at a time. Say if you want to break five chopsticks as fast as possible. It’s better to break them one at a time than to break them in one piece.”

            Danny and I are on the executive board of a club together, and this proverb came up when discussing how we were going to revive our club after a semester of little activity. We realized we had a lot of work to do to get things running properly, and he mentioned this proverb to suggest that we tackle one obstacle at a time to reach our club’s goals.

            I think this proverb can be used mainly as Danny has described, paralleling the concept that it is bad to “spread yourself too thin,” a piece of advice given often in the college environment to students who take too many classes or engage in too many extracurricular activities. This Chinese proverb captures something more than this expression in that it paints a picture to show why doing too many things at once is a bad thing; namely, attempting to break multiple chopsticks at once will lead to a pile of unbroken chopsticks. A consequence is given for the action that both expressions address.


“Al mal paso, darle prisa.”

At the bad step, give it haste.

Give haste to a bad step.

“Something my dad says often is “al mal paso, darle prisa” which translates to something like “give haste to a bad step.” It means that when you’re in a bad situation you should get out of it quickly.”

Daniel was born in the United States and lives in Los Angeles. His parents are from Mexico. He studies occupational therapy at the University of Southern California. His father says this often to his children so that they remember to make decisions that don’t lead to inevitable suffering. When they are in a bad situation, they should get out of it while doing so would be beneficial.

Giving haste to a bad step can be interpreted as minimizing the effect of the bad step on the journey as a whole by giving it less time. For example, if one were to take a step onto an unsure piece of ground that lied in between two stable spots, it would be better to step quickly in the unsure patch of ground in crossing to the other side than to linger there until a problem arises.


“Cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos.”

Breed crows and to you they will take out the eyes.

Breed crows and they will take out your eyes.

            Daniel explains that “He [his father] uses this to tell us that we reap what we sow, which is a common saying, I feel.” Specifically, if you do bad things, the products of those deeds will lead to your demise. Daniel was born in the United States and lives in Los Angeles. His parents are from Mexico. He studies occupational therapy at the University of Southern California.

            In this proverb, the crows, considered the product of a bad deed, play an active role in bringing about pain and suffering of their “breeder.”

            Similar to the expression “We reap what we sow,” this proverb involves the process of time as the facilitator of karma. In order for what is sown to be reaped, it must grow and change, as must a crow from infant to adulthood. This implies that bad deeds change before they grow harmful to their propagator.

            The Mexican proverb is different from the expression “We reap what we sow,” because it only warns against the harms of being bad without implying any benefit to doing good. It explains that if you raise something that has the potential to be dangerous, it will hurt you badly when it realizes that potential; however, doing something good may only keep the status quo. There’s no guarantee that raising some other kind of bird would bring you some type of joy, save the ability to keep your eyes.


“Al que madruga, Dios lo ayuda.”

To he who wakes up early, God him helps.

God helps he who wakes up early.

“Something similar to “the early bird gets the worm” that my parents say is “al que madruga, Dios lo ayuda,” which translates to “God helps he who wakes up early.” This actually makes sense if you think about it because if you start something early, things tend to go well.”

Daniel was born in the United States and lives in Los Angeles. His parents are from Mexico. He studies occupational therapy at the University of Southern California. Daniel hears this variation through a Catholic tradition. Because waking up early does not signify anything in particular as far as I am aware in this tradition, waking up early is equated to beginning something early. This makes this expression similar to “the early bird gets the worm” because it emphasizes the advantages inherent beginning something early.

I have heard this expression growing up in a Muslim household, as well. A good Muslim is theoretically supposed to pray five times a day (or condensed into three times if you’re Shi’a). The first time is early in the morning, before the break of dawn. In my opinion, this expression’s emphasis on God’s help makes more sense if viewed in this light.

The fact that this expression exists in Muslim and Hispanic cultures provides the possibility that the terminus post quem for this proverb is the Arab invasion of Spain.

Initiation Prank-Steel Mill

“They get 2 or 3 of them and give them an assignment on a very cold day in January.  The steel mill being on the lake means that the weather is extremely cold due to high winds.  So a single digit temperature will ultimately become sub zero.  On days like these, they the journey men (or the old guys) elect to send the new pipe fitters on a task to go out to the lake where there is a set of pipes sticking up out of the ice.  Your task is to separate a flange about the size of a medium coffee table, undo all of the bolts, replace the inner diaphragm (so it’s like a sandwich) with a new one and then close it back up.  They keep a 55 gallon drum of oil burning so that when you’re out there every tem minutes you can come back and thaw your hands out because you’re frozen.  Then, you go back out and try and finish the job.  It takes men about 3 hours a piece after coming back and forth.  Their ears are frozen.  The old men were just laughing.  I decided, while they were out there working, to see what the job really was.  So, I followed the line through the ceiling of the steel mill, down the walls of the back corners, where people don’t normally go, and I watched the pipe go through the floor and to the basement.  I went down into the basement where there are “he-man rats” (huge rats) which don’t bother you, but if you see them running, then you know it’s a gas leak and you leave them alone (the old guys feed them once in a while).  Once I flip my flashlight on, it turned out that the very end of the pipe was tied with a rag and led nowhere (it was a line that was dead for the last 30 years).  The old guys just like to send these men out in the freezing cold to teach them to think before they send them out working on any line, because if you don’t know what line you’re working on or why you’re working on it, there is a high chance that you could kill somebody.  This forces the men to think for themselves.”

My dad was eighteen years old when he started working in a steel mill. He’s from Hammond, Indiana, a town where most people work for the steel mill. His father worked at one steel mill, his brother at another, and he at yet another. Beginning work at the steel mill in this town very nearly coincided with reaching maturity, at around eighteen years old. Being new at the steel mill was a liminal time between childhood and adulthood for most males in that area, and so pranks were used for initiation purposes.

My dad explains that this particular prank was more of a test to see whether or not the new “men” could handle the dangerous situations they would be likely to face during their careers at the mill. He notes that the older men wanted to force the younger “men” to think for themselves. At this point, thinking for oneself equates adulthood, and so I see this ritual as forcing an end to the liminal period between boyhood and manhood so that the men of the mill could work as a cohesive unit in which everyone could rely on everyone to think before acting in a potentially very dangerous environment.