Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: April 13th, 2013
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Mandarin
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.