Author Archives: Sonali Chanchani

Persian Folktale: Bōz Bōze Ghandí

Contextual Data: I asked a friend of mine if he could remember any stories from his childhood, and he offered me this story — a Persian folktale — that his mother and his maternal grandmother used to tell him. They would tell it to him in the original Farsi (his family’s first language), but over a cup of coffee, he recounted this translated version of the tale. The following is an exact transcript of his account.

“So this is the story of Bōz Bōze Ghandí — which Bōz Bōze means ‘goat’ and Ghandí means, like, ‘sweet’ so like ‘the sweet goat.’ [Laughs.] And Bōz Bōze Ghandí had three children, baby goats: Shangúl, Mangul, and Hapeyē Angur — those are their names. Um, Shangúl means ‘joyful’ in Farsi, Mangul means — Mangul is like the bell on the collar of an animal — and Hapeyē Angur means ‘a single grape.’ Um, so… And every day Bōz Bōze Ghandí would go out and tell her children, ‘I’m gonna go out and eat the alfalfa so I can make milk for you to drink.’ Um, and she would admonish them, ‘Be careful not to open the door for the wolf, who’ll come and ask you to open the door for him.’ And every day the wolf would come and say, ‘I am Bōz Bōze Ghandí open the door for me.’ And Shangúl, Mangul, and Hapeyē Angur would say, ‘No you’re not. If you’re our mom, show us your paws.’ (‘Cause she has white paws.) And the wolf would put his paws and obviously they were gray and had like long nails and claws. And they would say, ‘You’re not my mom. Go away.’ And they would not open the door for him. So one day the wolf comes back — and wolf is ‘gorg’ in Farsi — the wolf would come back and the one day the wolf dipped his paws in flour and cut all his nails and went back to the home and said, ‘Open the door. I am your mom, Bōz Bōze Ghandí.’ And they said ‘No you’re not. If you are, show us your paws.’ And so he slipped his paws under the door and they saw that they were white and the nails were short and they said, ‘Okay,’ and they opened the door. And he leaped in and ate Shangúl and Mangul, but Hapeyē Angur hid. And as much as he looked, the wolf couldn’t find him, and then the wolf left. And then Bōz Bōze Ghandí comes home and says, ‘Shangúl, Mangul, and Hapeyē Angur, where are you?’ And no one answers, and after a while [Pause: Coffee dropped off at the table by waitress]. After a while Hapeyē Angur comes out and he’s very sad. He’s crying or something. And Bōz Bōze Ghandí says, ‘What happened?’ And he says, ‘We opened the door for the wolf and he ate Shangúl and Mangul.’ And his mom is like ‘Okay. I’m gonna go find this wolf.’ So Bōz Bōze Ghandí goes and finds the wolf and says, ‘Did you eat Shangúl and Mangul?’ And he says and laughs, ‘Yes. I ate them. They’re in my stomach.’ And she says, ‘Then I will fight you.’ And he says, ‘You can’t fight me. How are you gonna fight me?’ And she…And she says, ‘With my horns. You will see. Tomorrow I will fight you.’ And so she goes to the local knife sharpener… Or blacksmith and trades him some alfalfa to sharpen her horns. At the same time, the wolf goes to the same blacksmith — not at the same time, but later — the wolf goes to the same blacksmith and asks him to sharpen his teeth. But I think by threatening him instead. And the blacksmith doesn’t like the wolf, so instead he pulls out all his teeth and replaces them with cotton balls… And the wolf can’t tell for some reason. [Laughs.] So the next day, Bōz Bōze Ghandí shows up to face the wolf and they fight and she stabs him in the stomach and he bites her, but it has no effect ‘cause his teeth are gone and he… She ruptures his stomach and he dies and Shangúl and Mangul pop out. [Laughs.] And then they go home and the moral of the story is don’t open the door for strangers. [Laughs.]”

– End Transcript – 

My informant explained that when this story is told in Farsi, it has a rhyming pattern, and so, it’s something that children would enjoy hearing. There were no specific times or reasons that his mother and grandmother would tell him this story — they weren’t too concerned with the moralistic aspect of the story. It was more just something “to pass the time,” and he would enjoy hearing it often because of its rhymes. You can get a sense of the story’s fun rhyming quality just through the names of the three children — Shangúl, Mangul, and Hapeyē Angur.

