Regardless of religious dogma, most cultures believe in a clear line of demarcation between the living and the dead. Certain holidays, such as Samhain or Día de los Muertos, celebrate the dead and are believed to be occasions where the veil between life and death is at its thinnest. During these special events, the dead are given an opportunity to once again enter the realm of the living, under the caveat that they will soon depart again. However, in South Korea and the Philippines, growing populations and dwindling space have permanently blurred the line between the living and the dead.
Polyglots are linguistic superheroes. Some kids want to be Superman when they grow up, but I was more interested in expanding my lexicon than battling Lex Luthor. Throughout the years, I’ve attempted to learn Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Dutch. Most of these efforts have been ill-fated; I gave up on Japanese after memorizing ten Kanji characters in elementary school, and I gave up on Dutch when I realized I would never use it. Despite the six years I spent studying Spanish, I am not fluent in the language. I was able to ask for directions in Barcelona, and help hispanohablante customers at work, but I think too slowly in Spanish to feel confident in conversation.
Birthdays always blindside me, like an annual cairn of squandered youth. The preceding weeks are filled with vague dread, until suddenly it’s my birthday, and I’m like, “It’s my birthday? Already? HOW?” Lamentably, the only thing more predictable than the day itself is the crying that ensues. Birthday tears are a self-fulfilling prophecy, but as Lesley Gore said, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to!” In honor of my birthday, this week’s Cultural Parallels is dedicated to four global birthday traditions that might inspire you to shed a tear.
The Vietnamese New Year celebration Tết Nguyên Đán, the Festival of the First Day, functions as a birthday party for everyone in the country. In Vietnam, people do not acknowledge the day they were born. Instead, the Vietnamese align themselves with the lunar calendar symbol from the year they were born.
European toilets astounded me. When I landed in London, the first thing I did was beeline to the bathroom. I crammed my suitcase into the stall, rigged up my duffel bag so that it was teetering on the suitcase by the grace of the tiny door hook, and turned around to see the cutest toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. This must be for children, I thought. In my sleepless, post-flight, full-bladder stupor, this was the only rational explanation for such a petite toilet. What if a child has to pee, and I’m in here? Children can’t wait; they wet themselves! Or worse.
So, logically, I had to go check the sizes of the other toilets. Of course. I squeezed past the baggage blockade, and awkwardly popped through the narrow opening, as though the stall had given birth to me. A woman washing her hands at a nearby sink squinted at me suspiciously, her eyes trailing down to the abandoned luggage. In a flash, my mind went to all those “If you see something, say something” posters plastered around New York. Sheepishly, I slid back through the crack in the wall.
Shakespeare’s infamous second act of Romeo and Juliet posits the arbitrary consequence of names by asking, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet muses to herself that were Romeo no longer a Montague, or she no longer a Capulet, the two star-crossed lovers would be free to pursue their relationship outside the confines of their feuding families. Shared familial surnames enforce the notion that identity is linked to the family unit. Iceland and Spain reject conventional Western naming practices in favor of those that promote individuality and gender equality. Though different, both structures endorse matrilineal genealogy in ways most Western societies do not. Notably, women of Iceland and Spain do not take their spouse’s name after marriage.
In Iceland, kenninafn, or surnames, are patronymic, meaning that the father’s given name forms the root of the child’s surname. This structure links the child to their parent but does not reflect any family lineage. Icelandic surnames are gendered, ending in the suffix ‐son (son) for males and ‐dóttir (daughter) for females. Therefore, the Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the son of Erik Thorvaldsson (Erik the Red), who was in turn the son of Thorvald Asvaldsson. Modern endeavors toward gender equality and a sudden rise in single motherhood have led to matronymic surnames. Icelandic footballer Heiðar Helguson’s name, for example, indicates that he is the son of his mother, Helga. In some cases, people can have a last name comprised of both matronymic and patronymic elements. Reykjavík City mayor Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson is the son of Bergþóra and Eggert.
