Tag Archives: fish

Chinese New Year: Don’t Flip the Fish

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese/Vietnamese
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Diamond Bar, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/26/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Main Piece:

Informant: On Chinese New Year’s. We always eat fish because fish is like a lucky food but we don’t flip the fish over. Usually I feel like Asian people are pretty good about getting all of the meat like chicken and stuff because wasting is bad, but we don’t like, flip the fish that we eat on chinese new year, because that’s like bad luck. Because, I’m not super sure where it originates from, but if you – essentially the idea is like if you like, flip the fish, then the boat will flip over.

Interviewer: So you also don’t do this on boats, just in general.

Informant: Yeah, yeah.

Interviewer: So like if you want to get all the fish, you just kind of got to go through the ribs and everything and try to like dig it out from underneath.

Informant: Yeah.


My informant is a friend and fellow student at USC. She was raised in the LA area but her family is ethnically Chinese and immigrated from Vietnam so she has multiple East Asian influences in her life. Her family regularly celebrates Chinese New Year’s which is where she became aware of this tradition.


I had set up a Zoom call with my friend because she said she had some examples of folklore that she could share with me. This sample was shared during that call


Some quick research reveals that this is a common and well-known practice, especially in coastal regions of China for exactly the reason my informant described – it’s considered similar to turning over a fishing boat. It makes sense then that this practice originated in coastal regions of China as a greater proportion of the population would make its livelihood through fishing. 

Seeing as how my informant’s family is ethnically Chinese yet resided in Vietnam for the last couple generations it is very plausible that fish was a large part of their diet and thus they kept this tradition going all the way to America.

Flipping the Fish – An Asian Seafarer Taboo

--Informant Info--
Nationality: United States
Age: 48
Occupation: Healer and Meditation Teacher
Residence: Burlingame, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/30/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Chinese

The informant, AW, was in a position where he couldn’t call because of WiFi restrictions and of course, in quarantine we couldn’t communicate in real life. However, he had a story he wanted to tell, so he texted me the following:

As a child, we had all kinds of superstitions about things you shouldn’t do because they were bad luck

Our family is Chinese, but specifically Shanghainese, and the family business was shipping, so a lot of the superstitions were around avoiding bad luck in business kind of realms

For instance, if you had a whole steamed fish for dinner, you absolutely had to work through the fish by filleting the meat aside and then removing the bones as is, without flipping over the backbone, let alone the fish overall

This was because if you actually, heaven forbid, flipped the fish over, for shipping/fishing family, it was symbolic of a boat capsizing on the water, which was about the worst kind of catastrophe a culture like that can imagine

Were you would lose the bounty of your harvest, your business venture would not come back to port and attain fruition, and there would be loss of life along the way

And so, we were taught very early on, but you must absolutely never “flip over the fish”, and anyone who actually did that would not be invited to dinner again, and no one who was aware of that superstition, whatever continue reading or otherwise touch a fish on the dinner table that had been unwittingly flipped over by some unfortunate ignorant guest

So as to avoid the bad luck created by the flipped over fish

It’s funny, I realized in later years it’s not even a Chinese thing, since I do remember seeing other Chinese, inland, non-seafaring Chinese flip fish with no problem. So I realized over time it was a seafaring thing, and a subset of Chinese culture not something universally Chinese or even Asian

And the funny thing is, to this day I still continue to observe that tradition and superstition, and if you ask my kids whether it’s okay to “flip a fish” they’d answer unthinkingly, reflexively, “obviously not, why the hell would anyone do that??” 

 And while it may seem funny, to all of us it’s simply obvious, and not even worth a 2nd thought 🙂


This story is a family tradition. The informant, AW, is my father, and we come from a family of fishermen. We always thought it was a Chinese tradition, but it actually might not be. This story was collected over text, due to technology restrictions.


Before AW wrote this story down specifically for me, I never realized it wasn’t a Chinese tradition, but rather a seafarer tradition. I think that his decision to include the sarcastic part about “you would lose income by flipping the boat, and loss of life along the way” speaks to a seafaring tradition that is not romanticized/kindly views Chinese seafaring tradition. Rather, it says rather plainly that the wealthy did not care/were exploitative of the fishermen who worked for them. Many people in the west view fishing as a gentle, kind, simple life; whereas in 20th century China in an industrial setting, it was anything but.

