When I asked my informant if they had any special holiday traditions or rituals, they thought of el Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. S told me that this was one of their favourite holidays, they love the vibrant colours, the joyful celebrations, the delicious food, and the beautiful altars set up in honour of loved ones. S told me that when the sun set, they would stroll down the streets of their neighbourhood every year, watching families setting up their altars for their loved ones who had passed and they would see candles flickering in the night, incense burning, and pictures of happy faces. They would also see lots of marigold blooms set around the altars, known as ‘ofrendas’, and the flower’s bright orange colour and strong fragrance are to help guide the souls of the dead home. S said that their mom would always bring out a tray of fresh pan de muerto which is a sweet bread that is eaten on this holiday, and they all took a piece. They love this holiday because they always felt a strong connection to their ancestors and their culture during el Día de los Muertos, and they said that it will always be a special time for their family and them.
I have always loved hearing stories about el Día de los Muertos and I think that it is such an amazing way of celebrating the life of a loved one who is no longer with us. Growing up, every time the thought of dying and the afterlife came to mind, it would quickly spiral out of control and I would get very anxious and stressed out because I just couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of it. Not knowing what happens when we die is a scary thought and I didn’t really have a comfort to hold onto. This is why I think el Día de los Muertos is such a great holiday because it helps you feel so bonded to your loved ones, even if they were no longer with you. The belief that the spirits of the dead come back from the afterlife to visit and spend time with their families on Earth would have been a very comforting and reassuring thought for me growing up.
My informant S told me about when they had their quinceañera when they turned 15. S said that quinces are a very valued Mexican traditional celebration of becoming 15 and that it is a big transition from being a child to becoming an adult. They talked about picking out the dress, and how it is supposed to show your personality. They showed me a picture of their dress and they wore a gorgeous baby blue gown that reminded me of Cinderella. S also talked about the quinceañera’s court, the quinces’ closest friends, and how their friends all wore beautiful dresses that were colour-coordinated to their gown. S told me about the dance number that they did together and how much fun it was for them. S also talked about one of her favourite moments, the father-daughter dance and how emotional it was. They had picked a really special song that meant a lot to them, a Spanish song that their dad used to sing to them when they were younger and S said it was a very memorable moment for the both of them.
Of course, I have heard of the tradition of quinceañeras and know what they are about, but it is always so special to hear about it from someone who got to experience it in their life. I have several other friends who have also had quinces and I loved hearing everyone’s different experiences and memories of them. From what I have heard about quinces, I know that when you are Catholic, the quinceanera goes to church before the party for a ceremony of blessings that renews the quinceanera’s commitment to God. I have never had a quinceañera but I did have a champagne birthday, which is the day you turn the age of the day that you were born. In my case, I was born on the 18th, so the day I turned 18 was my champagne birthday and I had a champagne birthday party with my closest friends.
My informant E is from Hong Kong, China and there is a traditional dish that is eaten during Chinese New Year with dried oysters and black moss. E said that “Dried Oyster and Black Moss” is a Southern Chinese dish that is eaten on Chinese New Year because everyone wants to start the new year with health, prosperity, and wealth, which is what the dish translates to phonetically in Cantonese. They explained how “ho see” (dried oyster) sounds like the word for good deeds and “fat choy” (black moss) sounds very similar to the word for wealth and prosperity. As this dish relies heavily on the phonetics of Cantonese, E told me that it is not a very common dish outside of Cantonese homes.
Growing up in Eastern China, I had heard of this dish before, but I never had the pleasure of trying it. However, I have had dishes that have those ingredients in them as they are very popular and common vegetables in China. Dried oysters and black moss can be found in almost every Chinese market or grocery store and most families had them stored in their fridge or pantry. In Eastern Chinese culture, it is common to eat hotpot on Chinese New Year. “Hotpot” is a dish where you have an electric heating pot (hotpot) that you cook soup stock in and add in a variety of ingredients to cook like thinly sliced meats, vegetables, seafood, basically anything that cooks fast, in the stock and pull out when they are cooked and ready to eat.
My informant SJ told me about another Korean ritual where expecting mothers go to a shaman to get a name for their baby. SJ said that all the women in their family had gone to a shaman to get names for their babies, and when their mother was pregnant with them, she did as well. Koreans see it as an auspicious ritual and believe that it will bring prosperity to the baby. This was how SJ got their name and it means “Wise Existence”. Every name has a different meaning and it is based on many aspects, like when the baby is due and what gender they are, and their name also helps to determine their spirituality and their future.
As I was hearing SJ tell this story, I thought that this was such an interesting way of finding baby names and I love how meaningful each name is. It then made me think about my own name and how my parents came up with it, so I decided to call my mom and ask her about it. After talking to my mom on the phone, I actually did find out a lot of interesting things about my Mandarin name, 李小菲. She told me that because I was born in 2003 the last character in my name has the grass radical in it (the top part of the character that looks like a line with two dashes in it). She laughed and explained that this was because 2003 is the year of the sheep and sheep eat grass. I also laughed in surprise and didn’t know if I should have been offended that my mother decided to name me after grass. She then went on to tell me that the name as a whole meant living freely with a life full of joy and how that was all she wanted for me. I was touched to hear this and now I have a deeper appreciation for my name.
My informant K told me about a Korean ritual called “Dolijabi” that occurs on the 100th day after a baby is born. On the day, the baby’s parents will place different items on a table, like a book, pen, paintbrush, stethoscope, etc., and depending on what the baby touches first, it determines their career path and their future. K told me that when they were a baby, they grabbed the book that their parents set out on the table and their mom said that they were going to go into academia. They said that it did end up coming true because they are now in the Marshall School of Business here at USC studying marketing.
I had heard of this ritual growing up and found it fascinating. I sometimes wonder what I could have chosen when I was a baby and how that decision would have changed my life path compared to where I am now. I have heard other stories about Dolijabi from my other Korean friends, and some of them said that they did end up picking a career path that resembled what they picked, and some ended up doing something completely different. However, they all told me that it is more of a fun tradition for the family and that it is more of a starting point. I do think that psychology places a big part in this tradition as well because if you were to pick up a paintbrush when you were a baby, your parents could think you were going to be a painter and get you a lot of painting materials and enroll you in painting classes. Or if you had picked up a ball, your parents could sign you up to play recreational sports. If you grow up thinking you are meant to have a certain career, then it is likely that you will pursue it. I personally don’t think I would have ended up doing what I would have picked because I always thought I was going to either be a hairstylist or open a bakery when I was younger. It wasn’t until I moved to Canada that I realized I wanted to be an actor.