Tag Archives: ancestors

Ancestral Spirits of Guam – Chamorro taotaomo’na


DA – In the Chamorro culture in Guam, there are the spirits of the Chamorro ancestors. You ask for permission so you don’t disturb the spirits, called the taotaomo’na.
Interviewer – For entering the forest?
DA – Yeah. The taotaomo’na live in the forest and also protect it.
(DA shows me a picture of a stone structure. It is made of two massive stone shape: one is a wide column, and on top is a round bulge with a flat side facing upwards. There are two people in the background to show how massive this structure is)
DA – If you see these structures in the forest, you should leave immediately. These are the latte stones and it’s a marker that it’s an ancient Chamorro site. They were just used as pillars or support for ancient Chamorro homes and stuff like that.
Interviewer – What is the significance of Chamorro sites and what would happen?
DA – I guess you can kinda treat them as tombs. There’s probably very likely ancient spirits in there that you shouldn’t disturb out of respect, and if you do, you would be cursed and get some sort of illness or physical pain.
Interviewer – Are ancestors and spirits generally a big part of Chamorro culture?
DA – Yeah! Respecting your elders is one of the important things you have to learn in the culture, so that also plays a part in it.
Interviewer – And is there anything you can do to lift the curses of the Chamorro?
DA – Yeah! Witch doctors (in the Philippines: albularyo, in guam: suruhanu). First they see what’s causing whatever you’re feeling. Usually with melted candle wax and a bowl of water: they let it drip and the hardened wax would form into who caused it. And they tell you what to do based on that. But I don’t really know much about this part.•
DA – I read up on it to refresh my memory, but it makes sense why they wouldn’t be kind to visitors. Spain, Japan, and the US fucked up the culture pretty bad. (By the 18th and 19th centuries, travelers were likely to see latte stones in areas abandoned after foreign diseases wiped out a lot of the Chamorro population)
DA – It’s a good thing a big part still survived, but barely anyone speaks the language. It’s part of the required courses in the education system. My Chamorro teacher and I talked about this before. The problem is not many people are really interested in continuing to learn beyond the requirements. You only need to take one year of Chamorro language in high school, and most students take it freshman year. And like everyone tends to do, they forget most of it by the time they graduate. And there aren’t many speakers in the first place either.


The taotaomo’na spirits were the ancestors of the Chamorro people, native to Guam. It is important to be respectful not only to living ancestors, but also to those who passed on a long time ago. Signs of their presence, like the latte stones, are common in places where many of the Chamorro had been killed of from foreign plague, and also act as tombs. It is common knowledge in Guam not to risk drawing bad things or curses to yourself by disrespecting the dead. The informant recalls that these stones are some of the best preserved remnants of the Chamorro culture, because so much of it died out due to foreign plague, assimilation into western cultures, including the language. Although the informant learned more of the Chamorro language than most in their high school, the informant regrets that they have also forgotten much of what they learned.

Cutting Hair for Chinese New Year

[The subject is MW. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

ME: Can you tell me about a Chinese New Year tradition?

MW: Chinese New Year, or Chinese New Year eve, we will put the whole table. Mother cook, or have the servant cook, all kinds of goodies, but we cannot eat first. But they still put the wine and the chopstick, and the whole table, but that’s let the ancestor come, ancestor, I mean we don’t see them- the people already pass away like my grandma, or grandma, you know? My mother always, we cannot- the kids eat later, just have to let them, still, put the best food, all warm, but we cannot touch the chair. It’s grand-grandpa, and grand-grandma, let them eat first. And after the time, bring the food back to the kitchen, and then bring it back and then we can eat.

And then also, in Chinese New Year, we have to go to have a haircut, the kids all have to go have a haircut.

ME: Why is that?

MW: It’s like for a new year, then you have to clean up the whole thing. And the next day, we have to go to, for our auntie, and grandma, those kowtow. And then they give us a red envelope.

Context: MW is my grandmother, who was born in Shanghai and then lived in Hong Kong later on in her youth. She moved to San Francisco as a young adult and has lived in the Bay Area for the last six decades. She is a native Mandarin speaker, but is also fluent in English. I sat down with her and asked her to talk about some traditions and stories she remembers from living in China.

Thoughts: I am half-Chinese and have lived in the United States for my entire life, so while the tradition of eating a big dinner on Chinese New Year is familiar to me, but the less common tradition of getting a haircut for the new year was not. I believe that this tradition could be associated with Frazer’s concept of homeopathic magic, because the chopping of the hair seems to represent chopping off what you no longer want to hold onto from the last year, and creates good luck going forward.