I think the story’s rhyming structure (in it’s original Farsi) certainly would help make it more enjoyable to hear, memorable, and therefore easier to pass on. But there could also be a bit of significance in the fact that my informant heard this story from his mother and his maternal grandmother, as the heart of this story is about a mother fighting to protect her three children. My informant mentioned that in spite of the slightly violent nature of the ending, when he heard the sound of this rhyme coming from the soothing voice of his mother or his grandmother, he found it to be rather innocent and placating. Therefore, while the rhyming aspect is certainly one reason that a child would want to hear this story, there also seems to be something about the reassuring mother figure that also gives it some value.

Chinese Folk Belief: Flat Noses Aren’t Pretty

Contextual Data: I asked my friend if she knew of any Chinese folk beliefs that she had heard when she was younger.  She mentioned this one, and the following is a transcript of her response.

“My grandma told me that if I had a flat nose, I wouldn’t be pretty and I wouldn’t be able to find a husband, so she pinched my nose like this [pinches the bridge of her nose] every single day, and now my nose is tall and I’m pretty.”

– End Transcript – 

In talking to a couple of other Chinese friends, they all mentioned similar experiences — or at least, that they had all heard about that type of valorization of a “tall,” Roman nose at some point before. This does draw out the value that people place on physical appearance and indicate that beauty is something that people desire, which is one reason why they continue to perform this practice. My informant also mentioned that her grandmother would never do this to her brother and that it was something specifically reserved for girls. This idea that my informant was told she wouldn’t “find a husband” if she had a flat nose could speak to anxieties about being an unmarried woman — the idea that not being able to find a husband is something to worry about. If this practice is believed to help avoid that, it offers another explanation as to why people would continue to perform it.

Swedish Mythological Creature: The Tomten

Contextual Data: After talking to me about the Spring-time witch pilgrimage in Sweden, my friend mentioned also that when she was in Sweden and her family went into the woods, they saw small cabins where moose hunters stayed, which were popularly referred to as troll houses. She then started talking about this gnome/troll-like creatures called Tomten. The following is an exact transcript of our conversation.

Informant: “Um, so one thing that they like to talk about is something called the Tomten, and the Tomten’s basically like—”

Me: “How do you spell that?”

Informant: “T-O-M-T-E-N. Um, and he’s kind of like… I don’t know, like a little gnome or like a mini Santa Clause kind of. And especially around Christmas the Tomten has like a Santa-like role, but he has like a little beard and he has like this red pointy cap and… But he’s also kind of mischievous and if you lived on a—in a in northern Sweden you would have to put out porridge every night for the Tomten and if you didn’t put out porridge, he would like, let foxes into your chicken coops and like let your sheep roam free. I mean it wasn’t like, ‘Put out porridge and the Tomten will like shine your shoes in the morning.’ It was like, ‘Don’t put out porridge and the Tomten’s gonna fuck you up’ [Laughs]. Um… So yeah. Um, but it’s actually kind of interesting because there are all these stories about—I remember reading them when I was little, like a little kid. Like illustrated books about the Tomten and kind of his—well actually how he cares for the farm animals and stuff and then goes and gets his bowl of porridge. So maybe it’s not always as sinister as I described, but—but if you don’t, like… You put out the porridge. You don’t not put out the porridge. Um, and I mean, so there are a lot of kind of traditions like that up north.”

– End Transcript – 

When I asked my informant what she thought the significance of this was, she said that she thought it had to do with the fact that many Swedes believe that there is a connection between the people and the land. She said that even nowadays people in Sweden see nature as having kind of a “magical quality to it” — thus the rise of these earth-based mythical creatures (i.e. creatures of “lower mythology”). This is why she feels the story has lasted.

Certainly this can be seen in the way that a Tomten (at least in stories) is perceived as caring for the farm and the animals. Leaving out the bowl of porridge could therefore suggest some form of repayment or offering of thanks. The stories in which the Tomten doesn’t necessarily care for the animals but causes chaos if he doesn’t receive his porridge could be seen as an indicator of beliefs about the power of the land and of these earth creatures—that they’re meant to be respected, and that in some way, something is owed to them for being able to live a peaceful life. Both of these ideas harken back to this perceived connection between the people and the land that my informant says is so important in Swedish culture.

This story, a picture book aimed at children and perhaps one of the ones my informant was referencing, depicts the Tomten as a friendly creature that is very much a part of the land and the farming culture.

The Murder House North of 23rd Street

Contextual Data: A couple of weeks prior, a friend and I were driving from her apartment to Hollywood, and on the way, she pointed out this one house that she and her friends refer to as the “murder house.” We laughed about it and I later asked her to tell me a bit more about the house. The following is an exact transcript of our conversation.

