Author Archives: Sonya Egoian

“Tamales on Christmas Eve”

            At a tender seven years of age, the informant shared a family tradition of eating tamales on Christmas Eve, which, according to her account, is a shared tradition among most Mexican families. Her mother’s side of the family is Mexican and has practiced the tradition through generations. Indeed, the informant described an annual large family gathering with such an excess of tamales that it feels like “forever” until the leftovers are finished.

            For the informant, it seems the tamales on Christmas Eve is a fun way to spend her vacation―she talks about how delicious the food is, her presents the next day, and the fact that school is on recess.


            Every night, uh, I mean before every Christmas night, we go to Nana’s. Actually, we used to go to Nana’s, but then she passed away. But we would go, and lots of people were there and we would make yummy tamales during the night and take them home!

            I don’t make the tamales, I just eat them. I’m not old enough; they don’t let me touch the things in the kitchen yet. Usually it’s just the girls, but sometimes my dad helps, too, and the other people. I don’t know all of them, just some, but there are lots. I didn’t know my family was so big.

            My mama said she did it with Nana when she was a girl, too, and that lots of Mexican families do it. I just know that we make so many tamales, like, so many tamales. Well, there’s rice and beans, too, but even when we bring them home we just keep eating the tamales the next day, and the next day, and the next day. . .it feels like forever. It’s still my favorite dinner though! We eat the tamales, and then the next day we get presents. Plus, there’s no school.


            Although some of the finer details may be absent from the informant’s narrative, in sifting through her account we can find some more thematic values embedded in the tradition. Family is clearly an important element in the Mexican Christmas Eve tradition. For one, the women gather together in the kitchen, presumably to “catch up” and bond through the cooking process. The informant mentions how so many family members gather together that she doesn’t even recognize them all. In that vein, her Nana’s recent passing seems to have made a significant impact on her family’s practice of the tradition. The informant did not provide information about where her family would make tamales in the future, but it is quite evident that the familiar setting of her grandmother’s home, a symbol of the stable matriarchy, is no longer accessible to her, further showing how integral family is to this tradition.

            Additionally, the theme of bountiful celebration is quite clear. The family makes so many tamales that guests must take them home, and even then the informant herself must eat tamales for days after Christmas Eve. While the rest of the year she and her family may practice moderation, tamales on Christmas Eve is clearly a happy abandonment of that principle.

“French Children’s Proverb”

            A current professor of French at USC, the informant first learned this proverb from her grandmother when she was in grammar school. Now that she has a daughter of her own, the informant has repeated the proverb to her, and explained that most French parents say the proverb to their children from time to time after the child has had a rough day.

           In fact, the proverb was actually appropriated by the Countess of Ségur, a 19th century French children’s book author, for the title of a novel. Published in 1871, her novel Après la pluie, le beau temps is about the trials that befall a dysfunction French family.


            “Après la pluie, le beau temps” is a French proverb that means, literally, “After the rain, better weather.” Of course, as you can imagine, we use it to mean that, after a bad time, there will come a better time. There is a reason that adults say it to kids a lot, you know? Because kids are not used to bad times, they need to learn how to deal with them, really, they do. Maybe, then, the ending of the proverb is too optimistic? I don’t know. But to them, bad times and problems are like mountains, so the proverb gives a little perspective.


            The informant concisely unpacked much of the meaning that lies behind the proverb. It is true enough that children are often unsure of how to handle and overcome negative experiences, and so the proverb addresses not only the fact that we must all acknowledge the existence of bad times, but also that better times are waiting on the other side. The proverb does not say “When there is rain, there is better weather,” instead just stating rain as a given fact: “After the rain, better weather.” This way, children know to expect hardships and obstacles in their lives.

            However, the proverb also relies on an analogy to weather, introducing the theme of cyclicality and unpredictability. For one, the proverb suggests that rain will come in waves, time and time again; the bad times are just that―plural. Thus, children understand that, like the weather cycle, difficult times will arise periodically throughout life.

“Malian Folk-Saying: Part Two”

            The informant was born and raised in Bamako, Mali until the age of ten, when she and her family moved to the San Francisco area. Half-French and half-Malian, the informant has lived a diverse life full of unique and varied cultural activities. She visits both Paris and Bamako during vacations and maintains a strong connection with family in both countries. She is fluent in English, French, and Bambara, which is the primary language spoken in Mali and part of the West African Mande language family. Related dialects are spoken in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, similar enough so that the informant felt confident that people living in those countries would understand the saying.

            She learned this Bambara folk-saying from her father, who in turned learned it from his mother. It is used more frequently by older generations than the other folk-saying she shared, “a dgelly mandi.” Her Malian grandmother, who she described as “critical and grumpy, kind of like how you would imagine a village’s token crazy grandma,” uses the saying all the time to describe people she doesn’t approve of, especially in reference to her nephews’ and grandsons’ girlfriends. Within the informant’s family, although the saying is intended for cautionary purposes, her grandmother’s liberal use of it has given it more of a comedic effect; she said most of her family members now groan, laugh, or roll their eyes and say, “Not again!” when her grandmother recites the phrase.


