Author Archives: Yen Ai Tai

The Cure for Sty

The informant is a 50-year-old Taiwanese woman. When asked about a folk medicine that she knows, she told the collector about the cure for sty that was taught by her parents. The collection happened via a video call.

Informant: Oh I can think about one. Do you know about the cure for sty? You know, the little bumpy thing that you sometimes grow on your eyelids, and it’s almost like a blister or like a pimple? We always say that if you have a sty, you must have looked at something bad, like peeking at another person in the shower or seeing something sexual.

Collector: Yes. So what is the cure for that?

Informant: Well, you can definitely go to a doctor. They would tell you it’s an infection, poke a hole to drain the liquid, and prescribe you antibiotics and stuff. When I was little, it was not easy to get to a doctor, but kids at my time loved playing in muddy places, getting sand all over their faces, and just getting really dirty while playing. We get styes all the time and our parents would tell us to do this certain move to cure the sty. Let’s say you have a sty on your right eyelid. You use your opposite hand, in this case, your left hand, go behind your head, and pull the corner of your infected eye and the sty would go away in a few days.

Collector: Why not just use the hand on the same side?

Informant: I don’t really know. That’s just how I was told.

Collector: Is this effective?

Informant: Well, honestly, I think sty goes away on its own, with or without interference, but in my experience, it did work, multiple times. So I would say yes.

This cure for sty is a sort of folk remedy in Taiwanese culture, in which styes are seen as a consequence of looking at “dirty” things. Therefore, the cure described in the text can be viewed as a conversion utilizing homeopathic magic. The action of pulling the corner of the eye can flatten the bump that a sty would cause, symbolizing what the person’s eye would look like when there is no sty anymore. It is also fascinating to see how people connect actual dirt or bacteria with the idea of “dirty” sexual content.

月老紅線 Red Thread from the God of Love

The informant is a 21-year-old woman who lives in Taiwan. She went to a temple and asked the God of Love for a red thread to stop bad relationships from happening. The interview was conducted through a video call.

Collector: Can you tell me more about the red thread from the God of Love?

Informant: Yeah, of course. The red thread from the God of Love represents the marriage that is meant to be in your destiny. In our culture, there’s this idea of 緣分 [yuan fen] which is roughly the idea of fate in terms of love and marriage. It’s often described as an invisible string that connects two people who belong to each other. The red thread represents the right 緣分, and it will stop other bad or just not meant to be relationships from happening. 

Collector: How do you get a red thread from the God of Love?

Informant: You have to ask for one from the God of Love 月老 [yue lao]. You bring sweet snacks to the temple and put them in front of the altar. You take these things called 筊 [jiao] which are two red moon-shaped wooden pieces that can indicate what the gods and goddesses trying to say. You list out what you are looking for in your future partner and toss the pieces. If you get yes 3 times consecutively, you can get a red thread from the God of Love. I got mine from one of the biggest temples in the city. Your parents can ask for one for you as well, but you should only have one with you at all times. If you own more than one, the old one needs to be burnt in the furnace in the temple after you get permission from the God of Love. 

Collector: What do you do with the thread you have?

Informant: They used to say that you should tie it on your wrist. However, the staff in the temple told me to keep mine in my wallet and make sure I look at it often. She said don’t tie it because it would mean that there will be 結 ([jie]; knots) which represent 劫 ([jie]; obstacles or disasters).

Collector: Will anything happen when you find the right person?

Informant: When they used to tie it on the wrist, they said that it would break and fall when you find the right person. But I don’t think this is the case anymore. What I’ve heard is that you will lose the tread somehow. 

The religious life in Taiwan is mostly a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism. Though the God of Love 月老 mentioned by the informant is a Taoist god, the practice of asking for a red thread is a part of vernacular religion. People who would want to go through the process of earning a red thread are often feeling lost or frustrated about their dating life. The red thread acts as a guiding light in their search for their happily ever after or reassurance from a higher being that the owner’s love life is being taken care of. Owning a red thread is homeopathic magic because it symbolizes the invisible string that connects one to the right person. Jiao bei, sometimes called moon blocks, which are the red wooden indicative pieces are really amusing in the sense that the sign from gods is quite straightforward. It is also worth noting that the name 月老 or the full-name 月下老人 means the old man under the moon (Full moon), this ties back to the common connection of full moon and fertility since the god is mainly in charge of marriage.

