I’m going to be upset if my future partner doesn’t appear in my life with glowing skin smoother than a baby’s butt. I’ve been promised as much, and quite frankly, this unrealistic expectation has set me up to fail.
Like many other children in Asia, in early childhood I was frightened into finishing everything on my plate before I could leave the dining table. The elders would spin cautionary tales about the horrors of not having a clean plate. “Each rice grain you leave unfinished on your plate adds an extra pockmark to your future husband’s face,” they would warn, gesturing at my plate. My mum would then expand on this superstitious belief, citing my father’s bright, smooth skin as a result of her ‘toil’ at the dinner table, polishing everything off her plate when she was younger. In a bid to ensure my hypothetical life partner would be blessed with flawless skin, I finished all the food on my plate at mealtimes for decades. It seemed like a small price to pay to ensure I’d find an attractive spouse.
Looking back, I’m certain it was merely a ruse passed down from generations of mothers, a successful trick to ensure children finished their share of food at mealtimes, avoiding food wastage.
Society today is permeated by such superstitions, which people allow to affect their decisions. Superstitions are belief-guiding practices for which there appear to be no rational substances. It is common for people to hold irrational beliefs regarding practices to fend off evil or bring good fortune, even when there is no science to justify them.
Nicole Low, 22, considers herself a victim of such superstition. Growing up in a highly superstitious Chinese household, her formative years were filled with ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’. She dreads the seventh month of the lunar calendar, often known as the Ghost Month in Buddhist cultures, where souls of the dead are believed to roam the earth. This period usually spans from August to September in western calendars, and sees living relatives make offerings of food on roadsides and burn money or offerings in the form of paper cars and houses, in order to appease deceased family members’ souls and ensure they have sufficient resources to tend to their material needs in the afterlife. Many Buddhists and Taoists believe that by satisfying the ghosts’ appetite for material goods, the ghosts can cross over to the afterlife peacefully, rather than being forced to stay and haunt the living.
While the seventh lunar month marks relief for many people, it has the opposite effect on Nicole. Many superstitious practices ingrained in her since she was a child make her extremely uneasy during this period. During the day, she is afraid of accidentally stepping on offerings left by other people on roadsides and footpaths, in case she offends the spirit whose food just got stomped on. Nighttime brings along even more superstitions. Staying out late is to be avoided at all costs, as in Chinese folklore, nighttime is when roaming ghosts are at their strongest. When walking alone after the sun sets during that month, Nicole won’t ever turn back if someone calls her name, in case it is a hostile ghost that may possess her or cause her harm in the form of illnesses. As spirits are drawn towards sound, any humming, singing, or whistling is prohibited during the seventh month, so as not to bring home any unwanted visitors.
Nicole finds herself bound by many superstitions, even outside of the seventh lunar month. She will never open an umbrella indoors, lest her mum fly into a panicked frenzy: some Chinese traditions say that dark spirits hide inside umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun, and when an umbrella is opened indoors, these evil spirits will be unleashed into your house to cause havoc. Even when she is far from home, Nicole observes some superstitions religiously. She always knocks before entering a hotel room. She refuses to leave her shoes neatly facing her in the hotel room – she was taught that if her pair of shoes were put neatly together, spirits could easily put on her shoes and follow her wherever she went. However, if the shoes were placed separately and messily, the spirit may not be able to find both shoes and wear them to stalk her.
While Nicole finds it hard to untangle herself from the complications of superstitions due to her upbringing, she is beginning to question their logic, and feels she would not want to pass on her superstitions to her future partner and children. Nicole told me she would want her close ones to be free of binding superstitions that spark paranoia, such as the prohibition from cutting one’s nails at night. As for the rule against taking pictures of someone as they sleep – which, according to superstition, is because a person’s spirit exits their body when they are sleeping, and taking a photo may capture that spirit and trap it, not allowing it to return – Nicole thinks someone made up this tale to deter people from taking photos of others sleeping, because it is rude and non-consensual.
