“Is it really true that if you clip your fingernails while your relatives are flying somewhere,” the radio producer asked, “their plane will crash?” I was being interviewed about my new book, Because I Said So!, which fact-checks 125 classic parental clichés: breakfast is the most important meal of the day, don’t sit so close to the TV, don’t swim right after you eat. You get the idea. During the commercial break, a producer asked me about this particular bit of wisdom, passed along by her mom.
I took a long look at her; she seemed to be in dead earnest. “Where does your mom, uh, happen to be from?” I asked as innocently as I could.
“She grew up in Russia.”
I told her I’d never heard that one before—maybe it was more of a Slavic thing. I wasn’t surprised at all to find out that Mom, in this case, had been raised outside the United States. In writing the book, I’d spent the past two years soliciting parental nags from friends, acquaintances, and Internet strangers, and I’d learned very quickly that these bits of folklore tend to be extremely culture-specific. A classic Mexican momism might bear no more resemblance to a Scandinavian one than huevos rancheros do to lutefisk.
In China, for example, it’s widely believed that sitting on a seat recently warmed by someone else’s behind can give you hemorrhoids. The Brits, on the other hand, attribute hemorrhoids to sitting on cold surfaces. But sitting on that same cold concrete would lead to a different lecture from a Ukrainian mom: She’d be sure it would make you sterile.
Some Peruvians are told that lingering too long in front of the fridge can cause cancer. In the Czech Republic, everyone knows that drinking water after eating fruit leads to painful bloating. Filipino kids can’t wear red when it’s stormy out, since that would attract lightning. Germans and Austrians live in mortal fear of drafts, which get blamed for everything from pneumonia to blocked arteries, so summertime commuters routinely swelter on 90-degree trains and buses rather than cracking a window through which a cooling—but lethal!—breeze might pass.
In South Korea, however, the concern about ventilation is exactly the opposite. Koreans will only use electric fans if a window is cracked, because leaving a fan on in an enclosed room, it’s almost universally believed, can be fatal. The mechanism behind the threat is a little vague: Sometimes it’s said to be a lack of oxygen that kills you, sometimes it’s a chill. But either way, you won’t care. You’ll be dead.
I actually grew up as a child in Seoul, South Korea, and fans were no laughing matter. Everyone took the Great Fan Menace for granted and had a hard time believing that other cultures were ignorant of it. An apartment of Americans I knew teased their lone Korean roommate by going to bed one summer night in an enclosed room with six electric fans turned on. He pleaded with them not to throw their lives away and slept in the hallway. When, in the morning, all three had survived the ordeal, the Korean roommate was still not convinced. Obviously, he said, they had been playing a practical joke on him and had cracked a window as soon as he was out of the room.