Author Archives: Kristin Wong

University of Texas’s Reappearing Ghost Face

Context:

My informant is a 18 year old student from the University of Southern California.This conversation took place at a cafe one evening. The informant and I were in an open space but sat alone. I know that my informant really loves horror movies and ghost stories but often says that she is unfazed by them, so I asked her if there were any ghost stories or urban legend back from home that she was familiar with or believed. In this account, she tells the story of a ghost that resides in the University of Texas, something that was told to her by her friends in middle school. My informant laughed a lot throughout our conversation, most likely due to the fact that she doesn’t believe in ghosts and thus found this story a bit ridiculous. In this transcription of out conversation, I am identified as K and she is identified as A.

 

Text:

A: So, I’m from Houston, and so obviously there’s the University of Texas, and there’s like this story about the Ewing Wing. So, um, the University of Texas, the property that they own now was once owned by a guy that would threaten to haunt his children when he died if they ever sold his property, but after he died his daughter sold the property anyway and it became Ewing Hall at UT, and so when it was finished, a face started to appear on, like, one of the floors and there are actually photos of it, and it kind of resembles the owners, and it’s real creepy and that’s that.

 

K: What do you think this story represents? Why do people continue to tell it?

 

A: Well, there is this part of the story I left out [laughs] where the wall… the face keeps showing up, like they kept repainting over it and sandblasting it, but the face kept coming back. Even when they removed that chunk of the wall to another floor, the face still came back… I think people keep telling this just because it’s creepy, you know? Creepy ghost persistence…

 

K: How did this affect the people around you?

 

A: I mean, my friends, or like people I know that do believe in ghosts think it’s kind of cool or they think it’s like creepy and they don’t want to go near the Ewing Wing.

 

Thoughts:

I ended up looking up this story and, as it turns out, this ghost is well known throughout Galveston, Texas. It resides at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) campus, and the story that I found is quite similar to what my informant told me. Legend says that the building is haunted by the ghost of the former land owner; while he was still alive, UTMB offered to purchase his property, but he refused. Before he died, he made his family promise to never sell the family land and to make sure the land is passed on for many generations. However, once he died, his family betrayed his dying wish and sold the property, which is what began the construction of Ewing Hall.

Ghost stories, and other various types of legends or folklore,  are told because it’s a way for people to provide an explanation for something that they cannot understand. Furthermore, the telling of a ghost story reinforces remembering the events of the past, reminding us of specific people and places. So, what is the explanation for the ghost’s face that keeps reappearing, in spite of the efforts to completely get rid of it? It’s to remind us of the man who owned the land and instill guilt in us, the family who sold the land, and even the people of UTMB because they betrayed the owner’s wish. His reappearing face is a literal reminder of his existence, and it also serves as a warning function. Often times, ghost stories are told to shoo people away because most people choose not to live or be in a place that has a reputation of being haunted. We can see this as being true, for my informant admits that though many of her friends that believed in ghosts thought that this story was cool, it still made them fearful and not want to go near the Ewing Wing where they thought they could encounter the ghost.

 

Don’t Stick Your Chopsticks Straight Into Your Rice

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never stick their chopsticks straight up and down in their bowl of food. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone, and I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why it was considered bad. The informant told me the she learned this from her parents, and that this taboo is highly integrated into Chinese culture—“no Chinese person would ever be found doing this…” Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 Text:

“Especially in the countryside, when they bury a person, they stick a stick on top of the section of land that they use to bury a person. On the stick, they tie little white strip of cloth to the stick, and this serves as the gravestone.

Because chopsticks are quite literally sticks, we can’t stick them straight up and down into our food because it too closely resembles the gravestone. Doing this is essentially a call to bad luck, because if you do it, you’ll bring death to both you and your family.

I honestly don’t know if I fully believe in this custom, but because it’s been so ingrained in my culture, seeing people do it makes me extremely uncomfortable, and it just seems safer to not do it and to teach my own friends, family, and kids to not do it.”

 

Thoughts:

This is a taboo that I grew up knowing, but never understood why it wasn’t allowed. I remember my grandmother scolding me when I was around seven years old for sticking my chopsticks straight up and down in my bowl of rice, but when I asked her I couldn’t do it, she told me that it would give me indigestion. It actually wasn’t until this year, in college, when one of my friends that I made here (who also happens to be Chinese) and I were talking about the weird taboos we had grown up, and she mentioned that the chopstick one seemed to be a stretch because it was supposed to resemble a gravestone. Surprised, I decided to ask my informant about this taboo to clarify the reason for its existence.

