A is one of my best friends. She is a senior in high school from my hometown. Her parents immigrated from China, and she was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and spent her early years as a child in Chicago before moving to San Diego.
The context of this piece was during a facetime call in which I asked her to share some pieces of folklore with me.
In Mandarin Chinese, there are many sayings that are short metaphors and morals derived from origin folktales, often involving animals or foolish people. These sayings are known as 成语 (chengyu).
A: “So when I was younger, my dad and I had this routine that we would go through every time we went out. And it was always my dad saying ‘Go grab a jacket, it’s gonna be cold.’ And I’d be like, ‘No, I’m fine.’ And then I would go out and I’d be cold. And he would see me being cold. And when he would give me his jacket, he would also be like, ‘冻得像个寒号鸟,’ which, in English, is ‘frozen like this specific species of bird.’ The story behind it is that there’s like, there was this bird called 寒号鸟, and it lived in this tree. And summer ended, and fall approached like all of these birds were flying south right? And they were always like, ‘寒号鸟, you have to come south with us. You’re gonna freeze to death.’ And the bird would always be like, ‘No, it’s too late, I don’t want to go.’ And then more and more birds were flying and leaving, and it just wouldn’t go because it was lazy. And then winter actually came and it couldn’t fly through the snow and then it froze to death. So that’s why my dad was always like, ‘冻得像个寒号鸟.’
Me: “How do you feel about that particular phrase?
A: “I definitely feel some exasperation, almost, because it would be like, ‘Okay, I get it.’ You’re saying I should have listened to you and I should have listened to your advice. And I shouldn’t be lazy. I should go grab a jacket.’
Me: “Do you find that it’s helped your habit at all?”
A: “I mean, I think all kids grow up to become more responsible. And I don’t think he’s said that in a really long time, actually. But it’s something that I remember.”
This story seems to have many different versions, but for the most part, the context is the same. The lessons of some of the other documented versions of this story seem to be focused on discouraging laziness and lack of preparation, and tend to be utilized for situations beyond literally freezing. In A’s instance, however, it is about literally being prepared for the cold. However, to me, it seems to be less about laziness and more about just not acting like you can handle more cold than you can, and her father seems to be comparing her to the bird in terms of the cold rather than saying she’s being lazy. Parents, especially when their children are young, often take pleasure in proving themselves right. For something like wearing a jacket in the cold, this is one of the most common ones, even across cultures. For Chinese Americans, though, it ties in with its own story — beyond a simple “I told you so” into a fixed phrase for a specific occurrence.