Tag Archives: tofu

Spinach and Tofu

The informant is marked IN. The collector is marked JJ.

IN: My mom told me I can’t eat spinach and tofu together otherwise I would die. Like all throughout my childhood, she never let me eat spinach and tofu.

JJ: Did she explain why you would die?

IN: No she had no idea why and I told her I don’t believe you and she was like it’s real I heard it on the Chinese television. And my mom believes a lot of things from chinese television and they have the weirdest like, health talks where it’s like, they bring up the weirdest shit and it’s usually not true.

Context: I met the informant at lunch and asked about any folk medicine used by her parents.

Background: The informant is a Chinese-American whose parents were raised in Vietnam. Her parents collect a lot of health remedies from Chinese television, often explained with little scientific backing – which is something that the informant has never agreed with but faced a lot growing up.

Analysis: I found this interesting because both foods are very healthy and to my knowledge used often in Chinese cooking. I can’t imagine reasons for avoiding these two foods, folkloric or scientific.

Cutting Tofu in the Dark

Main Text

Subject: One day, a young man who had been a scholar for many years, was like, mother I have been writing calligraphy for many years, I’m really good at it and I am going to drop out of school, because I’m, like—this is as good as my calligraphy is going to get, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic. (Subject chuckles.) And then the mom is like: okay. Like. That.

Interviewer: (Interviewer laughs.)

Subject: So she turns off the light, and she made him write, like, ten lines calligraphy or something, and she is like, you will—in that time, I will be cutting my vegetables. And when she turned on the lights, her like, knife cuts were like, really beautiful, all these like, perfect little equal, equal squares. And his calligraphy was shit. And so I think the moral of that was like—(subject laughs)—don’t do—like, you can’t, you’re not allowed to quit something unless you’re as, you’re good enough to do it in the dark.


The subject is a 20-year-old Korean-American student at USC. Her parents frequently told her tales from Korean folklore or Korean books throughout childhood. She first heard this tale when she was five.


This was a tale the subject’s mother told her every time she said she wanted to quit piano or viola, which is why the subject feels like it’s “really Korean.” At five, the subject argued with their mother about it, protesting that cutting vegetables and writing calligraphy were two entirely incomparable things. She felt that the premise of the tale was unfair and illogical.

Now, the subject thinks the tale is funny—she thinks the mother is right to put “the small man” in his place. As a child, the subject devalued the domestic labor of cutting vegetables, thinking calligraphy was clearly the superior and more useful practice—but as a present-day college student, she understands and appreciates the difficult labor involved in vegetable cutting. The subject also disagrees with the moral of the story, for different reasons. She thinks that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, and that being able to do something perfectly is no reason to quit.

The subject shared this tale to a friend at a majority-Asian social event recently, when she was making fun of her friend for being bad at cutting tofu. The friend had never heard of the story, and did not respond with hostility to the folkloric jab.

Interviewer Analysis

Tracking the subject’s changing relationships to the tale show how power dynamics between a performer and their audience can really affect the interpretation of folklore. As a child being told the tale by a mother who was using it to essentially scold the child for wanting to quit undesirable extracurricular activities, the subject naturally had a resentful narrative interpretation. The subject likely identified with the son in the story, who was forbidden from quitting calligraphy even though he wanted to.

Once the subject grew up, and the power dynamic between them and their mother became less unequal, the subject was able to go beyond interpreting the story from the perspective of the son, and empathize with the perspective of the mother. In addition, the subject felt comfortable enough with the lack of true psychological threat in the story, to jokingly using it to make fun of a peer, and have a little fun with the power dynamics that once wounded her as a child.