Looks aren’t everything—unless you live in Brazil or South Korea. Appearance-wise, the two nations’ citizens are polar opposites, yet both populations strive for a similar physical archetype. South Koreans undergo elective surgery to diverge from perceived Asian homogeneity and attain elements of Western beauty. Conversely, as a result of Brazil’s long, painful history of slavery, the country has an extremely diverse population. Between 1501 and 1866, an estimated 4.9 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa, which is a staggering 40 percent of the total slaves brought to the Americas. Despite this diversity, many Brazilians are determined to look white, regardless of how many procedures they might have to endure. Appearance and wealth are closely linked in Brazil and South Korea, and for many, cosmetic surgery is a small hurdle to jump in the race toward prosperity.
From propaganda to protest, music has always been an important element of war. In our darkest hours, music has the ability to remind us of our humanity. Military drummers once charged into battle, unarmed, to rally troops, demoralize the enemy, and send messages with their instruments. Throughout history, soldiers have sung ballads to remember the fallen and boost morale. And yet, while music is an effective tool in the promotion of military unity, it has also been used to segregate female soldiers in Israel and Russia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Various cultures throughout the world believe that the human body is an ephemeral vessel for the soul. Among the North American Hopi and African Yoruba there exists a conviction that spirits can also endure within the confines of small wooden effigies, respectively called Katsina dolls and Ere Ibeji. The Hopi Tribe, a sovereign nation located in northeastern Arizona, spans 1.5 million acres and comprises twelve villages across three mesas. The Yoruba primarily occupy the city of Lagos, situated in southwestern Nigeria, though they have also migrated to cities in neighboring countries.
Clostridium botulinum—or more specifically, the botulism toxin it produces—will kill you. Botulism triggers paralysis; first arresting your extremities, before seizing your respiratory system and effectively asphyxiating you. I took Food Science 101 in college under the false assumption that it would be easy. Each lesson was like watching Investigation Discovery, only the killers weren’t Wives with Knives or Evil Twins, they were listeria, E. coli, and salmonella. For most people, food safety concern begins and ends with a cursory glance at a use-by date. Water treatment has washed cholera from our minds.
Far from being afraid, modern society is obsessed with food. Instagram hosts hundreds of thousands of in memoriam photos of dinners gone too soon. I’m pretty sure Yelp exists solely as weapon of emotional blackmail over restaurateurs. Food is shared among our social media plates, but it’s also consumed on TV. Between Food Network, Cooking Channel, daily Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares marathons on BBC America, The Taste, and every other MSG-fueled grab for our attention, we should be full. Somehow there’s room for more. Travel Channel, despite seemingly devoting itself to the subject of travel, has devolved into a veritable smörgåsbord of food programming.