The informant and I are sitting in the USC Gould Law Cafe around 3:00 pm where she is describing some of the Chinese traditions her grandparents used to practice. She is a Chinese American student at the University of Southern California who was born and raised in Shanghai until she came to America for high school in Maryland. This recount describes a way to keep nightmares away.
J: When you have a bad dream, some old people would put scissors under their pillow. They’ll put it under their pillow to prevent their bad dreams.”
A: “Just a preventive measure?”
J: “Yeah, from nightmares. To make them feel secure during the night which can actually be really dangerous! What if you sleep walked during the night!? But anyway, they put scissors under their pillow and sometimes wrap it with newspaper to prevent them from actually hurting themselves.”
A: ‘Do you ever do that?”
J: “**Laughs** This is actually a really old one. Like my grandma’s generation. So sometimes they practice this but I usually don’t.”
This practice of placing scissors under one’s pillow can seem a bit counter intuitive to keeping danger away. This practice literally puts danger just under one’s head while trying to prevent danger from occurring. It’s funny how the informant laughs at her grandparents’ practice since it would seem silly to the culture she was raised in. But to her grandmother, this would seem completely normal. However, there can be some validity seen in this practice as having a weapon of protection can help to ease one’s mind and help them to not think negative thoughts while they sleep since they feel protected.
This tradition also is practied in Egypt where they have supstitions about scissors and also sleep with scissors under their pillow to ward off nightmares. See more here.
Information about the Informant
My informant is a professor teaching English and American Literature at the University of Southern California. He grew up in Chicago during the 1950s, and fought in the latter half of the Vietnam War. After that, he returned and received his degree in English Literature at UC Irvine. He has worked on many textbooks and movies that deal with the Vietnam War.
“Same man…who was a professional burglar…taught me to never carry a gun. Because, he said, if you carry a gun, you’re gonna have to take it out. And if you take it out, you’re gonna have to use it, because if you don’t use it, the son of a bitch you’re pointing it at is gonna take it away from you and use it on you. So, never carry a gun.”
Practical advice, but also folklore as it has been passed down by word of mouth from person to person such that even I, who grew up in Taiwan and has been nowhere near Chicago, have heard a variant of this piece of advice. I have heard this advice given not just about guns, but about knives and about Mace. An interesting comparison can be made between this piece of folklore that my informant gave me and the similar advice I’ve heard. In my case, the example I’m thinking of was about Mace, and it was told to me as a reason why girls should not carry Mace pepper spray around with them to defend themselves with, because it could so easily be turned around and used on the girl if she was not careful or if she hesitated at all. Which seemed to me at the time a bit sexist and troublesome as its core message seemed to be that I, as a girl, should not carry items that I could use in case of being attacked. But here, it sounds more like practical advice, because it was told to a male, and was told to my informant by a purported criminal who would be more likely to know these things firsthand, and thus the advice has more of accuracy associated with it.