Informant: “Um… I dunno. We have a few stories about what happens north of 23rd Street, because people don’t really live up there. Um, and so we kind of started to create stories to make fun of stuff that happened while we were live there. Um, that’s bad [laughs]. It’s like my favorite place to live. But anyway, um. Okay, so the first thing that happened was, um, we started telling the story about the murder house. And… basically, one day, my friend who lives on 22nd Street was walking me back home to where I live off 23rd Street, and there’s this house and it’s kind of like a one story house and it’s green, and um… There’s always this guy that like hangs out outside the murder house [Laughs]. And he’s like really creepy and, um, he’ll like talk to you when you walk by and sometimes he like punches the air [Mimes punching the air] like…Nobody’s there, but, yeah. Anyway…Um and then one day we were walking back—she was walking me home and it was kind of late. It was probably like after midnight and we heard two men—I think they were…I don’t know, we heard arguing in the room. And all of a sudden we heard this like giant thud. And it sounded like someone—like, a body hitting the wall. And so, um, my friend, being the great friend that she was, was like, ‘Well, goodbye!’ And then she just, like, ran away, and so [Laughs]… And so I was left home to walk back to my house by myself. Um… And we’d heard like apparently—she, I mean she lived closer to the house than I did, but she’d like heard stuff going on there…for a while. And so as she was walking back she said that they were actually passing—she was passing by the door, and…There was the hard, like the solid door inside, and there was a screen door, and then the guy had the inside door open and he was standing behind the screen door and he was watching her as she walked all the back. And so I didn’t really, like—I didn’t really notice all of this, I just noticed her freaking out, and then she told me about it later…And she was basically—she was certain that someone had…died, which was kind of morbid. I don’t know, I didn’t here a lot of it. But then after that we kept—she would—kept referring to it as the murder house, and every time we would—she would walk over to my house, she would be like, I don’t really want to walk by the murder house. And then another girl who lives in my house had, I think, some other weird experiences, and so she started referring to it as the murder house as well. And now, basically, my entire house and that other house know that house as the…murder house.”

Me: “And so everybody in your house now knows that house as the murder house?”

Informant: “Yeah…And we kind of—It’s weird because the guy’s still around. And we actually don’t know what was, you know, actually what happened. Maybe, just kind of, in my friend’s paranoia she made up the whole thing, ‘cause I didn’t really hear…as much as she says that she did. And she seems to think it was more, like, definitive than it was. But she kind of coined the term and then it just kind of…stuck as a landmark of 23rd Street.”

Me: “Yeah.”

Informant: “People kind of have been having weird experiences by the house, and my friend did, like on multiple occasions ‘cause she had to walk by that house all the time—it’s kind of far away from my house, but, um…So, other people kind of adopted the term, because they had experienced weird things too. And we don’t know, like—maybe the guy is, you know, maybe the guy is just kind of…I dunno, doing his thing, you know… I mean, I’m hoping—hopefully nothing terrible actually happened at all, but—but it was definitely kind of a weird, like, middle of the night experience. Um, and a lot of weird stuff has happened near that house. So… Yeah.”

Me: “Why do you think you guys have so much fun saying it? Or like sharing it—spreading it around?”

Informant: “I don’t know. Part of me sort of feels like it’s irresponsible because if we actually did think that someone had been murdered there then we should try and so something about it. And I don’t—I don’t anybody, like, fully believes that anything bad happened there, because otherwise, it would be really serious and we wouldn’t laugh about it. But I think that just because, um… You know, like, DPS doesn’t really patrol up there and while I—while I feel, like, really safe in the neighborhood, there is sometimes some kind of weird stuff that goes on, like, you know people get arrested. Like yesterday I was walking to the bus and on the corner of my street there were two guys in handcuffs, and it’s just kind of like, that’s just the way it is. And I don’t really feel, like, you know, unsafe about it—like just that kind of stuff happens. Um, and so…People, I don’t—I think that if we thought it were true, it’d be really serious, but it’s almost like a way for us to make fun of, like, the unpredictability of, like, the community. [Laughs.] I mean, like, you guys—you know what I mean by…I don’t know. Sort of like the random kind of weird stuff that happens up there, but we can kind of give a name to it, but calling this one house the murder house and kind of… I think by, like, giving stuff—I don’t know, sort of like… In some way it also makes the neighborhood feel like our home as well, because we sort of have started assigning names to certain things and certain places, like, you know, we know that Thursday nights, like the helicopter ratio is so much higher than it is normal nights [Laughs]. And we don’t really know why, but we’re all kind of used to it at that point. Um, and—I don’t know. I just feel like it’s sort of part of making that place your home—you start personalizing things…Yeah.”