Fish dream

--Informant Info--
Nationality: African American
Age: 21
Occupation: Student
Residence: Memphis, Tennessee
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/23/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: I remembered my friend mentioning some superstition in regards to a fish so I asked her about it again and she explained and this conversation was recorded.

MG: What does the fish in your dreams superstition mean?

KR: “Okay… so it means someone close to you, or it could be actually you, is pregnant. Usually it’s someone close to you that you know. So say I dream it, it could mean my sister or my roommate is pregnant. Its kinda scary. Who knows if it is a coincidence or an actual thing but my mom and grandma have predicted all 4 of my sisters’ pregnancies with this fish dream thing!”

Background: Informant is from Memphis and grew up in a very superstitious family and she had recently been told that her mom had a dream of a fish so she is curious if anyone in her family is pregnant. She explained to me that this is an old wives tale that gets passed down but usually moms dream a fish and then find out their daughter is pregnant. However, this fish dream only applies to women because men do not have this dream.

Analysis: I thought the connection between fish and pregnancy was very interesting. I did try to research on the connection between pregnancy and fish but could only find concerns for eating fish while pregnant. An important connection I made was the fact that both her previous experiences involved her mom, grandmother. In many other cultures moms and especially grandmothers are seen as wise. They have that sixth sense and are able to pick up on signs. Additionally, this superstition discusses pregnancy which is a very scandalous topic and if a woman is young or unmarried she may be afraid to tell her mom or others. Dreams can reveal suspicions or even fears but sometimes they can also just be dreams without a meaning.

Vietnamese Proverb

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Vietnamese American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Irvine, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: March 30, 2018
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Vietnamese

RN is the informant, PH is myself.

PH: Do you know any legends, jokes, proverbs that you especially like?

RN: Proverb?

PH: Yeah

RN: Can it be in another language?
PH: Yes

RN: I’ll give you the English translation and you can just write [that it is a] Vietnamese proverb

PH: Do you know how to spell it?

RN: [says the proverb in Vietnamese]

PH: I’ll let you spell it.

RN: It means there’s nothing like fish and rice, there’s nothing like mother and child.

The actual proverb in Vietnamese is:

“Không có gì bằng cơm với cá, không có gì bằng má với con.”

Translations of this proverb vary, and this translation was off the top of the informant’s head. The informant speaks Vietnamese, as it is the language primarily spoken in his home, but not at an advanced level.

For another instance of this proverb, see Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.


“Don’t drink milk with fish”

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 89
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Tuscon, Arizona
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/20/18
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):


A family from Bucks County, Pennsylvania passed down the tradition and ominous warning, “Don’t drink milk with fish”. This proverb was passed down for so many generations that the actual reason not to drink milk while eating fish. The family comes from a long line of traditional Mennonites branching off into the Pennsylvania dutch community. Being so dedicated to the traditions of their community and family, every descendant of this family has refused to drink milk with fish, despite not knowing the actual reason behind it.


The interview with my source, A, is as follows:

A: My grandmother always told me, “Don’t drink milk with fish”. Because of that, I simply haven’t done it for as long as I can remember.

Me: Is there a reason she told you not to drink milk while eating fish?

A: I don’t know actually, the saying has been in my family for so many years that its reason was simply lost. Why don’t we drink milk with fish? Who knows. I’ve asked a many people if they know of its origin but nobody knows. Regardless, we still don’t do it.


I find it extremely interesting that something such as not drinking milk while eating fish is so religiously followed. This family is so dedicated to this tradition of unknown origin, that it doesn’t even consider what the actual reason for this practice is. I think this blind faith is a testament to how certain peoples are affected by the way in which family and tradition is upheld.