            “A ka fanga bê bin kênê djeni” is Bambara, too, which in English means, “She could burn fresh grass,” and, you know, fresh grass doesn’t burn. So, basically, it’s meant to say “She’s too difficult to deal with” or “She’s impossible.”  


            Particularly interesting is that both Malian sayings offered by the informant are structured through the feminine pronoun, although it can be used to reference both genders. The most likely hypothesis, then, is that men in the village first used it to describe women, although perhaps the saying was authored by a jealous wife or frustrated mother. Like “A dgelly mandi,” this folk saying, too, could be easily used among town gossips or among close friends and family.

             The emphasis the informant’s father placed on visualizing Malian proverbs is quite interesting in this case; it is nearly impossible to read with translated saying without imagining a woman walking by a plot of green grass and having it immediately burst into flames. This adds a layer of spirituality and mystique because then the saying suggests that this woman, or person, has a sort of (evil) power that others do not possess. Although the saying is not taken literally, it is not difficult to imagine that it may have first arisen from a spiritual or magical belief.

“Madame White Snake”

           An international student at USC, the informant grew up in Ningbo, China, one of the country’s oldest cities and now a seaport city in the northeast of the Zhejiang province. “Madame White Snake,” or “Legend of the White Snake,” (as it is sometimes called) takes place in her hometown region, and thus she grew up with the romantic legend as part of family and regional culture. The informant appreciates the legend for its incorporation of romance and beauty as well as sadness into an altogether inspiring story. She is particularly drawn to Madame White Snake as an example of a strong Chinese female character “who boldly strives for her true love against all oppositions.”

            Additionally, the informant noted that Madame White Snake’s son, who eventually finds success and saves his mother, provides a motivational anecdote for her to perform well in school; she feels that perhaps through being a good student she, too, can one day become an important figure and protect her family.


            First off I must say that I heard a couple of different versions of Madame White Snake that now they get jumbled (is that how you say in English? Jumbled?) in my head! (laughs). But, this story begins with Lü Dongbin, one of China’s sacred wise men, who sells a kind of live-forever potion to a young Chinese boy, Xu Xian. Xu Xian does not feel so good after a couple days, and he throw up the potion into the Hangzhou West Lake.

            Now, Madame White Snake―actually right now she is still just, uh, snake, like, spirit―drinks the potion that will make her live forever, and she is so, so happy about this because this is her wish! (Informant claps her hands together) Now the white snake remembers Xu Xian and hopes to repay him someday. But, at the same time, an evil spirit in the lake is jealous of white snake, who now has all this, uh, magic power and life. One day, the white snake transforms into a woman to save a green snake from a beggar by the lake who has trapped it, and they become very close like best friends or sisters.

            Many, many years pass (I think it is something like eighteen or twenty) the two snakes transform into women to travel to Hangzhou. The white snake is Bai Sue Zhuan and the green snake is Xiaoqing. They meet Xu Xian, but now he is all grown-up and handsome! And you know what? They meet at the same spot on the bridge where he threw up all the potion! Xu Xian gives the women his umbrella because it is raining, and that is how he and Madame White Snake, or sorry, Bai Sue Zhuan cross paths again. They fall in love, get married, and move to Zhejiang province (where I live!). They open up a medicine shop there.

            The evil spirit is still jealous about the white snake’s (who is now Bai Sue Zhuan, remember) long life, and he uses strong magical powers to transform into a Buddhist monk. In this, uh, new form of body, gives Xu Xian some wine during the Dragon Boat festival and tells him to give it to his wife. But, the wine is really actually turns Bai Sue Zhuan back into the white snake, and this scares Xu Xian so much that he collapses and dies. Bai Sue Zhuan is very sad, but also determined to bring him back! The two women climb up a very big, cold mountain to pick a herb medicine that will bring her husband back to life.

            Now, the story seems like happy ending because Xu Xian wakes up and still loves Madame White Snake, even though he knows about her animal body. (The informant changes expression to a cunning smile) But. . .evil spirit tries again! He kidnaps Xu Xian and bring him to uh, uh, temple. Madame White Snake and Xiaoqing fight back, and Madame White Snake uses powers to bring a tidal wave and flood to the temple. She and her husband reunite, but she is so weak because she is also pregnant with a son and the fight with the evil spirit took too much energy. She gives birth to the boy, but the evil spirit comes back and she cannot win. So, he takes her to Leifeng Pagoda, do you know it?

            For many, many years, Madame White Snake’s son grows up and becomes very smart and a very good student. Actually, he earns first place in the Imperial examination and is best in his classes. He was away for a long time, but misses home now and wants to come back to his parents. The evil spirit is still alive, but Xiaoqing tracks him down and kills him! The son helps, too, because he offers to sacrifice himself to save his mother. God is so moved that he breaks down Leifeng and so this time, finally, Madame White Snake is freed from Leifeng to join her son. The sad part is that her husband Xu Xian has already died, so the family cannot be reunited, but instead she lives with her son and loyal friend Xiaoqing.