– End Transcript – 

My informant did a fairly thorough job of explaining the significance of this joke/urban legend. In part though, it does also seem to speak to the relationship between the USC students and the surrounding neighborhood. In particular, and as my friend hinted at, the fact that the university is located in South Central Los Angeles in an environment where the sound of police sirens is part of the norm. There is therefore an understandable interest and also a kind of a fascination that exists regarding  crimes that take place in the area, which is partly why people spread these stories around and share these kinds of jokes. In some ways then, a joke like the “murder house” works to reinforce this perception of the place, while simultaneously acting as a way of “making this place your home,” as my informant discussed. Adding on to this, when people from outside the area come to visit her, she does share this little joke with them, as she points out the “landmarks” of her neighborhood.

Canadian Tradition: Money in the Birthday Cake

Contextual Data: We had gone out to celebrate my friend’s birthday the day before, and just out of curiosity, I asked her if there were any specific ways that her family celebrated her birthday. She mentioned that she was Canadian and there were some specific quirky things that her family did that were part of larger Canadian traditions. I asked her to explain one, and the following is an exact transcript of her response.

“Okay, so I’m Canadian. All my relatives are Canadian. I was born in Canada. Um, and there’s lots of, like, kooky Canadian traditions that after I moved to the States I realized, like, ‘This isn’t something normal people do.’ Like everyone doesn’t do that here, like, American people don’t know what I’m talking about—whatever. So, um, one of the things I had, like, growing up was, um, on my birthday—or all the birthdays in our family, basically—my mom would make, um, a Layer Cake. So it might be, like, a chocolate cake or whatever. Um, in the cake she would put money. And so she would take coins—wash them, obviously [Laughs]—That’s so… You would usually take, like, um—in Canada the money’s sort of like, you have Loonies and Toonies, so dollar coins and two dollar coins, so there would be like a few of those—it’d be like a really big treat. And then there’d be lots of like quarters and nickels and dimes and stuff. And she’d take these and wash them off and wrap them in wax paper [Presses hands together, miming sandwiching coins between two pieces of paper]. And then when the cake was done, she would take the two layers and insert the coins straight through the cake. Um, and then, put the icing over it and cover all the holes, so you didn’t know, like, where the money was. And, um…Also, there would be another little object—we usually used a button. And so that would be in the cake—with the money. And that would be in one piece of the cake, so only one person would get it. And usually, I think, in the tradition—like I know so many. I think like, this isn’t just my family. It’s Canadian—or probably not all of Canada, but like a big tradition where my relatives talked about this when they were little, too. Like my grandparents and stuff. So I think traditionally, like if you get the button or whatever else was in there, um, you’re an old maid. Or like, ‘Bad luck for seven years’ or something. But obviously for us as kids, my mom changed it to like, ‘It’s a birthday! If you get the button you’re lucky!’ And it’s like good luck if you’re the one who didn’t get the money and got the button, and um, yeah. It’s kind of just like a fun way that, um… It was like really easy. It’s not a lot of work to, like, put money in the cake, but it was like really hot—everyone loved it. I remember as a kid, um, after I moved to the States, when, like, I was hanging out with American kids, they were just like, ‘What? Like, I’ve never had money in a cake before. I want my mom to do this.’ And it was kind of… It was cool. It was really cool.”

– End Transcript – 

When I asked my friend why people might do this, she said that it just kind of seemed like a fun way for people to celebrate a person—it contributes to that air of festivity as everyone walks away from the celebration with a sort of “party favor.”

Part of the reason for performing this tradition, though, also seems to be the element of superstition and  the idea of a birthday as a  transition into a new year, particularly with the good luck/bad luck surrounding the “other object”; people will either be fortunate or cursed in the upcoming year. In particular, in her family, in which the button is seen as a sign of good luck, this tradition also seems to be a way of encouraging people to look forward to the unknown—they might not know what they’re going to get, but more often than not, it is something fortunate and worthwhile.

She says it is a fun surprise that her family still performs with her younger brother, but part of the reason it has seemed so weird to her American friends is because they point out that it is kind of a choking hazard. She can’t imagine it taking off in America because it is such a litigious society, and the tradition could be seen as one that endangers children, though she thinks that misses the point of it being about the fun, “everybody gets to participate in the celebration” aspect of it.