Category Archives: Childhood

Ghost Story in Primary School

Background: The interviewer and the informant went to the same primary school together in Qingdao, China. Interview asks the informant to retell a horror story that was very popular in their primary school. 

Informant: So next to the gate there was this statue of a woman, she’s playing a harp. And a long time ago there was this girl who stayed in school for longer than usual, cuz you know, she was on duty to clean the common areas in the hall. She was about to leave and she’s the only one left, and when she passed by that statue, she saw the statue woman blink. Then all of a sudden she really wanted to pee, so she went back into the building, to pee of course. Ok she didn’t go into the building, she went to that small restroom near the playground, you know where that is. She got in there, saw a janitor, and that person was wearing a hat and cleaning the floor. She didn’t bother and went in to pee. Then when she’s finished, she couldn’t get out! There was an air wall that blocked her way. Then… she never got out.

Context: This story was really popular in this particular primary school. Almost every student who went there has heard of the story. The interviewer and the informant first heard of the story when they were in second or third grade. Some people heard it from their classmates, and a few heard it from the older fifth and sixth graders. 

Analysis: The statue mentioned in the story was situated near the school gate and near a small school garden. There is a very shallow pool in the garden, and first and second graders are usually prohibited from going into the garden. I think this story serves as a cautionary tale masked with a mysterious, horror element. The physical location of the statue is at a liminal point—beyond the statue is prohibited and possibly dangerous. The girl in the story is in danger when she sees the statue, and when the impact of this terror is translated into real life, young school kids may be deterred by the statue and areas around it. This explains why the story was popular especially among younger kids. For the fifth and sixth graders, the garden and the school gate are no longer dangerous to them. The mystery and threats in the garden lose their attractions, and subsequently the tale is no longer scary. 

Elementary School Riddles

Background: 

My informant, NK, is 19 years old and of South Korean descent from both her mother and father’s sides of the family. Her grandparents live close to her, so she spends a lot of time with them. She is very passionate about cooking. Even though she is majoring in biochemical engineering at UC Berkeley, she has always been, and remains to be, extremely interested in conspiracy theories. While she may not necessarily believe them, she enjoys hearing lore from across the world. (I’ll be referring to myself as SW in the actual performance).

Performance: 

NK: I remember there used to be a lot of riddles from when I was a kid, like you describe a situation, what it looks like after something happened, and you have to guess what happened. There’s only one I remember, where you go into an empty room. It’s 4 walls blocked off and the only way in or out is like teleportation, and there’s a guy hanging in the middle of the room, like dead, and there’s a puddle of water below him on the floor, so what happened?

SW: Um..I’m not sure. What’s the answer?

NK: So, he stood on a block of ice with the rope around his neck, so as it melted he was hanged and he died. 

SW: Oh. Very dark.

NK: Yeah, I feel like I remember most of those were pretty messed up.

Thoughts: 

It was interesting to hear about these riddles that kids would tell, because as NK was describing them, I realized I remembered hearing similar riddles when I was in elementary schools. I think kids liked to one-up each other and prove how clever they were by stumping the other kids, or solving their riddles. I didn’t realize how dark these riddles were until now looking back and I wonder how we were so casual about topics like suicide at 8 or 9 years old.

How to Play The Game Slap Jack

Informant: So the goal of the game is to get the full deck in your hand. The game starts with the stack of 52 standard cards being split into equal piles for the number of players sitting around the table. No one is allowed to look at their cards. The dealer who split the stack, plays the first card. Then the play goes around clockwise for the rest of the game. When a Jack card is played all players must slap the deck as fast as possible. The first one to slap the deck gets all the played cards under the Jack. Because of the nature of the game, more players can ‘slap’ in and enter the game if it’s already started. (but that makes the whole thing go WAY longer)

The initial version I was taught had one extra rule: if you got a ‘sandwich’ you could slap. A sandwich consisted of two of the same numbers and one different number in between them. So like 2, 3, 2 is a sandwich.

The second version, has the ‘sandwich’ rule but also somethings called ‘doubles’ and ‘faces’. Doubles is self explanatory two of the same card played one after the other. So 2, 2. ‘Faces’ is if a face card – Queen, King, or Ace – is played the next person must play a face or the played-card pile goes to the first person. If they succeed in putting down a face card, the next person must play a face card or the second person gets the pile, and on and on and on.

Background: My informant used to bring to school a standard deck of cards and teach us how to play in our downtime between classes or over lunch. They learned these different games from their uncle who lived nearby.

Context: I remembered a few games back from middle school and looked for this informant specifically to get the rules as they tell it. I brought up the game with the informant over Discord, telling them about the collection project and my interest in documenting the games that we used to play with friends over lunch. They responded with a written record of the rules as they remember it.