Thwarting concepts of legacy and lineage, it is unclear how nepotism would work in Iceland. In America, legacy names can secure places at prestigious universities, or otherwise pave the way for a life of privilege. In Iceland, the response to “Don’t you know who I am?” would most likely be a resounding “No.” With popular Icelandic musicians like Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men gaining worldwide recognition, it would be insincere to claim that fame is nonexistent in Iceland. However, with an average population of 329,000 people, there is a narrower gap between stars and their audience than there would be in most other developed countries. Partially due to this sense of national intimacy, but mostly because of the structure of Icelandic last names, Icelanders are generally referred to by their first names. Singer Björk uses her first name only, though her full name is Björk Guðmundsdóttir. The current Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, is simply referred to as Sigmundur Davíð. This familiarity is uniquely Icelandic, though the patronymic system was once common throughout Scandinavia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden abolished patronymic names through separate national laws and adopted the Western concept of family names.
Spanish apellidos, or last names, are a unification of a person’s parents’ surnames. The dual apellido system dates back to the sixteenth-century upper classes of Castille but only became common in the nineteenth century. Generally, a child is given the first surname of both the father and the mother. For example, if a man named Mateo Álvarez García and a woman named Marisol Ramón Benítez conceived a son named José Enrique, his full name would most likely be José Enrique Álvarez Ramón. Women do not take their husband’s names upon marriage, as doing so would eliminate the cultural practice of having two last names. In the way that Icelandic women would not suddenly become someone else’s daughter upon marriage, it would not make sense for Spanish women to cast aside their parents’ names. However, some Spanish women may choose to informally append their husband’s paternal surname with the particle de (of). Marisol Ramón Benítez, from the earlier example, would then be Marisol Ramón Benítez de Álvarez. Used solely for social purposes, the name would have no legal value.
Due to this format, members of a nuclear family cannot have the same last name unless they are siblings. Gender equality laws passed in 1999 enable matrilineal surname transmission to precede patrilineal transmission, such that our imaginary José Enrique Álvarez Ramón might instead be called José Enrique Ramón Álvarez. As the first surname is typically paternal, and children only take the first part of each parent’s surname, the maternal elements are generally lost after one generation. Regardless of which configuration parents choose for their firstborn, each subsequent child must legally bear the same arrangement of last names. Much like the Icelandic convention, Spanish surnames are generational, linking siblings, yet estranging children from a singularly named nuclear family unit.
Before 1925, Icelanders were legally permitted to invent a family name, but that is no longer the case, unless granted by special exception. The Iceland Naming Committee, formed in 1991, upholds rules regarding the names of its citizens. Unlike Spanish citizens, Icelanders cannot have more than three personal names. Moreover, Icelandic names must adhere to the nation’s grammar, and they must contain only letters that exist in the language. The Icelandic alphabet contains thirty-two letters, not including C, Q, W, or Z. Despite the prevalence of Charlottes, Quinns, Walters, and Zacharys in the Western world, the Icelandic Naming Committee would reject said names and would require any immigrants with those names to choose a suitable Icelandic alternative. Iceland itself is referred to as Ísland by its inhabitants, due to the lack of the letter C in the native language, Íslenska.
Language aside, the Icelandic naming format can present unique problems. Families traveling abroad with small children are often scrutinized by customs officers who might not be familiar with families wherein mother, father, sister, and brother could potentially all have different surnames. To avoid this type of confusion within the country, Icelandic phonebooks have to be alphabetized by first name. Naming structures are strict, and occasionally challenging, but the Icelandic language is an important element of national identity amongst Icelanders. Today, with some effort, most Icelanders would be able to read the thirteenth-century Prose Edda drafted in Old Norse by Snorri Sturluson. In contrast, the epic poem Beowulf, composed in Old English sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries, is incomprehensible to most modern English speakers.
The links between Spanish language and names are also strong. In some cases, Spanish surnames offer insight into the geographic history of one’s ancestors. The name Mendoza suggests that centuries ago, the family came from an area by a cold mountain, while those named Morales may have lived by blackberry groves. Occupational names such as Herrera, Molinero, and Romero, suggest that one’s ancestors were ironworkers, millers, and pilgrims, respectively. Descriptive names like Cortés (courteous), Delgado (thin), Moreno (brown hair and skin), and Rubio (blond) are common, as well.
Some of the most common Spanish family names are products of a historic patronymic system similar to the Icelandic model, though perhaps more akin to the Irish O’‐ (descendant of) and Mc‐ or Mac‐ (son of) prefix conventions established between the tenth and twelfth centuries—some of the earliest in Europe. Historically, the Spanish suffix ‐ez meant “son of,” denoting that a man with the surname Rodríguez was the son of a man named Rodrigo, or that a Sánchez was the son of Sancho, a González was the son of Gonzalo, and so on. Like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—and Ireland—Spain eventually converted patronymic names into heritable family names.
