“You cannot give time”
In Chinese culture, you cannot give someone a clock, watch, or any other time-keeping device as it is seen as giving the person time or highlighting how much time they have left on earth. It is especially insulting if given to someone older than you. So instead of giving someone a clock or other time-keeping device, you sell it to them. The person you are “gifting” the clock to will then give you a penny (or the lowest form of currency of that region) so that they are instead purchasing it from you.
Death is terrifying for most people and thus their culture will reflect that fear of the uncertainty. This practice shows the desire to ignore the passing time, or at least not acknowledge that there time may be coming to close. It also showcases a level of respect shown to ones elders in Asian culture that is not seen in American culture.
Scholar Annamma Joy writes about this in Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties where on page 250, she reports on a field study where a participant said, “I did buy a clock for a friend, but in Chinese culture clocks are never given as gifts because they are associated with death. But before I gave the gift, I asked her for a small amount of money, so that it appeared as if she had bought it for herself.”
Joy, Annamma. “Gift Giving in Hong Kong and the Continuum of Social Ties.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 28, no. 2, 2001, pp. 239–256. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/322900. Accessed 1 May 2020.
“So there was this clocktower in crawfordsville, right next to the town hall. For some reason, during World War II, the clock tower was dismantled. Apparently though, the reason for tearing the whole structure down was the bell inside. The reason they wanted the bell was to melt the metal down to make bullets to help the war effort, so now there’s no clock tower simply because the town wanted to make bullets from the bell.”
This is from my friend who comes from a small town in Indiana with a lot of folklore traditions. He’s lived there all of his life, and apparently there are a lot of these little local stories legends about his town which is awesome. This one doesn’t resonate with him too much since it was way before he was born, but he still finds it interesting because it’s kind of a unique version of a history of his hometown.
Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals.
In Chinese you can’t say the word clock because in Chinese the word clock sounds the same as death. People usually point at the clock instead of saying it or called it “big watch,” “time,” “the time thing,” etc. If you end up saying the word then you have to apologize to the people around them for giving them bad luck.
The informant lives in the United States but still speak Chinese. She was taught about this ever since she can speak the language. It was emphasizing in the family and she found out it is practiced among her relatives and her friend’s family as well.
I think this is similar practice to the reason Chinese people avoid saying the word four because it sounds like they are saying death. Death, which is the unknown, is feared and avoided in everyday life. The idea of death is only mentioned and emphasized at funeral. The clock, in this case, has a nickname to avoid saying the actual word. Certain words that have overlapping sound are then muted for everyday life. The same way funeral rituals occur as a special event, words surrounding that particular event are prohibited to occur at any other time otherwise bad luck will enter your life. It is also similar to Western culture’s belief around the number thirteen where in a tall building floor 13 are eliminated.
I always find it peculiar that many everyday word and objects can have bad luck connotation through the way it sounds; also having to apologize for saying those words by mistake. This reinforces the idea of belief and how the truth value of it is irrelevant to whether or not it is practiced. Saying the word “four” or “clock” in Chinese would not bring bad luck but it would bring the belief of bad luck. I think that these traditions are carried through as accepted practice rather than the actual fear of the consequences.
The informant first heard this phrase at the end of his 8th grade year in school, year 2000, from his female cousin. It was 11:11 A.M., although this phrase can be said at either 11:11 A.M. or 11:11 P.M., and his cousin told him that if you spontaneously look at the clock and it is 11:11 A.M. or P.M., then you can make a wish inside your mind and then it will come true. “It’s 11:11,” she said, “make a wish.” The informant remembers it clearly because he remembered thinking, “What is this? I’ve never heard it before.” It remained in his mind and he likes to use it whenever he sees 11:11 on the clock because it helps to lighten the mood and he believes deep down that everyone like to make wishes, even though they might not believe that 2 times a day a person can close their eyes and make two wishes that will necessarily come true.
Though being Vietnamese does not really have much to do with the 11:11 saying, the theme of making a wish does seem transcend different cultures. Similarly, it does show that everyone has a child within them. Though hardly anyone would admit to believing that making a wish at 11:11 would actually result in the wish coming true, many people still say “make a wish” and silently make a wish themselves, for fun or sometimes just for the sake of seeing whether or not it will come true. Also, typically this type of saying is between a boy and a girl, though it is not restricted. Generally, however, girls are more likely to say it to their own sex than are boys. As in the informant’s case, family relation has nothing to do with the saying, though in some cases this saying can be used flirtatiously between boys and girls, when they can wish that the boy or girl that they like will like them back and maybe ask them out or something similar.
“My aunt was injured in a skiing accident and she’s parapaligic and now my cousin believes in 11:11 and now he has an alarm that goes off. And every 11:11 he makes a wish for her to walk again. I believe it too and I also make a wish for her.”
The 11:11 wish is relatively new. The earliest it could have started is the beginning of digital clocks and clocks that actually showed 11:11. Plus, it is only possible to have two if the time is not military. It is the only numbers on the clock that is the same backwards, forwards and upside down. Somehow, this has given the number special powers and has people believing that it is a sign or signals spirit presence. For this family though, it is a way to influence something they feel helpless in front of. When medicine doesn’t work, it is much easier to turn to some kind of magic to help.