Still, Nicole admits that some superstitions are harder to shake off. For example, she finds herself following the common practice of touching wood to dispel bad luck. It is a ritual inherited from Europe’s pagan days, where people believed in the existence of protective tree-dwelling spirits who could ward off bad luck, commonly found on certain trees such as oak and willow. While there is no evidence to support this belief, and the act of knocking on wood seems trivial and unrelated, Nicole and her family feel it helps them cope with their fears of something bad happening, and they feel it prevents them from ‘jinxing’ themselves.
Anxiety and agency
Many people engage in superstitious behaviours to provide a sense of control, and to reduce anxiety. Engaging in superstition can create a sense of predictability in an otherwise chaotic environment, and the association of a practice with an outcome may can take root and be passed down in cultures and stories from generations before them. In times gone by, our ancestors lacked the technology and knowledge to make sense of the forces in the natural world and the things that threatened their survival – it’s thought that superstitions evolved to create the illusion of control when faced in situations where there was a lack of security or increased threats. Even if one may not believe in some of the disasters associated with superstitions, it may make more practical sense to err on the safe side of the situation than to challenge it openly and risk suffering the consequences.
This is especially so when it does not cost much to follow superstitions. My parents believe in following superstitions to avoid tempting fate, as long as it does not demand too much. My father subscribes to Feng Shui beliefs, otherwise known as Chinese geomancy, for peace of mind. It is a pseudoscientific traditional practice originating from ancient China, involving energy forces and creating a balance between individuals and their surroundings. The principles and physical artefacts supposedly help to endow one with the optimal position to gain wealth and maintain safety.
We have bamboo flutes with red tassels hung in each room above all our doors and on our exposed ceiling beam, to ward off bad auras and bring peace and safety to those who reside within. Two statues of Pixiu, a mythical God-like beast in Chinese mythology embodied with a dragon’s head, horse’s body and lion’s limbs, guard our main door. These are believed to attract wealth and luck, but are also known for their ability to protect their masters from danger. These physical artefacts are widely available for purchase online and are affordable to most households.
Even though my father insists on having these artefacts in the house in specific locations, he couldn’t tell me what benefit each artefact brought us. To him, their existence provides reassurance that our family’s wellbeing is being cared for, and that we have done what is within our means to protect ourselves from harm whilst bringing good fortune. Similar to cultural myths, Feng Shui’s effects as a mystical superstition cannot be substantiated by research findings, they rely solely on faith.
Although the notion of superstition encompasses a wide range of behaviours and beliefs, there is usually one common underlying trait – the mistaken establishment of cause and effect between concurrent events even though they may be unrelated. This is known as adventitious reinforcement, where a person fears a bad outcome will come because of a specific action they undertook, even when the two are entirely unlinked. While following superstitious traditions aim to provide humanity with more control, that control is merely the perception of control. The irony is that many superstitions assume that there are supernatural or mystical forces shaping life’s events (beyond people’s control) that people should avoid going against. But then again, how many would willingly risk tempting fate to teach them a lesson by opening their umbrellas indoors and releasing a pandora’s box equivalent of outer-dimension beings into their homes?
There is value in re-evaluating superstitions from a logical standpoint. Generally, superstition stems from an involvement of individual beliefs and experiences revolving around the unexplainable supernatural force. This explains why they are often irrational and may defy scientific wisdom today. We can, however, distinguish between superstitions that were spun with a tale to frighten people into following certain behaviour, and that are entirely unrelated. The superstition about opening an umbrella indoors can be unpacked rationally – the umbrella could damage fragile items at home if not carefully opened, or it could poke someone in the face, or simply splash dirty rainwater into the living area. What appeared as a seemingly scary superstitious prospect becomes something with tangible effects on our world that can be measured and understood with greater ease and finally accepted. However, people should re-examine their approach, and give their warnings with logic, rather than dramatize them unnecessarily through superstitious tales that people will grow to question in the future.
What does that mean in this day and age? While there is no harm in wearing ‘lucky’ red underwear during Chinese New Year if it makes you feel better about your prospects of winning at the gambling table, you will likely fare better by placing more faith in your own conviction and thought.