Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chinese Superstitions

Chinese Superstitions

I heard an unlucky story the other day. A young man is getting married this weekend. While driving into town to attend the wedding, the future mother-in-law was killed in a car accident. "Are they Chinese?" was my first thought. "No," my husband said knowingly. "Still, every year on their anniversary it'll be marked with tragedy." "They're still getting married, the honeymoon's on, it's been paid in advance, but the reception is off," he quickly recounts. I nod in quiet sympathy. "If they were Chinese...," my voice trails off. "Yeah," my husband commiserates.

It's horrible when misfortune eclipses any auspicious occasion. But, why do I relate it as a Greek tragedy when they're Chinese? Rewind roughly 30 years, I recall our own wedding. All necessary arrangements were made, then his father passed away just before the big occasion. Everything had to be cancelled regardless of cost. No way could a Chinese wedding proceed with death in the wake -- it was unlucky!

So, how does one determine when the right time is to get married? Well, we winged the initial protocol and went with what we surmised was right. Gut instinct was all we had! What references were there back in the 1970's? Soon after my parents blessed the union, my mother immediately went to Chinatown to consult a soothsayer and his magic almanac. (For more detailed information on the Chinese almanac, read here and on Chinese calendar facts, read here.) To be perfectly honest, I think she was so joyful that I was finally getting married that she was busting at the seams to tell just about anybody and everybody; and Chinatown was where she went, beaming with the biggest smile!



Traditional Chinese Almanac for 2005

But, this was different. This was not your run-of-the-mill "when do we get married" question. This was "the" BIG one which could determine the fate of the remainder of OUR LIVES TOGETHER! (Alright...just being a little dramatic.)

My future husband's sister-in-law provided the answer, and we considered her the ULTIMATE authority, even more so than my own mother! Even though she was younger, and therefore normally considered lower in the hierarchy in the Chinese pecking order of the whole communal microcosm of all that is good and holy, she was the expert. Why, you might ask? Good question! Because of everyone we knew, she is the most old-fashioned and superstitious, and carries with her all the traditions of the old world in her back pocket. Looking at her, you would not know this. She is modern-looking, stylish, friendly, outgoing, and owns and manages her own restaurant since she was a young mom. She is the perfect blend of old and new world.

"One hundred days," sister-in-law says authoritatively! "A hundred days?" future husband asks. "Six months at most," she replies. "He's been in a nursing home for a long time, it wasn't unexpected, it wasn't something tragic," she quickly rattles off a litany of plausible explanations. "Are you sure?" I ask future husband as he returns with the holy grail. "Maybe we should wait a year, maybe two," I offer.

Well, sister-in-law's word was sacred. As I said, she is the ultimate authority. Even my mother deferred to her when we asked. Afterwards, my mother went back to Chinatown to check with the soothsayer and the Chinese almanac and found another auspicious date after the 100-day waiting period. So far, we've been married for 26 years and no disasters have befallen us. I guess the Chinese almanac works. It makes me wonder how do Americans survive without this stuff!



Door God, General Qin Qiong, Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD)

I recall the superstitions my mother cast upon me as I was growing up. They'd be strewn about randomly and I'd never know when I was gonna get hit with a doozy! "Don't wash your hair on New Year's Day," she'd warn! Hey, when I was a little kid, no problem...I wasn't gonna do it anyway. I could sleep in mud and I'd be perfectly content. But, when I was a teenager, I'd washed my hair everyday. "Don't wash your hair...New Year's," she'd remind me. I'd roll my eyes and steal a look at my sister who would just smirk. When she left the house, I would take a shower and wash my hair, sometimes twice. We must have been the talk of the neighborhood. "OMG...those crazy Chinese kids washin' their hair -- on New Years!" "Aiiyahh, crazy ABC's!" That pretty much was the bottom line for many faux pas requiring no further explanation to any knowing elder Chinese. Jooksen, ABC, oh (nodding knowingly)...'nuff said. I'd wait a whole year to see if any retribution from the hair-washing police would rain down. Nothing happened.


Door God, General Yuchi Gong, Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD)

I must admit there are some things I just didn't do just out of good manners. Like, don't drop your chopsticks on New Year's Day (or any day for that matter). But holding your chopsticks far at the end (rather than close to the tips), that means you'll get married later in life. I never bought into that one. Another New Year's Day faux pais - sweeping or dusting is a big no-no. Couple these ancient Chinese superstitions, with good old American superstitions, it's no wonder that I was nearly crippled with anxiety as a young adult not knowing what was proper protocol. I was so neurotic trying to sort out all the hurly burly and rigmarole. It was just all too confusing.



Here's a funny look at a new mom's perspective
(half-English BBC journalist woman married to a Chinese man)
on newborns and Chinese superstitions.)



For a little fun, you may want to try this
little quiz to test your Chinese culture acumen.




Feng Shui Bagua

There's just no escaping Chinese superstitions. Even more so now that it's leaking into American culture and being popularized by the beauty of Feng Shui. And when it comes to gambling, how do you keep your cool when you are haunted by the bad number fairy ... how does one keep it all together? It's no wonder Chinese people go nuts! It's ingrained in all aspects of their life, even down to their jade jewelry. And now Falun Gong is mysteriously blamed as an "evil cult" for spreading superstition to deceive people.



Bridge to my parent's past through their stories

But, mother held on to her funny superstitions, regardless of the science you tried to bring into the discussion. That was part of her charm. The strength in her old world beliefs, her childhood stories, her rich culture were what made her uniquely her. She refused to leave those behind in China when she made it to America. I'm glad she didn't.


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