Placing Cutlery for the Dead- A Korean New Years Tradition

Main Text

Collector: I know the your family does special acts for the Korean New Year. Would you mind telling me a few of these and what you think is the most important part for the celebration?

HK: “The most important part is that every male family member has to have a different spoon and chopstick. The spoon and chopstick represent the dead person’s utensils so that they can eat the offering of food. What my dad would do is place the spoon and chopstick to each of the dishes that he made each time so that the dead person has time to eat it.”


I was in a conversation with Hk in order to solicit information about how her family celebrates the Korean New Year. Before I collected this piece from her she had listed out at least five other customary acts that they perform at the Korean New Year celebration at her house and to narrow it down I asked her what she believes the most important act out of the day is and she provided me with this piece. She said that she remembers this piece because it is a very emotional part in her family and since her dad is a chef, he likes to prepare traditional food and it is of great importance to him that members of his past family can relish in this meal as well to have some happiness and enjoyment after life. HK said that she likes seeing how happy this makes her father so it is a very joyful moment to share with her family which is why it sticks with her. When I asked her if she would share it with her future family she responded that it was a guarantee because she wants to teach her kids the importance of family and sharing these kinds of emotional experiences with each other, especially over a good traditional Korean meal.


One of the main reasons for celebration of the Korean New Year is not just to celebrate the passage into the new year but as a way to spend time catching up with your family members as well as paying respect to your dead ancestors. Understanding that a large part of the Korean New Year celebration revolves around family and paying respect to one’s ancestors, it makes sense that the custom of setting out utensils for one’s deceased ancestors would be passed down, taught to new generations and vary between family.

Another large part of this piece that needs to be analyzed is why this part of the honoring of the ancestor is centered around food. In Korean culture, food is a way of getting one’s family together and sharing a Korean style meal keeps the family close. Traditionally, eating in Korea is done family style, where main dishes are shared and eating is considered a major social activity for friends and families. The social setting of eating such as exchanging food, taking pictures of food and even talking about food all brings people and family together, especially when eating at a restaurant. I have known many people from China and Korea who all say that a two hour wait at a restaurant is worth it because they get to spend two hours or more there catching up and socializing as a large familial group. In this explanation I have argued the fact that the tradition of placing eating utensils out for ancestors as a way to honor them on Korean New Years is culturally centered around the belief that food really brings family together in a very close and personal setting.

Another reason that this tradition will continue to be passed down is that there is a lot of history behind each dish that Korea has. Food has a distinct impact on the culture itself because of all the history and meaning behind the food that is eaten and the food that gets eaten and cooked even when away from the motherland. Korean food plays a huge part for me because not only they are rich in value and nutrients also because of their taste which is unique and the traditional foods that traced back to Korea arguably all are extremely nutritious. In a way, serving this traditional food to the dead a a way to honor them provides the dead with a sense of connection tho their family and their culture as well as a way to nourish them in the afterlife. The nutrition value of the food and the uniqueness of the textures and flavor that are employed in Korean cooking act as a way to unify one’s family and help them to continue to identify and even preserve their culture when they are away from their homeland. This cultural significance that is put on Korean dishes  in the end plays a large part in why these individuals who celebrate Korean New Years and perform this ritual continue to do so.

The final way that I am going to analyze this ritual performed on the Korean New year is through a religious lens. The main religion in Korea is Buddhism. In Buddhism, ghosts are fairly common and fully accepted, unlike what is allowed for Christians. Because many Koreans have this religious belief that entertains the existence and acceptance of ghosts, it is not so strange or out of the question that folklore involving the placement of utensils for one’s dead ancestors would be passed along and practiced today by Korean families.

In summary, the cultural stance that many Koreans share in family and in food as well as the religion practiced by many Korean individuals serve as an explanation to why the act of placing a spoon and chopsticks out for one’s ancestors is an important ritual that takes place on Korean New Years.

Vietnamese “Day of the Dead”


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 alone at our own table, but were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, he talks about a Vietnamese tradition, similar to the Day of the Dead, that his family practices every year in order to honor and respect his family’s ancestors. My informant says he never officially learned this folklore, but rather that his mom “just started doing it… One day I woke up and there’s just this altar in the middle of my house.” This is a transcription of his folklore, where he is identified as N and I am identified as K.



N: Hello, so um, this is really similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead—I don’t really know what it’s called to be honest—but it’s kind of like an ancestral worship thing, so like…


K: But specific only to Vietnamese?


N: Yeah for Vietnamese people! So we have a bunch of pictures of our ancestors, and then we have a bunch of food that we put on the table… Honestly we didn’t do much more than that. I’m pretty there’s a whole other tradition that went along with it…


K: Okay but why did you do it?