Mexican Recipe

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Mexican
Age: 35
Occupation: Nanny
Date of Performance/Collection: 4-26-17
Primary Language: Spanish
Other Language(s): English

Main Piece: Beer Battered Fish Tacos


For this piece, I asked my nanny of 18 years, Mirna, for a recipe, and being native to Mexico, she delivered. She prepared beer battered fish tacos, which consists of frying a white fish meat in a batter made from bread crumbs and beer (Corona, of course). It is put into a taco with a chipotle sauce, cabbage, and salsa. I asked if there was a set recipe she followed but there was not, she just cooked based off how she had done it in the past. The entire time she was cooking she was adding little bits of ingredients here and there according to taste, and nothing was perfectly measured. Once the fish was battered it was fried in a pan with vegetable oil, not a traditional deep fryer. There was no set time to cook or anything of the sort, just judging based on the look of the food and feel based on the cook.




This is a traditional recipe from my nanny’s home in Mexico, and she has been using it for as long as I can remember at home. It was a traditional recipe used when a successful fishing trip returned and would be cooked right away.

She learned it from her mother, who would generally cook for all of her brothers and sisters, of which there were 6 of them. She had many recipes she could’ve chosen from, having grown up in this large family and also having cooking as a big part of life for them. There was never really much take out or dinners out, so it was typically home cooked meals from her mother.




This time she cooked the meal for me, it was just one night for dinner, and did not have much contextual meaning. I used to fish a lot during the summer, and fresh fish was my favorite food for that span of time. I used to call my nanny as we were unloading the boat telling her what we had caught and she would prepare to cook it for me, and this became one of my favorite preparations of fish. She cooked a very large portion as it would serve as our family dinner that night, and had a sort of system going where she would be constantly breading the fish, frying it, warming the tortillas, and prepping the plates. She said that’s what it was like at home when her mother would cook for everyone, needing to feed many mouths.

When this dish was being prepared, my dad had a few different beers at home but none were a Mexican beer, so my nanny actually went out and bought Coronas to cook this recipe, which I think is interesting in that even though I’m sure other types would have worked, it is more traditional to the recipe that she used a Mexican beer for the recipe.


My Thoughts:


I had always thought this was just a random recipe my nanny had found and cooked for our family, but it turned out this was a recipe she had learned from her mother and brought here to cook for us. There are many more dishes my nanny knows how to cook from home and makes them constantly, but this one is hands down my favorite that she does.

Gross Norwegian Food

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Norwegian
Age: 20
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/10/16
Primary Language: Norwegian
Other Language(s): English

“So we have this little tradition in Norway where we eat lye fish. Do you know lye? Do you know what lye is? So lye is a liquid obtained by leeching ashes or strong alkali. So you literally put a fish in ash and you let it rot. Then you leave it in the ash or lye until it becomes so fermented that all that’s left is the part of the fish that doesn’t serve any function, the jello that’s only there to make sure that the rest of the body stays where it should be. And that’s what you eat. Once a year. For Christmas, primarily. And you eat it with so many things on the side that you disguise the taste of the fish. So like, the whole point is you use as many small dishes as you can. You can’t just eat the fish because the fish tastes horrible. And we all agree that it tastes terrible, but we all keep eating it because it’s tradition. It comes from Lofoten. It comes from way up north. It comes from a way of preservation. So it was back in the day when we didn’t have refrigerators or anything like that. They could put the fish on lye. And then that would… You know, it rots, but you can still eat it. It’s like, yeah, it works. It’s called lutefisk.”


Lutefisk sounds like an absolutely awful dish. It seems the source felt that way about it anyway. He recalls eating it every Christmas ever since he was little. No one enjoys it, his family merely does it out of tradition. The tradition, like he said, stems from old times when fish couldn’t be preserved in refrigerators and whatnot. So instead, people would preserve fish by keeping it in ash.

It sounds like this dish wasn’t invented intentionally. Ash was probably used to preserve other things, and they had no idea the effect it would have on fish. They probably preserved the fish in ash or lye for a couple of days, came back, and seen a whole different product than they were expecting. I’m surprised it’s still around though, considering the method of making it and what it actually is. Must be a very strong tradition for people to still be eating it today.

People probably hated it back then, too, but like the source said, with enough side dishes, the fish could be forgotten. It probably allowed ancient Norwegian peoples to still take in some kind of protein during the heavy winter months, along with whatever nutrients they got from the harvest.


For more on this recipe:

Legwold, Gary. The Last Word on Lutefisk: True Tales of Cod and Tradition. Minneapolis: Conrad Henry, 1996. Print.