I did some further research after my conversation with the informant, and I found out that there is more than one way that sticking your chopsticks straight into your food brings death: apparently, Chinese people stick burning incense into rice to honor the dead. Breaking this taboo can bring bad luck to you because no one is dead, so it’s as if you’re summoning death by honoring yourself. This is an example of sympathetic magic: the Chinese believe that if you make a gesture that resembles something bad in the world, you’re making a calling to it. I also noticed that this is not limited to only Chinese culture—in Japan, sticking your chopsticks vertically in a bowl is also considered taboo because it reminds Japanese people of funerals, where a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of the person who has just died either at their deathbed or in front of the photograph.

 

Why You Can’t Write Your Name in Red

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school.This conversation took place in a hotel one evening. The informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains why Chinese people never write their names in red. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I had known of this superstition for a while, but never understood why. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me, because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription).

 

Text: 

“Chinese people never use the color red to write people’s names because historically, in China, when people’s names are written in red, it means that they are criminals that have been sentenced to death/ are dead. This doesn’t go to say that the color red is unlucky; in fact, the color red usually brings in good luck and is meant to express excitement and happiness. For example, during Chinese New Year, everything is decorated with red things. During a wedding, people wear red to celebrate and bring good luck to the newly wedded couple.

In this case, red is bad luck because it’s being written.  Usually, only people with authority can write in red. This isn’t just the people that decide which criminal to put on death row; we even see this school systems. Generally, a teacher is expected to use red pen to correct their students exams and papers; when a students sees a red marking, this means that they know they made a mistake and that they need to correct something. When the color is used in written form, it serves as a warning. So when someone’s name is written in red, and the name that they’ve written down is of someone that is still alive, Chinese people will panic or freak out because that means that they’ve ultimately just been sentenced to death by someone of higher authority (AKA, the person holding the red pen).

So traditionally, we never write people’s name in red ink because that means you want them to die.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve known of this taboo my entire life—I remember when I was about 5 years old and I wrote my name in a bright pink pen, and my mom yelled at me and whited out my name. When I asked her why, she told me that pink was too close to the color red, and that I should never write my name in red or red-like colored ink. After that, until I was 14, my mom didn’t let me use pens that were a color other than black, blue, or green. A few years back, I again encountered something similar: I was working at a tutoring center, and my boss had written a girl’s name in red ink at the top of her worksheets that she had to take home. The mother of the girl, who was Chinese, screamed in front of the entire classroom, yelled at my boss, and then actually ended up having her daughter quit the tutoring center.

Clearly, this taboo is taken very seriously in Chinese culture; I ended up looking up why people couldn’t right their names in red after this conversation with my informant, simply because I had never heard of writing the names of criminals in blood as a practice. Sure enough, she was correct. In an article by a Vision Times: “All Eyes on China,” an online newspaper about China’s history, influence, and China in today’s context, Yi Ming writes: “In ancient times, a death row criminal’s name was written in chicken blood, and later this evolved to being written in red ink. Thus, in all official records, the names of death sentence criminals were written in red ink.” However, Ming gives even more reason for why the color red (in the context of writing names) is unlucky. She states that “Yán Wáng Yé, the King of Hell, also marked people about to come down to hell in red ink,” and that deceased death row criminals had their names written in red ink on their tombstones.

This folklore suggests that this taboo is an example of sympathetic magic, where “like produces like.” If you write your name in red, then you’re essentially writing a death sentence to yourself because it resembles the death sentence of a criminal or the red ink on a criminal’s gravestone. These taboos exist to protect ourselves socially; we would never want our own names written in red because we don’t want to die, and we would never want our relatives or friends names to be written in red because we don’t want them to disappear from our lives nor have anything tragic happen to them. We are surrounded by this fear of the reality that we can’t control the bad things that happened to our loved ones, so we attach this fear to rituals; these rituals give us autonomy over processes like this, perhaps psychology providing us comfort and making us feel like we are doing everything in our power to protect one another.  

