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.


Mirror Superstitions

“Um…you shouldn’t put mirrors, a lot of mirrors or like mirrors in front of your bed or beside your bed. Because like, if you wake up and see yourself in the reflection you might like think that’s like a ghost or something and freak out. And have like a heart attack. Like when you wake up and it’s directly in front of you. It probably started as in you see a ghost but now it’s just like you think you see a ghost.”

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. This particular superstition is a precaution meant to ward off potential ghost sightings. The ‘ghost in mirror’ legend is a very common one (e.g. Bloody Mary), so this seems like a response to the popularity of that particular scary story and others like it.

Trees of Separation

“So at our high school um, we had like, a couple like really big trees on campus. And so um, people would congregate around those trees. And um just like specific types of people would congregate around those trees. So we had a like a Mormon tree and a Mexican tree and a freshman tree and uh…what else did we have? Oh like the white people slash popular kids tree. And so once freshman get on campus they’ll hear through like hearsay, they’ll come to understand like you can’t go to those trees if you don’t belong in those groups.”

I was honestly very surprised to hear this piece of folklore from my informant, since I wasn’t aware this degree of separation currently exists in high schools. It’s akin to an initiation ritual in that people who are new and not ‘in the know’ don’t know they aren’t supposed to go to specific trees at first. It’s only when they become integrated in the school’s culture that they come to understand this through their fellow upperclassmen. The trees serve as a concrete marker of boundaries between different groups, which are usually a bit more subtle than they are in this example.

Heroes of Russian Folktales: Ivan the Fool

“A very important character in Russian fairytales is the so called ‘Ivan the Fool,’ who is uh in contrast to American fairytales, he’s uh really lazy. A lot of times he doesn’t do anything. There is a variation on him and basically that guy, he just lays on the uh Russian stove? Remember that Vrubel one? So like that beautiful one, the old one…but he lays on the stove and he doesn’t get up and he doesn’t want to do anything. So it’s usually the story of three brothers and the first two brothers are hardworking and pretty much doing everything and the third brother is pretty much just like asleep, I mean he doesn’t do anything. And his mother’s like you gotta work, you gotta get married! And he’s like I don’t wanna do anything. But he is in the end…I mean he gets the gold, the money, everything. Yeah! So I mean if you think about Russian culture and the kinds of fairytales that were brought up? I mean, you have in America, don’t you have your hero I mean, is gonna be hardworking, right? And ours? It’s backwards! And so finally, eventually let’s say he gets off that stove or he finally starts doing something. He’s uh…sent to say, make sure no one steals apples from the garden or something. And he just sits there, he falls asleep. So he’s never really performing what’s he’s supposed to perform, in the beginning at least. So when the basic structure of the fairytale…and then what happens is uh, after that, he encounters certain…so he has to leave home. So this person encounters certain difficulties. He’s either going to get some magic immortal water or immortal apples, or he’s gonna try to save some maiden to get married. So there’s always a task. And so he’s gonna accomplish this task, and on the way to the task there are obstacles.”

According to my informant, these characters come from tales her grandparents told her before she could read. She adds that these tales don’t technically have an author, and were typically passed down from generation to generation. As she points out, the Ivan the Fool character shows a different set of values from what she associates with the typical American märchen, where cunning and intelligence is prized above hard work. I also found her immediate association of the American hero with hard work to be interesting, as it is basically drawn from the whole ‘American Dream/Manifest Destiny’ legend. She also brought up the tale of the three brothers, which is a common theme throughout most European märchen. However, in this one, the first two brothers are hardworking and yet do not achieve the end goal, which isn’t typically the case in other European fairytales. The Ivan character seems to emphasize the value of having quick wits, and prizes street smarts and common sense over conventional book learning.

Villains of Russian Folktales: Baba Yaga & Koschei the Immortal

“This old woman, whose name is Baba Yaga, she’s a witch. And she’s kinda bad…but sometimes she can help him [the main character], so again it’s kinda ambiguous. She’s not necessarily a completely bad witch. I mean she may try to eat him, but then the main character, he’s kinda cunning, so he tells her let’s say that oh you want to eat me in the stove, but I’m not really sure how to get myself into the stove, you know. How to sit on the thing so you can push me, can you show me how to do it? And she goes like ohhh, you young generation, nobody teaches you anything nowadays! You don’t even know how to get on the stove! Ok, here’s how you do it. And then he just shoves her right in. So then she starts screaming and he says ok I’m gonna take you out but you gotta help me do something. Because she has magic powers, so she can either help him or destroy him, and usually the thing about this main character is that he’s really cunning. He may not be hardworking, he may be really lazy, but he’s got the…the wits are with him. So there is this Baba Yaga, which is you know, the bad mother archetype. Or good. And she’s ugly facially, she lives in this um…oh god um…it’s a little house on chicken legs. And so it’s in the middle of the forest, and so you come up to this and you’re supposed to say this special phrase which is uh… ‘The house, the house. Turn to me with your front and uh…turn to the forest with your back.’ And then the chicken legs start movin and then the house turns and the door opens, and then Baba Yaga…this figure comes out or something. She loves eating small children, so there’s some stories like that, you know where the children need to be saved. Or sisters trying to save their brothers, you know. So she’s one of these characters who can help or stall the character, the main character.

