My mother wears a jade bracelet. She believes it will keep her safe. She once heard of a woman who tumbled down the stairs. Her bracelet cracked in half, but she was uninjured. The bangle took the fall for her.
Steven, my brother, likes to pay the toll for the car behind him when he goes to the San Francisco airport. The gesture ensures him a trouble-free flight, he says. Three dollars is a small price to pay, he tells me, for an extra dose of luck.
My mother’s superstition is an old Chinese one; my brother’s is American. What distinguishes them?
When my siblings and I were young, my mother made us move a street-cleaning sign that the city had installed in the dirt patch in front of our house. My mother did not like its placement there. She understood why the sign was necessary—the street had to be cleared of cars so it could be cleaned at night. But she objected to its placement near our front door. So she handed us shovels, instructing us to dig out the steel post and move it three feet. There, it would face the alley between our house and our neighbor’s house.
We didn’t know then why she was adamant about repositioning that pole; we simply did what we were told. Years later, we discovered her reasons.
My mother thought the post, located where it had been, would divert creative energy away from our house, preventing luck and wealth from entering. She tried to explain feng shui to the workmen, but they wouldn’t listen. She wanted to ensure happiness in our home; she wouldn’t let a steel post get in the way of that. Her Chinese beliefs would take precedence over decisions made by the public works department.
Over time, my siblings and I were introduced to other laws of luck. We prepared for Chinese New Year, an occasion steeped in symbolism and tradition, a celebration rooted in superstitions that dictated everything from the foods we ate to the ways we cleaned house.
On New Year’s Eve, like other Chinese, we enjoyed numerous pork, poultry, seafood, and vegetable dishes, much more than we could ever finish in one sitting. If we had plenty left over, we said, we would not go hungry in the new year.
Our menu included foods we believed were particularly blessed. We had chicken because of the popular Chinese phrase “Eat chicken, good world.” We had fish because the word for fish sounded like the word for abundance. We ate ho see, or oysters, because their name sounded like the words for good news. We ate lettuce because the words for lettuce, sang choy, sounded like the ones for birth and fortune.
Like other Chinese, we wore new outfits and settled debts at the new year. We visited friends and relatives. We gave and got tangerines and oranges with their leaves intact. We gave and got candies and cookies and crisp dollar bills in bright red envelopes. We did all this for luck.
One New Year’s Eve, my mother asked me to sweep the front stoop before dinner. The task would be easy, I thought, until I forgot what she had said about motion and spirits. What were her instructions again? Should I sweep inward or outward? If I swept toward the house, would I sweep in bad luck? If I swept away from the house, would I sweep out good luck?
If something wonderful happened to my family in the new year, would it be a result of my cleaning skills? If something horrible happened, would it be entirely my fault? Did our collective fate depend on me and my broom? It seemed too great a responsibility to put in the hands of a twelve-year-old. Two decades later, I would still not know the proper way to sweep.
Folklorists and academics often try to define superstition. They conduct surveys on habit and personality. They devise pie charts, sketch bar graphs, and calculate percentages. They want to know if superstitious people are illogical or practical, illiterate or educated. They toss around phrases like “emotional bias,” “denial and delusion.” They want to explain faith, to delineate convention and establish motivation. They ask questions to which we do not have answers.
As we grew older, my siblings and I integrated the superstitions we learned in school with the ones we learned at home.
We were conditioned like most Americans to pick up pennies for luck. But we were also taught like many Chinese Americans to disdain nickels. It was rude to give somebody a nickel; it was ominous to get one. We were told never to pick up a nickel from the ground, although technically it was worth five pennies. Nickels, our mother said, were the coins we tossed in people’s graves when they died. They were associated with loss and sorrow.
We were taught not to give clocks—a reminder that time was running out—or knives or scissors, anything that could cut away luck, as birthday or wedding gifts.
We were instructed not to wash our hair on holidays for fear that we would wash away good tidings. We were scolded at the table for playing with our chopsticks and reprimanded for using the wrong words. At the conclusion of a meal, we were told to say we were “full,” not “finished.” People were “finished” eating, our mother said, when they were dead.
We were taught like most Americans to avoid the number 13. But we were also conditioned as Chinese Americans to avoid the number 4. Its pronunciation sounded like the word for death. We appreciated the lucky number 7. But we were also taught to value 8 and 9. The pronunciation for 8 rhymed with the word for fortune; the one for 9 sounded like the word for posterity.
Checking into a hotel in Los Angeles one summer, my brother Eric and I spent more than fifteen minutes trying to secure a room on the seventh, eighth, or ninth floor. When the woman behind the counter told us the only rooms available were on the fourth floor, we gasped.
My brother and I needed a place to stay. We had made our reservation—and paid for it—online. We did not want to walk away. Could we ignore superstition for once?
When she offered us Room 432, we did some quick math. We added 4, 3, and 2 to get 9. Nine: posterity. That could work, we thought, relieved. We convinced ourselves that a room on the fourth floor might not be so bad after all. We talked ourselves into taking it.
We realized we could shift and shape our beliefs to fit our needs in particular situations. Since superstitions were irrational by definition, we could mix and match them as we pleased. Some were cultural, others personal. Since the lines were often blurred, we could combine one thing with another and another. When pressed, we could adapt.
Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, Calif. She welcomes comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.