Thoughts: I learned how to play this game while I was younger from the same person. However, they called it a different name from what I remember. They now call it ‘Egyptian Slap Rat’, however, all the rules the same. I wondered how a group of kids got ‘Slap Jack’ from ‘Egyptian Slap Rat’ and extra research showed that the games has many other names as well:
‘Slapjack’
‘Slaps’
‘Beggar-My-Neighbor’
‘Egyptian Ratscrew’
‘Heartattack’
‘Snap’

Chinese Red Eggs

Piece
H: Because the infant death rate was so high, people used to celebrate the baby’s birth after one month, so one month is actually their birthday. If they can, there is a big party and everyone gets red eggs. Ah-ma’s family was too poor to have a big party, but they give red eggs to the neighbors instead.
J: Why red eggs?
H: They’re a symbol of good luck and fortune. Also chicken eggs and chicken are a special treat in Taiwan. So the eggs are chicken eggs and red is for good things. [pause] You give them to people for other birthdays too, particularly for older people. Grandparents. Parents. Like 50 or 60. You give them red eggs too. You make red rice cakes stuffed with red bean. Anything with red bean paste. Mold it and make it the shape of, umm, the word doesn’t come out, a, a turtle! The rice cake in the shape of a turtle to symbolize long life. And if the person is older than you, you bow to them. When it’s their birthday, you bow to them.

Context
The informant learned this traditon from their mother who was born in Taiwan where this was a practice in their village and aided in throwing the red egg party for their neice.
This story was shared upon request by the collector when asking about various cultural traditions.

My Thoughts
I vaguely remember a red egg party for one of my first cousins. We dressed in red, fancy clothes and brought gifts. We ate red eggs and many other delicious foods and treats. Everything was red from the paper banners to the tablecloths to the food.
While red being a good color in Chinese culture is nothing new to me, I was surprised to hear at least some of the reasoning behind the eggs. In America, chicken is pretty cheap and easily available. Yet, for the informant, having chicken or chicken eggs was special and for celebratory occasions only.

The spiritual meaning behind pinatas

The following is a transcribed interview conducted over a video chat between me and interviewee, hereby further referred to as LT.

Me: So what were some birthday rituals you used to have growing up?

LT: Well, I’m sure most people now are familiar with the classic pinata that a lot of mexican households have at their kids’ birthdays. I guess, since you’re asking about traditions, I remember my dad telling me that the tradition about pinatas is all about how the pinata represents, supposedly, the seven deadly sins – like temptation. So you having the stick and being blindfolded is supposed to represent like blind faith in god and your struggle not to give into those sins. And, I never did this, but my dad told me that they used to twirl people around to confuse them because that’s how you make it an extra struggle! And I remember my grandma used to even twirl people 30 times because that’s how many years Jesus Christ lived. Also, pinatas were never animals – they used to just be, according to my dad, just like spiky balls with lots of vibrant colors. I guess vibrant colors are supposed to represent sin and temptation.

Me: Ok, so what about the candy?

LT: Oh, and the candy, well he said and I guess it makes sense, that the candy is supposed to represent the reward from god and from faith that you get when you fight and defeat those temptations. 

Me: So, you used to always have a pinata at birthdays growing up?

LT: Oh, yes always.

Background:

Interviewee immigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles as a teenager, however, she still returns home near Mexico City frequently. Her entire family is from and lives in Mexico, apart from her younger siblings and stepmother. She works as a translator in both Spanish and Italian. She is my older sister, so we’re very comfortable around each other. 

Context:

This interview was conducted over a video chat between interviewee and I. Being that we are family, it was a very casual conversation just talking about some things we both did growing up, but her specifically in central Mexico. 

Thoughts:

Pinatas are seemingly well known at this point as a Latinx tradition, but it is interesting the variation by region and country. In her area of Mexico, the pinata is tied to religion and they teach kids very young that they must battle and conquer sins. While this is a very heavy message, they do it as a reminder of the emerging hardships of growing older each year that also seemingly give fruitful rewards, like candy. I, too, always had pinatas at birthday parties but ours were always characters and I never got to meet my grandma to learn her lessons about it. 

Owa Tagu Saiam

Context:

I collected this bit of wordplay from my mother (LP) in a face-to-face interview. She grew up in a white Unitarian household in suburban Colorado in the late 20th century. She learned this joke from her mother, who pulled the prank on her and her brother when they were young.

Text:

The prankster says to their victim:

            “Say: ‘owa tagu saiam’”

After repeating it, the prankster asks them to say it faster until it sounds like they’re saying “o what a goose I am.”