“So then there is a special man called uh, Koschei the Immortal. So he’s not a man, he’s kind of this entity. But he usually, he always wants to marry some princess. And so he steals her. And uh…so the hero tries to free her, but in order to do this he needs to kill this Koschei. But basically, the way he’s portrayed this Koschei, he’s really skinny. He looks like a skeleton, but he has these powers. And it’s really hard to kill him. And his death is hidden uh…so in order to find a way to kill him you gotta…his death is hidden at the uh…in a big um…oh my god what is it? So um, his death is at the end of the needle, the needle is packed in an egg, the egg is inside a um, I think some bird, a bird is inside a rabbit, a rabbit is inside…it’s like a Russian Matryoshka! You know, those wood dolls? So yeah, same thing, parallel. So the uh rabbit is inside a box and the box is either hanging somewhere on some magic tree or it’s underneath the tree. So…and the hero has to find it and he opens the box and the rabbit runs, so he has to catch the rabbit. And the bird flies, so then he has to shoot the bird, then he has to catch the egg falling out of the bird. Uh, crack the egg, take out this needle and break it. Then when he does, the Immortal dies, so that’s the idea. And uh, this Koschei the Immortal, he’s a very popular villain in Russian fairy tales. Koschei never helps. See, Baba Yaga, sometimes she helps, sometimes she may show you the way to the magic tree with Koschei’s death in it. But uh Koschei never helps, he’s always negative.”

According to my informant, these characters come from tales her grandparents told her before she could read. She adds that these tales don’t technically have an author, and were typically passed down from generation to generation. One thing I found especially compelling was the ambiguity of the Baba Yaga character. As my informant pointed out, Baba Yaga can either fall into the evil mother or good mother archetype, depending on her mood and on the story. Thus, she has to be a complex character for her actions to make sense, from eating small children to helping out a hero. The imagery of her house on chicken legs was also great, and I was amazed that my informant remembered the saying to summon Baba Yaga after all these years. As for Koschei the Immortal, the ritualization of his death is very interesting. Usually, there are certain rites surrounding death, but these tend to have to do with burial or respecting the dead. Here, however, the ritual is how to properly kill Koschei. Judging from what my informant told me, the villains of these Russian märchen often engage in very gruesome acts, and yet these are children’s tales. This type of attitude points out the often problematic way of thinking of childhood as a wholly pure and innocent period of life. Childhood as we tend to envision it today is more of an artificial construct than a natural phenomenon, and that is something the villains in these folktales seem to understand.


Mayer, Marianna. Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.


Informant: “Every Russian child knows this tale, it’s about um, it’s actually about a piece of dough. It’s like a doughnut which comes alive. So it’s about this old man and an old woman, and they live together and they don’t have children in the village. And so one day, they decide to make uh this type of child from a dough which is Kolobok.”

Me: “Kind of like the Gingerbread Man?”

Informant: “Yes, yes! So that uh, they make this Kolobok. And he starts talking…and then he runs away from them. And he’s basically on a quest, but there’s really no purpose. He’s not trying to save a princess or to get gold or anything. So and it’s rolling down the road and it encounters different animals and everyone wants to eat it and it just tries to get out of it. So first it encounters the bear, and then the bear says oh Kolobok, Kolobok I will eat you. And he’s like no, don’t eat me! And then Kolobok tells his whole story about how he was made from dough and scraps and everything, and then he just runs away from the bear. And then he comes across a wolf, let’s say, and then the wolf says well, I’m gonna eat you. And then he retells again the same story, and he says oh you can’t eat me because even the bear didn’t eat me. So…and then he comes across the fox. I think he tells again the whole thing, let me see. I’m not sure if the fox eats him, somehow he gets away still. In the end he does get away but the idea is that it’s like very repetitive because he just keeps repeating his story and getting away from all these animals. And so then finally he goes back home.”

As I mentioned in the interview, the tale of Kolobok bears many similarities to the tale of the Gingerbread Man. However, there is a key difference here, with the doughnut making it all the way back home instead of being eaten by the last animal it encounters, the fox. Like other heroes of Russian folktales, Kolobok displays wit and quick thinking, telling each successive animal it cannot eat him because the previous one didn’t eat him. My informant mentioned that in Russian animal fairytales, the fox is always the one who possesses the greatest amount of cunning, yet even the fox is taken in by Kolobok here. And although he is a doughnut without any features, he still clearly takes great pride in his identity, since he takes the time to share his story with each animal he meets. One last thing I wanted to point out was the informant’s mention of a lack of purpose to Kolobok’s quest. Usually, when a hero leaves home, there is some greater purpose to his actions, but here Kolobok just rolls out the door and eventually rolls back home. Perhaps the story is meant to suggest to small children that independence will come, but it is good to keep your wits about you when you travel. Of course, that is just one of many possible interpretations.