Sugar Creek Smallmouth Bass

--Informant Info--
Nationality: USA
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: USC
Date of Performance/Collection: April 19, 2015
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

“There’s a creek that goes through my hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana called Sugar Creek, and they say it has best smallmouth bass fishing in the country. Apparently in the 80s, some high school kid went down to the Creek after school and caught four 8lb smallmouths, and a massive 12 pounder in an hour. Ever since kids always go down there to try to catch some huge ones, and I’ve caught a couple big ones myself, but nowhere near the 12 pounder he caught.”


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. He said that this one particularly resonates with him and gives him a sense of nostalgia because it reminds him of his times fishing during his childhood and looking for legendary bass.


The no-flip rule for fish

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 26
Occupation: Unemployed
Residence: San Diego, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/26/15
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Mandarin Chinese

The informant told me about the following custom when I asked her about her family customs regarding food and eating.

“When we’re eating fish in my house, after we finish a big fish, after we finish the top layer, we cannot flip the fish. We have to eat from the side that we placed it on the plate. So my dad tells us the story of back in the day, when the fishermen go out to fish, when they come bring the fish home, they never flip the fish because it would be a symbol of their boat flipping upside down, and he learned that from his dad. So now whenever my mom cooks fish, we are never allowed to flip the fish over; we always have to eat it from the topside, down. So you eat the top, and then you take out the bone, and the long tail, and then you finish the fish like that. Other Chinese families do it [as well] because I think it’s passed down from my grandfather to my dad, and then my dad passes it down to us. So it’s a common thing if you ask a Taiwanese person, do you flip the fish, it would be a commonly known thing that you don’t flip the fish”

In folklore, it is well known that groups of people who interact directly with nature, and things that are out of their control, tend to have superstitions and beliefs regarding their actions. Thus, it’s not uncommon to see a belief or superstition such as the above one in a fishing culture. However, it’s interesting to see that some of these beliefs and superstitions are passed on to the next generations even though it might not even be directly relevant anymore.

You Don’t Start Catching Fish Until You Start Bleeding

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 50s
Occupation: Banker
Residence: Shorewood, Minnesota
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/26/2015
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): None

Informant: “I know I’ve said this multiple times when I’m out fishing with someone, especially if we haven’t caught many fish yet, is ‘Welp, The reason we’re not catching any fish is because I’m not bleeding yet.’ Well, either ‘not bleeding’ or ‘haven’t hurt myself yet’. And if while I’m trudging along hiking to go somewhere fishing and I slip and fall and get all scuffed up or bruised or hurt or whatever, I think to myself, ‘ok, well now I’m going to catch fish because I’ve hurt myself’. And so these are things I’ve said many times over the years fishing, and I’d say that this is actually a true thing…most of the time. And part of the reason why this has ended up being a true thing is that you have a better chance of catching fish if you’re fishing in a part of the river that’s way harder to get to. Because, the average person is probably a little bit lazy, and they’re also not going to take risks. And so if you drive up to some spot and you get out of your car and you walk right down to the river and fish there, that’s probably where like a million people have fished. But if you’re like walking up the narrow steep river canyon, or trying to go down some spot where there’s not a path, and just try to go cross country to get to the river, if it’s really hard to get there, then hardly anyone or perhaps no one has fished there before. When you get to those spots, and I’ve been to a number of those spots in my life, the fishing can be just absolutely fantastic.

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Washington and Oregon (where he hopes to someday retire so he can “go fly fishing every single day for the rest of [his] life”) and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: In much the same way as there is folklore associated with different professions, there is also folklore associated with different hobbies; in this case, fly fishing. This particular proverb is interesting in that it implies a sort of balance in nature, and that everything has a cost. Specifically, if you want to catch fish, you have to prove that you really want them by bleeding a little. Of course, the informant’s explanation as to why this particular piece of wisdom is more correct than not is spot on. Also, humans tend to have an interesting relationship with pain. This collector has experienced independent times in which, when receiving a mild injury while performing a task, will think ‘well, I knew I was going to injure myself while performing this task, and now that I’ve injured myself, I don’t have to worry about it anymore. This particular piece of folklore is very probably just an extension of a similar chain of thought.