Thoughts:

I remember other silly word pranks like this from my childhood, where one person employs a riddle or a pun to get another person to say something self-deprecating or otherwise humorous. The appeal of the joke comes from the moment of recognition when a string of nonsensical sounds becomes language. These games, while seemingly inconsequential and banal, offer a profound look into the mechanisms of signification. The humor of the joke comes from the moment of recognition in which a string of nonsensical sounds becomes meaningful, takes on significance. What was thought to be nonsense becomes sense, becomes a signifier of something completely unexpected.

The prank points to a couple of interesting traits of spoken language. One, that sounds bear no intrinsic relation to their significances: a string of gibberish to one person in one particular subject position (the victim when speaking the phrase slowly) can hold meaning to those occupying other subject positions (the prankster and the victim after the moment of recognition.) Secondly, it reminds the participants that all words are first and foremost just sound. Sounds are assembled and juxtaposed to signify abstract notions, and this process of signification can get so entrenched, so internalized that the signified takes precedence over the signifier, and the language-bearer is “tricked” into equating the two. This prank shatters that implicit assumption by pointing to the sonorous qualities of the word and laying bare the process by which sounds are tied to meanings. This disenchantment with the word, the recognition of the materiality of the signifier, has radical implications. For one, it allows for a kind of verbal play, a refiguration of sounds and their meanings, a liberation from the logocentric notion that words contain no ambiguity, no internal contradiction, that individual words always mean the same thing, like in a dictionary. But dictionaries are produced and disseminated by publishing companies that operate under certain ideological agendas which are always political, which have in their interest the imposition of hegemony.

Such pranks as these can act as subversive and counter-hegemonic, calling into question the ways in which meaning is constructed through language, opening up the potential for resistance through wordplay.

The Tooth Fairy

Context:

JA is a 20-year-old student from Orinda, California. She recalled this story in an interview.

Text:

JA: I don’t remember when I first learned of it… but the tooth fairy comes to your house the night after you lose a tooth when you’re a kid. You put your baby tooth under your pillow at night and while you’re asleep, the tooth fairy takes it and replaces it with a gift. So, like, in reality, your parents took your tooth and put something there.

But, anyhow, most people use money as the tooth fairy gift, but my parents always gave us these little toys. I think I got a nice marker once. Little toys like that. And I believed it when I was a little kid but I lost my teeth really slowly so by the time I lost my last baby teeth I was pretty old and had my suspicions (laughs.) And then when I lost my last baby tooth that night I felt my dad’s giant hand putting something under my pillow.

I don’t really know what to make of the whole thing, just that it’s a fun game to play to reward your child for the milestone of getting adult teeth. I remember talking about the tooth fairy with my friends in elementary school.

Thoughts:

The tooth fairy is a common legend in America. It is a tradition that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood through the changing of a person’s physiology. As the body changes, the child is rewarded, maybe to allay what Freud calls castration anxiety, or a fear of becoming disincorporated, a fear of alterations in the physical body. The tooth fairy is a way of transitioning kids through that process, celebrating it, and marking it as a significant and positive moment in the life of a child. I remember that my own parents gave me a homemade card for when I had learned how to cut my own nails. This gesture follows the same basic function that the tooth fairy does which is to mark a time of physiological change with a ritual designed to acknowledge mental and spiritual change, to allay the fear of the body being picked apart and to redirect that fear, sublimate it, toward a positive feeling of pride in maturation.

Birthday Traditions in Elementary School

Main Piece:

At the informant’s elementary school, there were very intricate birthday traditions. When there was a birthday in the class they would go outside and stand in a large circle. The birthday child would stand in the middle holding a globe. Then all the kids would sing “The earth goes around the sun, tra-la-la. The earth goes around the sun. Around and around and around and the earth goes around the sun” 

Then the teacher would say “and then [birthday child’s name] turned 2!” and a friend of the birthday child would hold a picture of the birthday child when they were two and walk around the entire circle showing all the classmates. The song would then start over and the pattern would continue with 3, 4, 5 and so on until the class reached the age of the birthday child.

Background:

This tradition happened at a private, Montessori school where the informant attended. The school was located in the southern United States so the weather was almost always nice enough to do this tradition outside.

Context:

This tradition was explained to me when the informant was discussing the importance of traditions at their schools throughout their childhood.

Thoughts:

This tradition captures a lot of elements that are important to birth, growing up, and continuing on with one’s life. There is the emphasis on the globe and the sun, to explain to the children that the years pass with each orbit of the sun. Then the photos of the child at each age allow for the children to get to realize what their classmates looked like before they knew each other. This shows the physical changes each child has gone through as they grow up. All these elements mesh into a creative demonstration to show the importance of being one year older that will make an impact on these children.