Did you know that the first step toward immigrating to Monaco is to open a bank account with a minimum initial deposit between €300,000 and €1 million? With the intention of rubbing shoulders with the rich and the famous at the Monte Carlo Casino, we drove to Monaco one of the nights we were based in Antibes, France. Unfortunately, the traffic was so bad that by the time we arrived, there was only enough time to walk around and take a few pictures.
Tea is enjoyed all over the world as an herbal remedy, a rainy day comfort, or simply a breakfast drink. In many cases, tea is consumed as a way to pass the time with others, but Japan and England in particular have elevated tea to the status of ritual. Also known as the Way of Tea, the Japanese tea ceremony chanoyu is a carefully orchestrated performance focused on the powdered green tea, matcha. Governed by rules regulating preparation, serving, and consumption, chanoyu, literally “hot water for tea,” is far more complex than the misleading translation suggests. Conversely, English High Tea, also known as Afternoon Tea, is a relatively unstructured affair. These traditions are not based on religion, family, or rites of passage; they are cultural constructs built around themes of indulgence, status, and aesthetic.
A visit to France is a fully saturated Technicolor experience. Cityscapes and countryside similarly pulse with the color and light that once inspired the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters. Caught in Paris’s congested nighttime traffic, it was evident why the infamous Avenue des Champs-Élysées is sometimes called the street of diamonds and rubies. Juxtaposed against a black sky, the lanes of gleaming white headlights and scarlet break lights transformed the road into a conduit of glittering jewels.
When I look back on my time in France, I remember each experience as a color on the rainbow spectrum. I passed through the red-light district of Pigalle on my way to the Nouvelle Eve cabaret and vaudeville show in Montmartre. The neon glow emanating from the Moulin Rouge set the stage for a night of garish entertainment. From my seat directly in front of the Nouvelle Eve stage, I had an unimpeded view of bizarre dance routines, where the performers were clothed and then nude for seemingly no reason at all. Midway through the second act, a girl from my group propped her elbows up on the stage, rested her heavy head in her palms, and shouted drunken platitudes. I watched whirling, kicking legs come within inches of her face, as she continued to yell, “Awesome! Yeah!”
Evidently thirsty after dutifully cheering the dancers on, she turned back to the table to grab the champagne bottle nestled in the ice bucket. In her drunken haze, she forgot about the bottle next to her elbow, and accidentally knocked it to the floor. The bottle was half empty anyway, since she’d spilled most of its contents across the table during the previous act. Shocked by the calamitous loss of champagne, she then dropped the full bottle, as well. At first, I was annoyed that I’d paid for spilled alcohol, but I suppose the champagne glass half full perspective is that I paid for one show and inadvertently got two.
In general, France was a series of shifting expectations. When I first saw the Eiffel Tower, the sun was in the process of setting, and I remember being disappointed that we’d arrived so late. The thing is, it doesn’t even matter what time of day you arrive. The tower is gorgeous in any type of lighting, and in fact, it might be most alluring during those twilight hours when the sun is slowly sinking below the horizon. I watched the sky fade from blue to pale orange, and I thought about all the people around me coming from far-flung corners of the planet to see this one landmark. Later that night, I ate escargot for the first and probably last time in my life. Snails, as it turns out, are salty, with a gummy texture. Eating escargot is like chewing on a solidified chunk of seawater. Not bad, per se, but not something I’m clamoring to do again soon.
French roads, however, are fantastic. As I mentioned above, the Champs-Élysées is beautiful, and the roundabout circling the Arc de Triomphe should be classified as an amusement park ride, but it’s the highways I truly remember. Afraid I’d miss out on seeing something amazing, I rarely slept on the bus. We were driving along one particular stretch of road, and I was so focused on what was happening outside my window that I didn’t notice the field ahead. In the middle of nowhere, the grass lining the road abruptly transitioned from green to yellow. Without warning, we had passed through some invisible portal to an alien planet. There were tall, lithe sunflowers as far as the eye could see. Millions of them crowded around each other with their brown, cyclopic eyes staring blankly back at me. Though ordinary moments ago, the field sprung to life with these anthropomorphic flowers, these gangly, rooted strangers. How can anything be so bright, yet so melancholic? It was a surreal experience, made especially dreamlike by the presence of all the sleeping people around me. I wanted to shake the girl beside me, and tell her to look, but I stayed quiet as I marveled at the unexpected visitors.
