Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Old Wives Tales

Perhaps being in another culture than my own has shown me now, more than ever, how much we all hold to old wives tales.  Unless you come from a strictly scientific household, chances are that you, like me,  have grown up hearing old wives tales.  The sad thing is that many of them we take for truth, even though there may be no scientific proof for them.

I grew up in a family that wasn't highly educated.  Because of World Ward 2, and because of financial problems, none of my recent ancestors had graduated from college.  I do think that education helps to dispel many myths and old wives tales.  When we hold fast to these traditional myths, I think we actually come across as being uneducated.

I remember when I was growing up that one of my cousins often had an itchy back.  My aunts, mother, and grandmother all said that it was caused from eating too much sugar.  I grew up thinking that if my back itched, I must have eaten too many sweets.  Now as an adult, I recognize that her itchy back could have been caused from the perfumes and strong chemicals in the laundry soap they used.  But even today, my mother blames most physical and emotional problems on a high sugar intake.

Here is one for you to consider:  I have heard all my life that you should wash your dishes in hot water.  But I once heard that in order to actually kill the germs, the water would have to be so hot that you wouldn't be able to put your hands in the sink to wash.  Many people in Asia do not wash their dishes in hot water.  Is this another American myth?

Here in China I have found many old wives tales.  My cleaning lady told me that if you don't keep your joints warm during the winter, then you will have achy joints.  Perhaps she noticed me groaning and creaking each time I get up from a chair.  It does sound plausible that cold weather does affect the joints.  But that doesn't explain why I had the same problems during the heat of the summer.

The Chinese also believe that showing any skin during the winter will cause you to get diarrhea.  My friend often has people stop her on the street to tell her that her little girl's ankles are showing below her pants.  They can't help but reach over and try to pull down her pants legs.  Yet most Chinese use open bottomed pants in potty training their children.  So in the cold of winter, their children's entire genital area is exposed to freezing weather.  Which is more likely to cause a problem, bare ankles, or bare bottoms?

They seem convinced that it is the cold that makes people sick, but don't really have the practice of using cleaning agents in the kitchen and bathroom to help kill germs.  I often see people sneezing or coughing without covering their mouth and nose.  People randomly spit on the ground where other people walk.  Children are allowed to urinate and defecate outside, wherever is convenient.  It seems to me that these practices are far more likely to spread illness than showing a little bit of ankle in the winter.  And so China continues to pass on old wives tales too.

I once read about a study that was done that had some college age men and women stand outside during winter, wearing only their underwear.  The study showed that they weren't any more likely to catch cold than people who didn't stand outside scantily clothed.  No, I don't believe you can "catch your death" of cold from being outside when it's cold, but perhaps being cold lowers your immunities at times. Or perhaps this wives tale started because someone who was already getting sick went outside when it was cold and exacerbated their symptoms.

There may be some experience linked with some old wives tales.  Check out this link of 8 old wives tales that seem to have some truth in them.  Maybe some of these traditions are "tried and true".  But frankly, I won't be following any traditions that don't seem to have some scientific data to back them up.  I won't be urging people to eat a certain pizza to help them go in to labor.  I won't be urging parents to put some sort of good luck charm in their children's rooms.  If it doesn't seem logical, I won't be passing it on.

What about you?  What old wives tales did you learn while growing up?  I would be interested to hear.


Vid said...

The tale about getting a cold from cold weather comes from the fact that in the winter, people are more likely to be inside, closer to each other. This allows germs to spread more easily and more colds to occur.

I was always told that sugar makes people hyper, but Wikipedia says that isn't true.

Liz said...

I had a roommate from Star Valley, Wyoming (a very cold and snowy place) who would wash her hair and then take hr horse for a gallop through the snow covered fields. Her hair would freeze dry but she never caught a cold.

Grannymar said...

Irish old wives tales:

•If a chair falls when a person stands up, it is an unlucky omen.
•If your ears are burning, someone is gossiping about you.
•If your nose is itchy, you will have a fight with someone.
•If you stumble at a grave it is considered very bad luck.
•If you break a mirror, you can expect seven years of bad luck.
•If you spill salt, you must throw some over your left shoulder to stave off bad luck.
•The seventh son of a seventh son has the power over all diseases and can cure them by laying hands.

The following is fact:

Both my parents had the same surname, but different spellings, so bread made by my mother had a cure for whooping cough. This cure only worked if we her children handed the bread to the person with the whoop.

Delirious said...

@Vid: I agree with wikipedia. I never found that sugar made my kids any more hyper than usual. What did seem to have an effect on them was whether or not they were tired. For some reason, when they were tired they would get more hyper, and then crash and fall asleep.

@grannymar The story about the "whooping cough bread" seems like what they refer to as "Magical thinking". It is highly likely that those given the bread would have gotten better with or without it. But sometimes about our natures wants us to believe that it is true. :)

Nene said...

Mom used to tell me that if I had a canker sore on my tongue (only she called it a lyeboil) then I must have peed in the road. I thought that was about the stupidest old wives tale I'd ever heard.

Looney said...

The biggest challenge for an American marrying into a Chinese family is dealing with all the superstitions! More education means more income to indulge the various medicinal theories. And what could be better to experiment on then a foreign son-in-law?