N: Just to like worship your ancestors and stuff. Like, “pay respect to your ancestors” kind of thing, and we’d just have pictures of a bunch on them on our table and we’d like offer them, like, Vietnamese food offerings.


K: Were they supposed to, like, come back and visit you or something?


N: No… well, maybe, I don’t know! Yeah… so that’s it.



In this account, it was clear that my informant didn’t know a lot about the tradition and was even slightly unenthusiastic about it. This may be attributed to the fact that he’s uncomfortable because he feels that he should know more about the tradition because his family has been doing it every year ever since he can remember. During our conversation, it seemed like he felt a little ashamed or guilty that he wasn’t as informed, especially when he knows it’s so important to his family.

In a separate conversation, my informant told me that his parents were immigrants to this country, but that he was born in Los Angeles, California. Sometimes, people can be embarrassed or shy when they tell cultural stories, especially if they don’t have strong connections to their culture, which seems to be the case with my informant. Even though he gets the gist of it, my informant seems disconnected from this practice because he was never the one to set up the altar, pull out the photos of his ancestors, or cook the food that his family offered. In this case, my informant seems to only be a passive bearer of this tradition: he can recognize the folklore when it’s performed or being created, but he doesn’t seem capable of replicating it. His parents, on the other hand, have clearly been the active bearers of this tradition in his family. This could be due to the fact that they are immigrants, and thus are much more strongly connected to its purpose.

This tradition speaks to immigrant status and identity; my informant is in a liminal state of being a part of a Vietnamese identity because he was born to Vietnamese parents, but also being American because of the fact that he was born and raised in America. Because of this, he loses a lot of the authenticity of his Vietnamese identity. Even from the very start, we can see that he introduces this tradition not by it’s Vietnamese name, but as a tradition that is “similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead.” Perhaps this is because in America, Day of the Dead is much more well-known and integrated into American culture than most other ethnic holidays. For example, when I took Spanish in high school, we would celebrate Day of the Dead every year as a way to immerse ourselves into the culture. As a child, it’s possible that he came to understand his own family’s folklore in the context of America. Thus, rather than thinking that Day of the Dead is similar to this Vietnamese tradition that his family practices, his mind was instead wired to notice that this tradition is similar to the popular holiday of Day of the Dead.

On the other hand, understanding that Day of the Dead is a much more understood and well-known celebration, my informant perhaps uses Day of the Dead to explain his tradition in terms of other peoples folklore to help it be better understood. His way of introducing it as a Vietnamese version of the Day of the Dead could be his way of saying “Day of the Dead is not a mainstream holiday, and neither is mine.”


Tomb Sweeping Festival


This piece is a cultural tradition that the subject was introduced to through her family, and that she has done since her childhood.


AQ: So… once a month—I mean not once a month, I think it’s once a year… um, I think a lot of Chinese families, what they do is they go to the cemetery.  I think that it’s called Tomb Sweeping Festival, and what happens is you go there and then um you kinda like bring food for your ancestors or whoever has passed away.  You bring incense sticks and you put them in the ground and then you also, um, lay out food for them to eat in their afterlife.  And there’s also like a huge trash can that we have, alright, and what we do is we usually burn a lot of money.  And then, ok it sounds very, like, Satanic but it’s not. But yeah, so you burn money, and it’s supposed to—I think they called it hell money, but I don’t really know—and then it’s supposed to also be for them in the afterlife, and then sometimes you also burn clothing, watches, cellphones, and whatever for them to use.

JM: So all this stuff you’re burning is for them to use?

AQ: Yeah, like, later on—wherever they are now.

JM: And you’ve done this?

AQ: Yeah, I do—like I, well I haven’t done it the past two years because of college, but I’ve done it every year.


This conversation was recorded during an in-person conversation with the subject, where I asked them if there were any special traditions or customs that their family followed.


The subject seems to have an interesting relationship with the piece of folklore that they are describing—it is evidently something that they are not completely confident about their knowledge of, yet it is still something that they participate in.  As a side note, what is called the ‘Tomb Sweeping Festival’ here seems to be most commonly referred to in English as ‘Tomb Sweeping Day’.  This folk custom does not seem to have any heavy spiritual associations for the subject, though it may have taken on new meanings as a yearly tradition that connects families to their cultural past, both literally through their ancestors and through the traditional practice of ancestor veneration..

For another version of this piece, see:

Song, Li. The Tomb-Sweeping Day. Paths International Ltd., 2015: Pg 138.