In 1889, Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to Paul Gauguin, stating, “For if Jeannin can claim the peony, and Quost the hollyhock, then surely I, above all others, can lay claim to the sunflower.” Van Gogh relentlessly attempted to lure Gauguin to Arles, where he thought an artist colony would flourish, but it never worked out the way he wanted. In many ways, Van Gogh is so much like the sunflowers he revered, bright and melancholic. With those sunflowers in mind, I swept through Arles, looking for that famed yellow awning outside Le Café Van Gogh. I think I was hoping to find a connection to the artist, since I missed out on seeing his works at the Musée d’Orsay.
I took a few architecture classes in college, but French architecture baffled me. Every building we studied was a chateau! I could recall the minutest details about unimportant English structures, but every French chateau looked the same to me. So, when they said we were staying in a chateau in the Beaujolais Wine Region, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was like, “Yay, fancy!” On the other hand, it was like finally meeting a nemesis face to face. I was amazed when we pulled up in front of this stately, white manor on the outskirts of Lyon, surrounded by picturesque green rolling hills. I set out on a hike one morning, intent on combing through the parcels of land carved out by row upon row of grapevines. After a while, I realized everything looked the same, and I felt my pulse start to quicken with panic. Completely alone and lost, I stumbled into a ghost town with brightly painted shutters. Seeing no one, I turned and left. Around the next corner, I found a lonely horse standing in a field. He stared at me expectantly, and I felt the crazy, heat stricken side of my brain whinny, “Feed me!” So, of course, I told the horse to wait a moment, and I ran off to fetch him some grapes. I was still lost, but at least I’d made a horsey friend. Eventually, I spotted the resident chateau dog taking a leisurely stroll through the fields, and I followed him back to base camp.
Nice was, without a doubt, my favorite city in France. The electric blue water along the Côte d’Azur more than made up for the pebble beaches. Being from New Jersey, I know a thing or two about going down the shore, and there’s something categorically wrong about a beach without sand. Due to the sharp incline of the rocks, you have to awkwardly climb out of the ocean like a primordial organism, venturing onto land for the first time. The pebbles can be a bit uncomfortable to lay or walk on, so there are cordoned off segments of the beach with umbrellas and chaise lounges, presumably only for the elite? I was amazed by the amount of bronzed, leathery skin I saw, while I tripped my way across the pebbles.
My French adventure started the moment our ferry from Dover, England docked in Calais. On the drive to Paris, we navigated flash flood conditions, so it was only fitting that on the way out of France and into Italy, the sky opened up once more. I experience true awe and terror as I stared out across the violent purple-grey skies. We counted at least four waterspouts along the coast. It was incredible, like a movie scene come to life, as we watched those vortexes raging from sky to sea.
I don’t have as many pictures of France as I’d like because my travel converter died, but somehow that’s ok. I have every intention of returning, and when I do, I’ll take pictures then. To be perfectly honest, I did not expect to love France as much as I did. From the Tuileries outside the Louvre Museum, to the grounds beyond the Palace of Versailles, French gardens are verdant to the point of being magical. Even the food is colorful, from the pastel macarons to the ever-present ruby red tomatoes. Seriously, I’ve never eaten so many tomatoes in my life. In three words: France is beautiful.
Due to my Internet service being the worst, I had to take an impromptu hiatus, but I’m back. I should have an entry on France up tomorrow, and I’ll definitely have a new Cultural Parallels segment up by Tuesday night.
During my blast-from-the-past, analog week, I read a bit of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber, and I ventured into the world of watercolor painting. I used to draw and ink little characters in high school, but I haven’t kept a steady sketchbook since. Instead of the ink bottle and pen nibs I was accustomed to, I used a 0.35 mm pen to put down the lines on this mermaid drawing. Surprisingly, my hands are steadier with the pen nibs? I’m not yet confident enough in my watercolor skills to attempt shading, but with practice I’ll get there. My real question: Should mermaids have bellybuttons?
Modern tattoos are an outlet for self-expression. A symbol of devotion toward a loved one or a hate group, an act of empowerment after a mastectomy, or a drunken mistake, tattoos speak to our sense of individuality. Though historically used to dehumanize Jewish people during the Holocaust, tattoos today are generally viewed as a permanent brand of free will.
