Parental warnings can vary with the territory

Ken Jennings / Slate /

Published Jan 24, 2013 at 04:00AM

“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 book “Because I Said So!,” which fact-checks 125 parental clichés: don’t sit so close to the TV, don’t swim right after you eat, and so on. During the commercial break, the producer asked me about this 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 a Slavic thing. I wasn’t surprised to find out that her mom had been raised outside the U.S. In writing the book, I’d learned very quickly that these bits of folklore tend to be extremely culture-specific.

In China, for example, it’s believed that sitting on a seat 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. 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.

In South Korea, however, the concern about ventilation is 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 grew up in Seoul, and everyone took the Great Fan Menace for granted. An apartment of Americans I knew teased their lone Korean roommate by going to bed one night in an enclosed room with six electric fans on. He pleaded with them not to throw their lives away and slept in the hall. When all three survived, the roommate was still not convinced.

Obviously, he said, they had cracked a window as soon as he was out of the room.