 

To read more on this, this is the citation for Yi Ming’s article on Vision Times:

Ming, Yi. “A Chinese Taboo: Never Write Other People’s Names Using Red Ink.” Vision Times, 2

June 2016,

www.visiontimes.com/2016/06/02/a-chinese-taboo-never-write-other-peoples-names-using-red-ink.html.

 

Determining Marriages from the Chinese Zodiac Calendar

Context:

My informant is a 55 year old woman that immigrated from China to America in her early 30s. She is a mother, a registered nurse, and also a teacher in nursing school. This conversation took place in a hotel one evening, and the informant and I were alone. In this account, she explains the significance behind the Chinese Zodiac calendar in relation how marriages or compatible partners are determined. I asked for the story behind this folklore because I know the Chinese zodiac calendar holds a lot of importance to the informant, for she has discussed it a lot with me in the past. She told me that she doesn’t remember how exactly she learned all of this; rather, it’s so integrated into Chinese culture and talked about so often that it almost seems like common knowledge that everyone will learn one way or another. Because her English is broken, I have chosen to write down my own translation of what she told me (while still trying to stay true to her performance), because a direct transcription may not make as much sense on paper as it did in conversation (due to lack of intonation and the fact that you cannot see her facial expressions or hand motions in a transcription). In this conversation, I am identified as K and she is identified as S.

 Text:

S: “In China, we have these zodiacs to, um, see what type of animal you are. For example, this year is the Year of the Pig, so everyone born this year will… have the Pig as their zodiac animal. I don’t remember exactly how it works, but, um, like, the Zodiac calendar lines up with the lunar year—everything we do and believe is connected to what point of the lunar year we’re at. So you can see why this zodiac calendar is so important. We even use it to, um, determine marriages. For example, if a person’s zodiac animal is a Chicken, they can’t marry someone who’s a Dog because chickens and dogs always fight in real life; symbolically, this means that these two, if they get married, will fight for the rest of their lives. Eventually, all of this fighting will break their marriage. Basically we turn to the zodiac calendar to look at, uhh, compatibility. Before Chinese people couples get married, they want to look at each others zodiacs and then look at this other thing called a ‘huang li,’ which determines which years and days they should get married.”

 

K: “Who else can’t get married?”

 

S: “I know that Pigs are considered perfect matches with Tigers, but, um, though I honestly can’t tell you why. I do know that Pigs, in Chinese culture, represent wealth, riches, and, like, will bring lots of happiness, so most people want to marry someone who’s zodiac animal is the year the Pig. People also want to get married the Year of the Pig, and especially want to have children the Year of the Pig.

 

Thoughts:

When I was a kid, my parents would always talk about our zodiac animals—my father is a sheep and my mother and I are rabbits. They would always talk about how their love was meant to be because, in the Chinese Zodiac calendar, sheeps and rabbits are considered perfect matches. Because it was so integrated into my childhood, I think I started to take on the characteristics and personality traits that were expected of a “Rabbit.”

After being told this folklore, I looked up what the expected traits of a Rabbit were, and the weaknesses include “timid” and “hesitant”—though I’ve grown out of it now, as I child, I rarely spoke to anyone because I was too nervous. Strengths of a Rabbit include being polite, generous, and responsible, which were all things that I was (and still am) known for among my family, friends, and peers. Because these traits of our Zodiac animals are so true to who we really are, it’s hard not to take these animals so seriously. As I’m getting older, the concept of marriage is becoming more and more relevant, so it’s natural that my Chinese parents, relatives, and the informant (who is also a Chinese relative) are starting to talk about my Zodiac in the context of marriage. Rabbits are apparently extremely compatible with most other Zodiac animals, according to my family, so perhaps that’s why they’re so confused as to why I’m not in a relationship yet/ thinking about marriage yet.

 

Cool and Creamy

Context:

My informant is a 20 year old student at the University of Southern California (USC). This conversation took place one night at Cafe 84, a place where many students at USC go to study at night. The informant and I sat at a table with two other people, and we were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, he talks about a tradition that a student-run philanthropy (that holds a summer camp every year for the LAUSD community) does every year at our Spring Retreat called “Cool and Creamy”. Occasionally, one other person at our table, who is also a member of the organization,  interjected with her own comments. My informant learned this folklore just by attending Spring Retreat and watching counselors of past generations perform it. This is a transcription of his folklore, where he is identified as N, the girl that interjects is identified as L, and I am identified as K.