            The informant’s enthusiasm for the story was evident; her facial expression mirrored the drama in the plot and she would pause right before each plot twist. Additionally, the informant admires Madame White Snake for her perseverance in the face of adversity, and in fact each of the characters overcome some kind of challenge or another. Xu Xian struggles with the discovery of his wife’s true identity, and Xiaoqing and the son must work together to defeat the evil spirit and destroy the Leifeng Pagoda. The legend revolves around the ideas of perseverance and determination, as well as selflessness―chiefly, the son’s sacrifice, but also we see the two women brave a long and arduous journey to revive Xu Xian. Loyalty is another value emphasized in this legend, as not only does Madame White Snake remember her debt to Xu Xian from their first encounter at the West Lake, but also Xiaoqing remains staunchly loyal to Madame White Snake through thick and thin.

            Also notable is that the division between good and evil is markedly apparent, as it can be in many folktales and legends. Even when Madame White Snake makes the one “mistake” of not revealing her identity to Xu Xian immediately, good coalesces with good and Xu Xian finds it in his heart to forgive and love her. Even with no contact with his mother throughout his childhood and adolescence, the under-developed character of the son displays zero hesitation in his self-sacrifice; in short, the story’s characters appear inherently instilled with good or evil before the story even begins.

“Nazrudin and the Duck Soup”

            The informant admitted immediately that he was not precisely sure of when or why his family began telling the stories of Nazrudin; he understood them to be largely grounded in Jewish culture and no one is his family identifies as Jewish. However, the informant then explained that tales of Nazrudin had spread throughout the Persian empire as well as geographically across the Middle East, which could explain how the story filtered through his Indian and Iraqi sides of the family.

            He always thought the tales of Nazrudin to have a highly comedic value, but even at a young age he noticed the twists at the end of each tale, when Nazrudin would exact a unique kind of justice on those who had wronged him or had taken advantage of him. He also stated that all of his Jewish friends from childhood had heard at least a few tales of Nazrudin each, although details within the tales would vary from child to child. He followed up his previous story, “Nazrudin at the Bathhouse,” with “Nazrudin and the Duck Soup,” another tale that ends in a humorous twist.


            This time Nazrudin is not in Persia. After hearing this story, I imagined Nazrudin farther north, where there are more forests, and this story evolves from an event when Nazrudin and his friend catch a duck. So him and his friend go in the woods and they go trapping, and they catch a duck. They come back to Nazrudin’s house and they ask themselves, “What can we do with this all meat? What can we make that will make it last a long time?” So they make duck soup. Now, they prepare the meat, they throw in all these different vegetables and herbs, and they make this amazing, delicious duck soup that just melts in your mouth―as much as soup can. They both have a great time and really enjoy the soup. Nazrudin shows his friend to the door when the meal’s all done and says goodbye and the friend leaves. Nazrudin is left with this pot of big soup and, what do you do with leftovers? You just keep on eating them. So, he thought that was the end of it.

            The next day, however, there’s a knock on the door and Nazrudin walks to the door, not expecting anyone, opens it, and there’s a stranger standing there. Nazrudin asks, “Can I help you?” And the stranger says, “I’m a friend of the man who helped you kill the duck. Can I have some soup?” Apparently the soup was so good that Nazrudin’s friend told another friend about it and said Nazrudin would be happy to give him some soup. And, acting as the host that he is, Nazrudin says, “Of course.” He brings the man a bowl of the soup, the man eats and leaves.

            The next day there’s a knock on the door. Nazrudin opens it, there’s another stranger, who says, “I’m a friend of a friend of the man who helped you kill the duck. Can I have some soup?” Nazrudin again says, “Of course.” Nazrudin shows him in, serves him some soup, and the man leaves. This continues for many, many days to the point where Nazrudin hears a knock on the door to another stranger, who says, “I’m a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of the man who helped you kill the duck. Can I have some soup?” Nazrudin takes the man into the kitchen and says, “Wait here.” He takes a bowl into the kitchen and fills it with tepid water. He places the bowl of water in front of the man. He looks at it, he smells it, tastes it, and turns to Nazrudin completely unsatisfied and says, “This is not soup!” And Nazrudin says, “No, no, my friend, this is the soup of the soup of the soup of the soup of the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck!”


            This time, the tale of Nazrudin discourages taking advantage of a friend’s hospitality. Although Nazrudin is thankful for his friend’s help in trapping the duck and thus shares his soup with him, but the continual generosity he is expected to give to those who are distant from his friend is no longer reasonable compared to the aid his friend contributed. The core moral teaching in the legend, then, is that individuals should not expect gifts and generosity by relying on associations with others; only when we directly contribute to an outcome do we deserve a portion of the reward.

            Also notable in the legend is Nazrudin’s patience; he does not boil over in fury or chastise his friend, choosing instead to quietly execute his scheme until a guest finally notices. Again, Nazrudin’s cunning and foresight wins out over his mistreatment by his friend.