Author Archives: Sarah Wu

Nose Picking & The Fire Department

“When I was little, my grandfather told me if I picked my nose, I don’t know if this counts. He told me that if I picked my nose, that my finger would get stuck, and the only way I could get it out is if I called the fire department, and they would have to cut my hand off. I was totally afraid of him when I was little.”

The informant recalls her grandfather telling her stories to ‘spook her’ when she was little. She believes he was trying to be funny, since he wasn’t very good with kids. She says he also used to tell her mother the same story when she was little, and continued to pass the trauma down to future generations. This story is different from the average folk belief or superstition because the informant’s grandfather did not necessarily believe the story, but came up with it as a way to trick her. However, since she believed it when she first heard it, it became ‘real’ for her. This instance is slightly reminiscent of fakelore, where one party generates fake folklore (e.g. Paul Bunion) for gain, but the fakelore becomes accepted as true folklore. Obviously, this example is on a much smaller scale.

Cuban Pig Roast

“So my family has this tradition, actually it’s a Cuban tradition but we bastardize it a little. A lot…of roasting a pig and throwing a party every winter. In Cuba, pretty much everyone celebrates Noche Buena on Christmas Eve and they basically throw gargantic parties and roast a whole pig and eat a ton of food, which is why Cuban holidays are the best! So my family, which is part Cuban, also likes to celebrate this tradition only we’re always out of town on Christmas Eve visiting my family in Miami, where a lot of people also celebrate Noche Buena because of the large Cuban population. So sometimes we celebrate it twice which is fun, but also means we gain like ten pounds every winter. Anyway, we usually host our party in early December or early January depending on when my brother…Adam is home from college because he is the right hand man to my dad who is the supreme pig roaster. Pigs are roasted outside in homemade pits…ours is in our backyard. It’s a largish square structure built out of bricks and covered with cement, and the whole family helped out and it’s decorated like Watts Towers because that’s the best place in the world. There’s also a wire contraption that holds the pig and it looks like a bed that the pig lies on. We invite a ton of people who bring other food. Cuban traditions are…all about community, so it’s important that there are a lot of people. My grandmother who is full-blooded Cuban cooks other Cuban food like Cuban black beans and rice and yucca. And the pig cooks all day and it’s cut in front of everyone…and by everyone. There’s also live music played by whoever brings an instrument, and lots of dancing…it’s similar to the celebration in most other Cuban households with the only major difference being how the pig gets cooked. One family we know skewers the pig on a long pipe and attaches a steering wheel to one end so they can drive the pig around and around above a fire…this is the other common way of cooking a pig!”

My informant’s knowledge of her family’s celebration of Noche Buena revolves mainly around the roasting of the pig. This is a long process that takes an entire night, which seems to bring people at this celebration together. It also has certain rules, such as how the pig is usually roasted outside over coals. The essence of this holiday is based not just in the food, but in the act of roasting (no shortcuts, no buying pre-roasted pig). I also found it interesting that there were alternative ways of cooking a pig, with the steering wheel method encouraging people to interact even more with the central food of the holiday. Noche Buena actually exists in several locations such as Spain and the Philippines, but only the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities add the pig roast as an integral part of the holiday.

“Why Kicking?”

“Ok, so when Captain Cook was discovering the Hawaiian islands, he had a servant carry him from the ship to the shore. And he sat on the servant’s shoulders, and then was carried to shore! And then the servant was like Why kicking? Why kicking? And then Captain Cook continued to kick his legs while on the servant’s shoulders, and then the slave again says Why kicking? Why kicking? And then because, and then it’s later found out, that there were sharks in the water. And that is why Waikiki is called Waikiki.”

My informant recalls this joke that her piano teacher told her. She says he liked to entertain people, and was a 60-something year old man. She remembers going to monthly recitals at a nursing home, where he would often set the mood by telling jokes and funny stories. She suspects he did this to try to bridge the generation gap between the performers and the audience. His humor made it easier for everyone to mingle together after the performance.

I think it’s a good example of people showing that they belong to a specific group through folk humor, as this is a place-based joke. Captain Cook was a British cartographer and navigator who mapped parts of the Hawaiian Islands on his explorations, and this joke puts a humorous spin on how one of the places he encountered got its name. Interestingly, my informant switched between ‘servant’ and ‘slave’ when she was telling this joke, which reminded me of the ways in which jokes can cover aspects of culture that are normally considered taboo in everyday conversation.

Wide Noses

“My mom and her friends always say that if a person has like a wider nose or a fatter nose, that means they…that’s a symbol of wealth.”

My informant told me about this Chinese saying she heard from her mother. Previously, I had heard that fat earlobes were a sign of wealth, so I did a little more research. Apparently, both are part of something called ‘Chinese Face Reading,’ which is similar to palm reading but focuses on facial features instead of palm lines. I find this very interesting because a person goes through life with the same nose they’re born with (in most cases, at least). So this type of reading is essentially set from the moment of birth and cannot be changed. I asked my informant if she believes this to be true, and her response was that she wasn’t sure. She did, however, express a desire to go look up famous people’s faces to see how wide their noses are.

Birthday Superstitions

“My grandma always says that you shouldn’t celebrate um, your birthday after it’s over because that will bring you bad luck for the year. You’re also supposed to eat um long noodles…or noodles because it symbolizes like…longevity of life.”

My informant heard this Chinese superstition from her maternal grandmother. She says she is her grandmother’s sole grandchild, and thus is the recipient of many of these superstitions. She describes her grandmother as someone who drops these superstitions occasionally into conversation as they come up or pertain to everyday life. When asked if she believes in them, she says sometimes she does, but only when she’s ‘feeling superstitious.’ I think this sort of attitude is a reflection of how belief works; it isn’t necessarily a black and white thing, but a spectrum. The noodle ritual also reminds me of New Year traditions like drinking champagne to bring prosperity for the coming year. It’s also interesting when juxtaposed with the blowing-of-the-candles tradition; whereas one extinguishes flame to symbolize years passing, the other involves eating as many long and unbroken noodles as possible to gather more time.