Celebration of Springfest at an All-Female High School

Main Piece:

The informant explained to me that there was a tradition of celebrating Springfest at their all-girls high school. Each year the juniors would all wear white dresses and the seniors would wear dresses of any color. The whole school from grades 5-12 would go sit in the chapel, while the juniors and seniors would be a part of the ceremony. The organist would always play a sort of calming, “water” music on the organ. After the music had been playing for a bit, the ceremony would start. A senior and junior would walk towards one another. Then the senior would hand off an orchid to the junior and they would cross their paths, making them intertwine. The informant explained it was supposed to symbolize handing down the leadership of the school to the juniors. 

In addition to the ceremony, each year there was a Springfest Princess and a Springfest Queen. The Queen was always a junior and the Princess was a fifth grader. The whole school would vote for the Queen and as the informant explained “everyone would vote for the nicest person in the junior class”. The Queen had to wear a floor length, white dress that looked like a wedding dress, provided by the school. She had two flower girls and they would walk in front of her when she walked down the aisle. The Princess went before the Queen and would get a bouquet of flowers. Then the Queen from last year would be wearing a crown and standing at the end of the aisle waiting for her. After the Princess walked, the next Queen would walk and kneel down in front of the old Queen. She would place the crown on the new Queen’s head.

Background:

The informant attended an all-girls, Episcopalian school in the southern United States. This tradition has occurred since before the informant’s Mother went to the same high school. The school mostly consists of girls from white, affluent families.

Context:

The informant explained this tradition to me when they were reminiscing about their high school experience. This festival would always occur in April near the end of the school year, in the midst of spring.

My Thoughts:

Springfest aligns closely with other spring celebrations such as the Swedish Midsummer festival, as it celebrates the springtime with an emphasis on young women. Given that this is an all-girls school, the presentation of girls in all white feels closely to Vaz da Silva’s analysis of white in his article discussing “Chromatic Symbolism in Womanhood in Fairy Tales”. He states “white stands for luminosity and untainted sheen, thus for luminous heaven as much as for purity” (245). These girls are dressed in white to appear as the pure maidens, ready for entering a new stage of their lives. This festival mimics a wedding as the girls are walked down the aisle in all white, being presented to the school as the new leaders. Instead of meeting a husband at the end of the aisle, they are meeting new responsibilities. This moves them one step closer to adulthood.

Citation:

Vaz da Silva, Francisco. 2007 “Red as Blood, White as Snow, Black as Crow: Chromatic Symbolism of Womanhood in Fairy Tales”. Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies. 21: 240-252.



Gray Thursday and Black Friday

Main Piece:

Within the private schools in the greater Memphis, Tennessee area the informant explained to me there is a tradition of Black Friday and Gray Thursday. This description is the informant’s personal experience with Black Friday. 

Black Friday was the day before the seniors were going to graduate. Before Black Friday the informant said they would have Gray Thursday where the seniors would stay overnight in the school. A few teachers were there to chaperone but as the informant describes it, “the whole thing was a shit-show”. The students would stay up all night writing notes to lower classmen and setting up pranks. The notes would be tapped to the lockers of girls and the next day it was like a popularity contest to see who got the most letters. The pranks were equally a big part. The informant said “one year they tapped all the phones to the ceiling, one year the seniors printed out every college rejection letter they ever got and hung it in the junior’s hallway”.

On Black Friday, after being in school the whole night, the seniors would come to class wearing all black and crazy makeup. Then they would interrupt chapel by saying the senior class had an announcement to make. The whole senior class would go up to the altar and sing songs. At the informant’s school, they would always sing “Tonight” by Fun! and “Wonderwall”. By the end of it, all of them would be crying in a big celebration of their graduation. After their ceremony ended, the seniors would all leave. The informant then said “juniors would then take off their sweatshirts revealing a class shirt they had designed and they would move up to the senior section of pews in the chapel”.

Background:

This occurred at the informant’s all-girls, private, Episcopalian high school in Memphis, Tennessee. It was an ongoing tradition that girls looked forward to every year.

Context:

The informant explained this tradition to me when they were reminiscing about their high school experience.

Thoughts:

This tradition takes place at a liminal moment in these girl’s lives. The Friday before graduation they do not have the responsibilities of a student but they are not technically a graduate. This allows for a tradition to be created, such as Gray Thursday and Black Friday, similar to jokes made at weddings and other liminal moments in people’s lives. The creation of this tradition allows the girls to be cathartic and find some sort of “closure” on this chapter of their lives. Also this example of Black Friday took place at a school that was for grades 5-12, so these girls had been with each other for a majority of their lives. This might explain the commitment these girls felt to saying goodbye in an exaggerated way.