What Is Your Bubbe Meise?
Bubbe meise, or grandmother’s tale, is a tricky sort of inheritance. This is particularly true when our grandmothers come from cultures completely different from ours. As it turns out, sometimes old world wisdom is the most nuanced guide to our future. And sometimes? Maybe not so much (see: dentistry, toilet monsters). We’d like to know: What is your bubbe meise?
Here, we’ll start.
Korean fan death. I always thought everybody knew about it. Koreans in Korea believe that if you sleep overnight with a fan on, you’ll probably die. It’s called fan death. I didn’t know it was a thing in Korea, I just knew that growing up, my parents would turn off all the fans at night. And then when I lived outside of the house, and moved to different places, I would have a fan in the room if I didn’t have air conditioning. And they would always be like, “You can’t sleep with it on, or right on you, or just put it at your feet, because otherwise you’ll get bloated and you might not be able to breathe and you might die in your sleep.” I thought it was just my parents. But it turns out it’s a cultural thing.
If you eat with a fork and it touches your teeth, all the enamel is going to come off of them and then they’re going to fall out.
Mira Jacob, Indian-American
In my family in general, there is a belief that if you believe in yourself, you will fail.
Nikki Chung, Taiwanese-American
In Chinese tradition it’s not considered proper to give shoes as a gift because it means the recipient might walk out of your life. So if you would like to give someone shoes as a gift, there’s generally an exchange that happens that the recipient will give you a dollar and that negates the curse. I didn’t know this for a long time and definitely gave several pairs of shoes to my husband. But he’s still here!
Heidi Durrow, Black-Danish-American
Okay, this actually is true and serious. One old wives tale from Danish culture, at least as my mom tells me, is that if you sing at the dinner table you’ll have brown babies. And indeed, my mom sang at the table when she was growing up!
Jessica Alpert Silber, Salvadoran-Jewish-American
Él que no llora no mama, which translates into he who doesn’t cry doesn’t get fed. Which was the mantra in my home. If you want something or you need something or if you dream of something, you better make it happen yourself.
Joanne Lee, Korean-American
My family is very religious so we didn’t have old wives tales. But my mom used to tell me when i was really little that if you went to the bathroom at night, there would be a hand that would grab you and take you into the toilet. That was really scary! And that’s why I don’t like to go to the bathroom at night.
PT Black, Episcopalian-Jewish-Welsh-American
We used to always say “rabbit rabbit” at the beginning of every month for good luck. It’s the first thing you have to say in the morning on the first day of every month. I thought that was like a global phenomenon, and it turns out that it’s not. The other thing is a phrase my grandparents said, which was, “Don’t teach your mother to suck eggs.” I thought it was just something my grandmother made up, but it turns out it’s a very old Welsh expression. So my grandfather, Mandel Cohen, would say “Don’t teach your mother to suck eggs.” It was a pretty mashed up moment.
Sharda Sekaran, Black-Indian-Baptist-Hindu-American
i have two, one from each side of my family. One of my grandmothers has got all kinds of superstitions about not leaving things around like hair or nail clippings because someone who hates you could use it for witchcraft against you. So I don’t leave hair or nail clippings anywhere. Then from my Indian side there’s a superstition about people walking over your legs. Don’t let people walk over over legs, or else you might lose the ability to lose them someday. I don’t really know where that comes from, but I don’t like when people walk over my legs.
Cindy Hwang, Korean-American
I’m a really fidgety person by nature, and when I was little I would always shake my leg while sitting down. My mom would go crazy. She’d say that I would lose my luck, because the luck runs right out of you.
Ashok Kondabolu, Indian-American
I brought my mom a cactus from a school fundraiser when I was in the second or third grade and my grandmother was living with us. She made me throw it out because you’re not allowed to have a cactus in the house. Same with a rubber snake that I brought home once to give to my mom, which is a weird thing to give to your mom. Oh, and a big thing with Indians is that you’re not supposed to play video games on large televisions because the image will burn in. But burn in stopped being a problem on TVs like 20 years ago. So if any Indian kid is reading this and your parents won’t let you play Xbox or whatever on the TV, it’s bullshit.