Author Archives: Sonali Chanchani

Instant Karma

Contextual Data: Over Spring Break, I was at dinner with my family, and my dad accidentally bit his cheek. He cried out and my mother, who was sitting next to him chirped out, “Instant Karma!” I had heard her do that once before, and so I asked her what she meant by it and where she had heard it. The following is an exact transcript of what she said.

“It’s the saying that if you bit your tongue or your cheek that means you were either having bad thoughts about somebody or thinking bad about somebody…or cursing somebody. That’s why in… uh, karma you got bitten — because of bad thoughts about bad [Laughs]… As soon as you get bitten, you — first thing comes out of your mouth is ‘Ouch!’ and then person across from you knows that ‘Oh, you did something wrong. That’s why.’ So they assume you were having bad thoughts about somebody that’s why you got…”

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Karma (the general idea of what goes around comes around) is a big part of Hindu culture and that can certainly be seen in this little saying. For the most part though, it doesn’t seem as though this saying is meant to be taken seriously — partially because it’s not a wholly accurate representation of Hindu ideas of Karma. Beyond this, most of the times that it happens, the person “accused” usually isn’t actually cursing someone else. When it happened in this particular situation, my dad just kind of laughed it off. It therefore seems as though this saying is meant to be passed on as more of a joke. It’s teasing and can make people very defensive, particularly messing with them if they were thinking bad thoughts about someone else. My informant enjoys sharing it just to poke fun.

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.”

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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.

Bin Laden Assassination Joke

Contextual Data: I was talking with my brother on Skype, and he mentioned that he had heard this rather ridiculous joke from one of his coworkers, as the second year anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination came up. The following is an exact transcript of our conversation.

Informant: “So you know how you can go to a bar and order all these different drinks? Like a Manhattan or a White Russian or whatever — you know, all these different mixed drinks? Well, there’s this new drink out there called the Bin Laden. And… And, well have you heard what’s in it?”

Me: “No.”

Informant: “Two shots and a splash of water.”

[Both chuckle].

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My informant said that there’s a whole collection of these types of drink-based jokes arising out of serious news events — this was just one of many that he had heard (e.g. Another was “the Sandy” as a “watered down Manhattan.”) He mentioned that these jokes spoke to a very specific sense of humor and that not all people found them funny. He shared them mostly because he found them funny and he saw them as clever little plays on language.

These jokes seem to be a part of the sort of “disaster joke” culture — people telling jokes in response to big events, partially as a way of taking control of the information and making sense of what might have happened. In particular, the Bin Laden joke could also be seen as an outlet of sorts — a way for people in America to further take down this hated figure, who caused so much pain to the nation, by literally turning his death into a joke.

Tunnels Under Edwards Air Force Base

Contextual Data: My informant had read this on the Internet, and he shared it with me over Spring Break one night after we came back from New York City. We had been chatting about his car, and as we got home, he remembered this story that he had recently read on the Audi forum of which he was a part. He said he thought it was a crazy story and I asked him if I could record it for the archive. The following is an exact transcript of his story.

“So Edwards Air Force Base has this like, you know, long history of being like this kinda creepy place that, you know, has like a very sketchy military history. They do a lot of really secret, you know, testing and all this other stuff there that, uh… Very classified things, cutting edge stuff happens in Edwards Air Force Base—‘cause it’s in the middle of the desert, and um… whatever. So, uh, it’s also one of the largest bases, so they have a lot of ground, so there’s like, you know, there’s like random buildings and just things from the sixties and when they’re doing all this random testing like way out in the desert of the base that, you know, it’s just land that they own.

“Um… So, this one guy, you know, he’s in the Air Force and, um… I guess he was like on a patrol duty at the base, so they go to this one like place where pretty much nothing has happened since the sixties. It’s like an abandoned, uh, building — couple of buildings way out there. Um, so they get out of the car and, you know, they’re checking around on foot, and uh, they go to this one building and it’s got no doors or windows—anything, except for just one door in the front of it, right? And it’s made of concrete. Uh, it’s just got a single door. And… the guy, you know, just pulls the door—you know, the door handle to make sure it’s locked. Figured it’s definitely going to be locked, and it was unlocked. It was open. And, uh… The door opens and he looks at his buddy and he’s like ‘…Should we?’ And the other guy’s like, ‘Hell yes.’ [Laughs.] ‘Let’s do—Let’s go.’ So they walk inside and it’s just, um, one giant room in this building, right? There’s just the one door on the outside, one giant room, it’s all concrete, and there’s nothing but a set of stairs just going down in the middle of the room, right? And uh… They pull their flashlights out ‘cause there’s no lights, that, you know—no light switches or anything. And they… And so they pull out, you know, their flashlights and their pistols, you know, the way that they — you see them in movies. [Mimes with his hands in front of him, the “flashlight” on top in his left hand and the “pistol” below it, in his right.] They kind of hold it like this—one over the other. And they start going down this stairwell. Now it’s, you know, it’s daylight outside but it’s dark in this thing and they’re going down these stairs. And he says the stairs go down for…What he thinks is like a hundred feet. Like ten stories. He’s just going down these stairs and they’re just like—it’s just like this narrow stairwell they keep going down. It’s like a tunnel basically. Um, and you know, he’s like at this point things are getting—already feel very weird. It’s already really sketchy.

