Tag Archives: color symbolism

Vietnamese Tradition: Lunar New Year Outfits

Context:

Informant G is a 20 year old Cinema and Media Studies major from The Inland Empire in Southern California. Her family is primarily Vietnamese and Cambodian, and G lived in Vietnam for periods of time as a child. She is a junior at USC.

Text:

Please excuse any grammar issues, these are direct text message quotes. G sent me a photo of herself and her older sister wearing áo dài. She said the following:

“During Lunar New Year (Tết in Vietnamese) most people wear áo dài which is the traditional Vietnamese dress/costume/outfit. Although, it’s not exclusively worn during Lunar New Years, most people buy new áo dàis or wear their best one as a way to start the new year off well.”

When I asked about further significance in the type of áo dài, she replied

“they more symbolize the significance of an event, like people can wear it in their casual life but the fancier an áo dài the more formal/significant an event is”

“the color is also very important (not as much any more) but during Tet a lot of people wear red áo dài because it represents luck and prosperity”

Interpretation:

There are a number of significant details in this anecdotal description. For one thing, G clearly indicates an association with life cycle. There is a purpose in the kind of áo dài worn as one enters the new year. She mentions that people might “buy new áo dàis” – perhaps as a physical representation of newness – or wear their best one as a way of instating luck. G explained that áo dài is a Vietnamese garment that can be worn casually, but a fancier one is considered more formal and correlates with the event for which it’s worn. G also mentions that the color red has some significance. I find this interesting because, though Vietnam is considered a Southeast Asian country, imperialism brought bits of Chinese culture into Vietnamese culture, and the East Asian significance of the color red has been part of Vietnamese tradition, too. Traditions done for the purpose of bringing luck into the new year are incredibly common (ie: Latin Americans eating 12 grapes or bringing a suitcase around the block) – they are meant to induce prosperity, and multiple aspects of wearing fancy, or sometimes red áo dài reflect that folkloric commonality.

Sudani Tradition: On Weddings

Context:

G is a 20 years old Animation and Digital Arts major from Birmingham, UK. Members of his family immigrated to Birmingham from Sudan. He is a junior at USC and has been living in the area for 3 years.

Text:

Please excuse any grammar issues, these are direct text message quotes. 

G: “at a Sudani wedding the bride and the groom spit milk at each other that is presented by the matriarch of both families”

Interviewer: “by any chance do you know background on that?”

G: “for the life of me i can’t remember why but i do know that whoever spits first is the person who is supposedly ‘in charge in the relationship’ […] and it’s for like commitment to one another ”

Interpretation:

G’s anecdote references something we’ve discussed a number of times in class – wedding traditions. To me, the significance here draws clearly on a number of common themes in folklore. For one thing, milk is white – associated with purity like many things at a wedding. What’s more, its role in nature and the human life cycle associate it with health and growth. Sudan is patriarchal in its gender roles, so I feel that this meaning is emphasized by the fact that it is the matriarch (mother figure) of each family that gives the bride or groom the milk. This is an apparent reference again to life cycle and growing out of youth. Like G said, spitting it first shows commitment and authority, though the internet mentions prosperity as well. In general, it seems this tradition is one done for luck at a major life moment, a frequent folkloric concept.

Main Piece: Red underwear

Background: The informant always wears red underwear when she knows she is entering a situation where danger could occur. She believes that the color red has protective powers and is ultra superstitious about wearing it, especially when flying. She is a very spiritual woman, but also particular about what type of folk beliefs she acquires. She does her research before hopping on a trend or swearing by a specific belief. This underwear belief, while sparked by Madona, has become a pillar in her travel experience.  

Context: “I first started wearing red underwear when Madonna became an expert in Kabbalah. She was very famous at the time and I thought it was quite ridiculous that she decided to suddenly become Jewish, I suppose, and pick the sect that she did. Remember those little red bracelets? I wish that I had had a company at that point manufacturing those because they were hot in the 90s. They taught me. Red protects you. Red protects your soul from being attacked by malicious characters. As a 20-year-old girl, I never liked to fly. I always felt so vulnerable so far up in the sky with people I didn’t even know in control of my life.  The pilot, the flight attendants. I thought to myself if I wear red and red underwear I’ll be protected. Red really isn’t my color, so I felt that underwear was the way to go. I didn’t have to match it with anything, just make sure I owned some undies to throw on before any flight”.  

Thoughts: This is a custom and belief that has been passed along to me, as her daughter. I also think that red is a guarding force and I feel the ritual is associated with my mom and that in itself provides a sense of safety. I love following in my mom’s footsteps with her beliefs because I trust her, so this custom is just another way for me to feel that she is by my side in perilous circumstances. I know that she is very particular about her folk beliefs and practices, so her opinion is highly valued. Her superstitions are worthwhile.

White Headbands – A Chinese Folk Belief

Item:

Q: Why can’t you wear white headbands?

H: 嗰啲 (go2 di1) white 係人地死咗人地 先戴白色吖嗎(hai6 jan4 dei6  sei2 zo2 jan4 dei6  sin1 daai3 baak6 sik1 aa1 maa3)

[Translation: People only wear white when people die, right.]

Q: 白色件衫定係 白色喺個 頭(baak6 sik1 gin6 saam1 ding6 hai6 baak6 sik1 hai2 go3 tau4)

[Translation: White clothes or white on the head?]

H: 個頭 (go3 tau4)  Like when the parents, like the- your upper generation, like your parents or your grandparents or something, yeah.  When they pass away, so wearing the white [gesturing a headband]. So Asians nope, not gonna wear the white headbands.

[Translation: The head.] (Rest of line remains the same)

Q: So the person who dies wears the white or when you have someone who passed away?

H: Mhmm. So the younger generation will need to put the white thing on their heads, so that’s why no Asians wearing white headbands.

 

Context:

I collected this folk belief as part of a conversation in both Cantonese and English about Chinese traditions and customs.  The informant, denoted by ‘H’ in the exchange above, is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  It should also be noted that the informant likely meant East and Southeast Asians when referring to Asians in the text because these are the cultures that are most similar to her own.  She didn’t mention specifically where she learned about white headbands from when asked but only said that you just know this kind of thing growing up because you would see it all the time in Vietnam.  She also told me about how one of her daughters unknowingly wore a white scrunchie once and thus had to explain the symbolism behind it before making her take it off.  White headbands as a funeral custom is an inherent part of the culture in which she grew up, and as such, she will never forget about it and will always stay away from wearing one out of proper context herself.

 

Analysis:

This folk belief can be tied to a belief in sympathetic magic: since white headbands are worn as part of funeral custom when a member of your family has died, you could potentially cause death in the family by wearing them if no one has actually passed away.  The likeness of performing the custom during a particular event may evoke the event itself to happen.  Here we can also see an example of the difference in color symbolism between cultures, a difference that becomes apparent when one is removed from the immediate environment of their own culture.  The informant grew up around this symbolism, taking it as a given, and as such never recognized it as significant until coming to the United States.  In the United States and other western countries, white is often a symbol of innocence and purity.  On the other hand, in Vietnam and other eastern countries, white is a symbol of death and thus only worn during funerary rights.  This is likely why the informant’s daughter did not initially realize the bad omen of wearing a white scrunchie because she did not have the background of having grown up in Vietnam where white headbands were only worn for funerals.  Now with another example of the symbolism in the color white in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, I can understand why it is also a bad omen to wear white during the lunar new year.  Since it represents death, you may bring death upon yourself.  All in all, this folk belief outlines the symbolism of the color white in East and Southeast Asian cultures and furthermore, it proves how one’s own culture is not immediately recognizable until taken out of its initial context.