The Wishbone of Thanksgiving Dinner

The informant is a 20-year-old man who lives in California. When asked about tradition on holidays, he told the collector about the wishbone tradition that he and his family have.

Collector: Can you tell me some traditions that you and your family do on holidays?

Informant: Well, the only thing I can think of right now is the wishbone.

Collector: Ok tell me about that.

Informant: When you carve the turkey during Thanksgiving dinner, you take the wishbone… this specific v-shape chest bone out and put it in a cup to dry completely, which usually would be the case after a day or two. After it’s completely dried, two people get to pull each side of the bone and whoever gets the bigger piece gets to make a wish. I remember I wished for a lot of money one time when I was in middle school.

The wishbone tradition on Thanksgiving is a common practice in American households. The informant describes the specific tradition in his family that involves drying the bone and the idea of who has the right to make a wish. There are a lot of variations of this tradition: for instance, two people should wish at the same time and whoever gets the bigger piece will have their wish granted (see this article for reference). The wishbone tradition came from Etruscans hoping to gain divine power through the wishbone and Romans decided to crack the bones so everyone can have a piece (see this article for reference). It is interesting to see the European tradition of cracking the wishbone migrate across the Atlantic Ocean and blend into the American Holiday of Thanksgiving.

乖乖 the Taiwanese Snacks

The informant is a 21-year-old woman who lives in Taiwan. When asked about some folk beliefs that she knows, she told the collector about a superstition regarding a brand of Taiwanese snacks and machines.

Collector: Do you know any folk beliefs?

Informant: Oh yeah. This happened couple days ago in the office where I’m interning for. There was this copy machine that was always jammed and apparently the manager tried to fix it many times already. The machine was jammed again and after the manager fixed it, he asked me to grab a bag of 乖乖 (kuai kuai) from convenience store.

Collector: Can you describe what 乖乖 is and why did he ask you to do so?

Informant: 乖乖 is this snack made out of corn i think. It has many different flavors and it’s really popular in Taiwan. As of why he told me to do that, it’s because the brand name 乖乖 means to be obedient. He put the 乖乖 on top of the copy machine to tell the machine to behave. I know a lot of other occupations do the same thing. I’ve seen bus drivers, scientists, and some stores on top of their cash registers.

The Taiwanese folk belief regarding the snack 乖乖 and machines is a form of homeopathic magic. By putting something that literally says “behave” on top of something that is not behaving, the performer of the magic attempts to change the current status of a machine according to his or her want, which is for the machine to stop malfunctioning. Besides magic, reception theory proposed by Stuart Hall can be utilized to further analyze the popular superstition in Taiwan. 乖乖 is a snack that is meant to be eaten; however, the consumers of the snack give a new meaning towards the product that the producer never intended for it to be. For more information and picture reference, please read this BBC article.

Spanish New Year Tradition: Eating 12 Grapes

The informant is a 20-year-old guy living in California. His mother’s side of the family is Spanish and his family still practice some Spanish traditions in their American household.

Informant: Basically, at midnight on New Year’s Eve, when the clock strikes twelve, we will eat 12 grapes. Each of them symbolizes a month in the upcoming year, so it’s important that you eat all 12 of them. It gives you good luck.
Collector: Does it matter whether they are green grapes or purple ones?
Informant: I don’t think so. Although I heard my mom say that you should eat the grapes along with the bell trikes. Well, we don’t get that here in California, so we kind of just eat them one by one.

In Spain, there are a great variety of grapes and grapes are important to their agriculture and wineries. Grapes are most likely a symbol of prosperity. According to the article in Atlas Obscura, the tradition might come from a clever farmer’s marketing strategy to digest a surplus harvest, or from an imitation of French customs acted by the bourgeoisie in Spain. Regardless of the origin, Spanish people see this tradition as a way to avoid bad luck and bring good luck for the upcoming year. This idea of 12 grapes symbolizing 12 months can be seen as homeopathic magic, meaning that the people would have grapes, or other crops, to harvest every month in the upcoming year. Some parts of this tradition are lost in the informant’s family since they emigrated from Spain to the United States; however, they still continue to perform this tradition each year to remember their cultural roots and cultural identity.