Author Archives: rosasuh

Cat’s cradle

My informant was a Japanese-American college student at USC who grew up in California. Below is a transcript of our conversation talking about the cat’s cradle, a playground game she played as an elementary schooler.

“A cat’s cradle is a string that you can manipulate into different shapes with your hands by making a series of movements with your fingers. It was taught by my friends in elementary school and requires other people to help out to work since the patterns are easily forgettable; I had to ask people all the time how to do it. If you could make a shape out of a string people thought you were cool because you’re making a new shape out of a simple string. It felt mysterious and skillful, like a cool trick you can do to impress other kids on the playground.

I remember I also tried to teach my mom it, who said that she knew how to do it when she was younger but she forgot how to do it as she grew older. I didn’t play cat’s cradle after elementary school. There was no particular reason why; new trends just came up and I forgot how to make it.”

Cat’s cradle seems to invoke a similar sense of fascination and mystery as performing magic tricks, but this sensation seems to be quite ephemeral. It’s reminiscent of how children grow out of pretend play because they feel childish pretending like they’re something else and they want to feel more “grown-up” (this is reflected in how “too old to play pretend” is a common saying.) Because cat’s cradle was a social activity and needed other people to learn it from, the informant probably felt social pressure to stop doing something no longer regarded as “cool” anymore. The fact that the informant’s mother also knew how to do it but forgot as she grew older suggests that this is a common pattern among young children and occurs with every generation.

Upside down red envelope 🧧

The informant was a Chinese international student from Shanghai who goes to UC Santa Barbara. He describes a tradition in his household that takes place during Lunar New Year where his family puts a lucky red envelope (红包 – ang pau) upside down on their front door.

“The character on the envelope means prosperity or auspiciousness. Upside down (福 – fu) in Chinese is the same pronunciation as arrival. So putting it upside down is like saying that prosperity has arrived. People put that on their door during the New Year. Some people also choose to put that only inside their door to signify that the prosperity has entered the household. There’s also belief that the character at the front door should not be upside down since that upsets the prosperity but you can put the character upside down onto other things (like a closet) inside the house. It is a very common and significant cultural practice in China. And my family does that too. We typically put the character upside down outside the front door to our apartment.”

Because Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language where one word can have multiple meanings depending on what tone it is said in, there are many opportunities for word play like this instance. The disagreement between people whether putting the envelope upside down brings or upsets prosperity and whether putting it outside or inside the door is the correct way is interesting because it shows how different people interpret the wordplay differently and that there is no clear cut answer.

Nonetheless, using a lucky envelope to bring prosperity inside the home reminds me of how people across a lot of cultures have rituals to bring them luck for the new year (eating a select amount of grapes, kissing on midnight, etc.) and indicates that many people see it as a hopeful new opportunity to change their lives for the better.