In certain civilizations, however, body art functions as a link to one’s culture. Painfully carved into the flesh, the permanence and prominence of Samoan tatau is an enduring nexus between ancient and modern tradition. Tatau are physical manifestations of a person’s mana, their spiritual influence or life force. Similarly, despite their impermanence, Indian mehndi (henna tattoos) are culturally significant. A representation of the sun, mehndi is a Vedic custom meant to evoke the awakening of one’s inner light. Henna body art is an ancient medium known by many names within many cultures. Though commonly attributed to India, the art form has also been practiced throughout the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Despite minor variations in customary style, henna is frequently applied in Morocco, Israel, Turkey, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.
Likewise, while tatau is a Polynesian tradition once practiced in Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, and the Cook Islands, it is now most commonly associated with Samoa alone. The practice declined throughout Polynesia in the 19th century as a result of the emergence of Western missionaries and their Christian beliefs. Tatau was completely eradicated from Tonga and has failed to reemerge, on the basis that the procedure is unsafe and unchristian. The people of the Samoa Islands were unique for their uninterrupted preservation of traditional tatau.
Excruciating, and dangerous for the risk of infection, the continued practice of the traditional tatau process is a testament to the significance of ritual. Some modern Samoans have turned to contemporary Western tattoo machines, though master tattoo artists argue that the resulting tattoos are not authentic. These artists, called tufuga tatatau, are responsible for determining the placement and design of traditional tatau. Samoans believe that patron gods bestow tufuga tatatau with their skills, and as such the artists are revered and well compensated. Tufuga tatatau use handmade tools constructed of animal bones, shells, and wood. Driven by short taps from a mallet called the sausau, the au works like an adze, to carve out patterns in the flesh. The au consists of serrated bone combs affixed to a small turtle shell, with a bamboo hilt.
All tatau are rites of passage, though some are of greater symbolic importance. Covering mid-torso to knees, and meant to represent bat wings enclosing the legs, the pe’a is the most extensive tatau. Men who complete the pe’a are henceforth referred to as soga’imiti, and are commended for their commitment to their extended family and heritage. Historically, this demonstration of courage was required of any man seeking the chief title, matai. While malu encircle women’s thighs, perhaps the most significant tatau for women is the lima. Performed on the hands, lima were necessary for any woman who wished to serve the ceremonial narcotic drink called kava.
Mamanu, or traditional patterns, are overwhelmingly geometric. The placement of a certain shape on the body can alter the design’s meaning. The tufuga tatatau who determine the outcome of the tattoo act as a guide, transitioning the tatau recipient from one stage of their life to the next. Tatau procedures are ceremonial events that can take upwards of three months to complete. Individuals are not tattooed alone; instead two or more people undergo the process at once.
Like traditional tatau, mehndi application is often a group event. Women from every generation of a family gather to adorn their hands and feet before holidays or major life events. One of the most popular applications is the Bridal Mehndi, performed before a wedding. Traditionally performed in the past by members of the Nai caste – an economically and educationally disadvantaged group considered an Other Backward Class by the Indian Government – modern mehndi artistry is a lucrative business for women of any social class.
Unlike tatau, the mehndi application itself can be completed in one session. However, both processes rely on curing, where there is an element of time involved. The tatau may take a year to heal and set properly, while the final color of a mehndi depends on a gradual oxidation over the course of one to three days. After being drawn on the skin from the tip of a cone, the design is washed in a mixture of lemon juice and sugar, and left to set. The henna itself is derived from a thick paste of mashed henna plant leaves. In fact, tatau and mehndi processes are both deeply rooted in nature. As previously mentioned, the tools a tufuga tatatau uses are all organic, and much like the natural henna leaves, tatau ink is a composite of soot from burned candlenut, sugar cane juice, coconut milk, and other plant-based liquids.
Tatau traditions have been passed down through legends, songs, and ritual ceremonies over the past 2,000 years. According to Samoan mythology, two sisters named Taema and Tilafaiga brought the art of tatau to Samoa after a visit to Fiji. Their original tools were made of human bones and their ink was human blood. Though the tatau is old, the henna tradition is perhaps thousands of years older. Hopefully, both traditions will endure long into the future.