 

Text:

N: Okay, so “Cool and Creamy” is this voluntary tradition. It’s when two members, at Spring Retreat, perform this act in front of everyone as a part of the variety show, which is like a talent show, and they get, um, whipped cream, and they kind of sexualize it in a way… [laughs]

L: What, no not really!

 

(In the section directly below, when N speaks, I’ve recreated “Cool and Creamy” in the dialogue form that it’s actually performed, and the recreation is based off of my informant’s description. “Cool and Creamy” is essentially a ritualistic skit that involves a call and response between two people. Each person is given a bottle of canned whipped cream, and the goal of the tradition is essentially to put the whipped cream on the other person’s body parts until the can runs out. The names of the two people in here will be “A” and “B”.)

 

N: Yeah they sexualize, they totally sexualize “Cool and Creamy”! Yeah, yeah! They do!

      It goes like this:

A: Heyyyyyy B!

B: Heyyyyyy A!

      And then A goes like, “Do you like Cool and Creamy?” on a certain body part…. Like:

A: Do  YOU like Cool and Creamy on your elbows?

      And then B goes:

B: I LOVE Cool and Creamy on my elbows!

      And then A would spray the whipped cream on B’s elbows. And then it basically goes back and forth for like another five minutes, and it’s just kind of like a tradition. It’s um, like borderline funny. It’s almost It’s almost funny, mostly like, it’s mostly cause like we do it, but not funny because it’s funny.

K: How do you get chosen to do it?

N: Um, I think it’s just mostly older members… I don’t think people get selected to do it. But like, it’s something that like we’re guaranteed it’s going to show up at every single variety show.

K: Wait so then how do they pick who has to do it?

N: I think like two people just volunteer, like oh, which is a totally voluntarily process…. Yeah, people just volunteer… for some reason…

L: [laughs]

K: Why do people do it?

N: They do it because it’s tradition, you know? Sometimes you just gotta do it. Sometimes you just gotta do a little Cool and Creamy.

K: How did you learn this tradition?

N: How did I learn? They learn it from like past generations, so like, they’ll see that like the year before two counselors will do Cool and Creamy and then they’ll be like “Hey, this year we should do Cool and Creamy,” and then they’re like “Okay, let’s do Cool and Creamy” [laughs].

K: Why do people continue to do this?

N: Literally just because it’s tradition, it’s like literally just a weird thing that we do and it’s like “Okay, it’s weird, so we wanna just keep doing it every year… Forever.”

 

Thoughts:

This folklore is yet another example of a tradition that serves as a bonding experience. It’s not just the performers that become closer and more integrated into the organization; the camp counselors that simply just watch it happen also become a part of the “family.” As someone that is also a camp counselor in this organization, what’s particularly interesting to me about this tradition is it’s potential double reading. As my informant said, the tradition itself is not funny, but because it has sexual overtones (and just from the mere fact that we continue to do it every year) is what makes it funny. “Cool and Creamy” is fun because it’s weird and quirky, making is special to the organization, but the sexualization of the tradition also serves an ironic purpose that creates greater bonding potential. For example, the work that camp counselors do are meant to be very pure and good-intentioned, and when we’re around the kids it’s completely inappropriate to make any jokes that are foul or sex-related.

When we’re around the kids, we’re seen as leaders, role models, and adults, but this means that we have to keep our identity as college students hidden. Therefore, at Spring Retreat, when it’s only camp counselors with no kids around, we are given a chance to meld our camp counselor identities together with our college student identities, and thus comes the result of sexualizing things that, in a kids eyes, would just be seen as pure fun or just a few counselors messing around. Furthermore, “Cool and Creamy” is fun because it’s not explicitly dirty, but it has plausible deniability as a sexual joke. We can even see that my informant debated with L on whether or not the tradition is actually sexualized or if the sexualized interpretation is a way to trick counselors into making them feel bad for having a dirty mind.

“Cool and Creamy” is a perfect example of camp folklore being used to bond counselors together before summer camp happens, making counselors feel much closer so that, when summer camp comes around, everyone works together much more as a collective group. Because relationships are closer and everyone has had this shared experience, communication during camp becomes much easier. Counselors are much more comfortable around each other, thus making a much more successful summer camp than what would be without having this shared experience.