“Um, and they get to the bottom, and then it’s just this hallway that goes forward and they go forward in the hallway and there’s this door. And he looks at the other guy and uh, then they walk in. And he says all that’s in this room—again it’s like this one large concrete room. They’re now like, you know, he thinks like a hundred feet underground. There’s nothing but cameras on the walls, like near the ceiling. And in the middle of the room is this giant chair. [Mimes really wide with his hands], like metal chair. It’s got like wrist straps and feet straps—like ankle straps or whatever. And underneath the chair is a drain, like a metal drain. And the whole concrete floor, the whole place just kind of slopes gently down in the middle. So you don’t know like… What was there, but there, you know—could’ve been torture, whatever. But, um, he… At this point he’s getting like really weirded out, and there’s this other room on the side, and he looks in there. And um… There’s like these huge stretchers and these huge things that are bigger than they’re—than the ones that are meant for people. It’s literally like—and the chair is bigger than one that’s meant for people. You know, it’s like, very freaky. And then he…He talks to the other guy, and he—The other guys just points up and one of the cameras had just turned and was looking right at them. Um… So they just freaked out. He’s like, ‘We gotta go.’ And they just got way—you know they went all the way back upstairs. And as soon as they got back upstairs, the guy’s cellphone rings. And it’s like the base telling him they need to get back to base right now. And they didn’t explain why or whatever. But they’re just like, ‘You need to get back. We’ve called you like three times. Why was your cellphone off?’ He’s like, ‘It wasn’t off. I just didn’t have service.’ And they’re like, ‘What’d you mean you didn’t have service?’ He’s like, ‘Wha—Never mind.’ [Laughs.] And then that was it. He, like, never found out anything more about it.”

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When I asked my informant about the significance of this story, he alluded back to how he began the story: that Edwards Air Force Base has a history of being this “creepy” place, surrounded with all sorts of conspiracy theories. He was a little skeptical of this story — he first read it online on the forum where he actually finds information about his car; some guy had posted it  there as a first hand account. But he’d read some of the guy’s other posts, and he seemed like a respectable enough person, who had “his head screwed on right.” Given all the other things that my informant has heard about military bases — especially the remote ones out in the middle of the desert — he wouldn’t be surprised if such a place as the one described actually existed, which is one of the reasons why he found it interesting to share. But he doesn’t believe the larger conspiracies surrounding the base (i.e. that there were actual alien encounters there.) Beyond that, he just thinks that this is a fun, creepy story to tell, and he has shared it with a few other friends.

On it’s own, this story is more of a memorate than a legend, as it’s a personal account that contributes to the larger urban legends and conspiracy theories that surround Edwards AFB. There are many different stories about such bases and military sites having underground tunnels and being the sites of extra terrestrial encounters. Some people would therefore enjoy telling this story because they think it’s true, others because they think it validates the conspiracy theories, and others simply because it’s a great story to tell to spook people out. For my brother, it was a combination of the first and the last reason.

Boy Scout Birthday Dirge

Contextual Data: We had gone out to dinner to celebrate my Uncle’s birthday, and once we returned home, my family was talking and joking as we debated whether or not to put a candle on my Uncle’s cake and actually sing “Happy Birthday.” My brother then piped up and recounted this “Birthday Dirge” that he learned when he was younger. I asked him to sing it, and after, I asked him about when and where he heard it. He replied that he learned it at Boy Scout camp, when he was about fifteen years old — the counselors taught it to him: they would sing it in the morning in the mess hall as the campers were eating breakfast, whenever a camper was celebrating his birthday.

Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
There is sorrow in the air,
People dying everywhere,
But Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)
Happy Birthday (Clap or Thigh Slap)

The song is sung as a sort of chant, and my family did chuckle a bit after he recited it. My Uncle offered a sarcastic “thanks.”

My brother said that they all loved it at camp. He enjoyed sharing it with others because he found it funny. He did qualify it by saying that he had taught it to some of  his friends when he returned home, and not everyone reacted the same way. Some laughed, others found it inappropriate and random. (He mentioned that gender didn’t really play a part when it came to this — some girls found it hilarious and some guys found it idiotic and vice versa). I actually remembered my brother teaching it to me after he first returned from camp, and I shared it with my friends to similar reactions — some laughed, others dismissed it.

He mentioned that the song was never taken seriously or meant to be a sobering song — and to expand upon this, in some ways, this song does seem to be a bit of a practical joke that taps into this idea of a birthday as a liminal phase, as a person transitions from one year into the next. The song subverts the traditional expectation that a person be wished well and bidden good luck as they move into a new year of their life and that’s where the humor seems to come from. More than this, in American culture in particular, birthdays are thought of as a person’s “special day,” but this song seems to mock that idea through both the lyrics and the somber tone in which it is sung.

Beyond that, it’s so short and repetitive that it is really easy to remember: my informant still recollected it nine years after he first learned it. I imagine the context of learning it at Boy Scout camp also helped — it was a fun experience and one that he remembered fondly.