It’s my culture and I’ll believe the WeChat text thread if I want to
Nancy Guo (she/her), Sophie Sun (they/them), Arela Jiang (he/him)
Remember that Kiwi-classic superstition that we used to sing on the way to and from school about breaking our mother’s back? Yeah, I never really got that. 5-year-old me thought it’d be preposterous that stepping on a crack would affect someone more than 9000km away. However, if you fast-forwarded through the adorkable primary years of my life, you’d come to meet a totally different version of me. My dad was practising a specific branch of Buddhism, I was growing up in a Methodist community, and I was being indoctrinated into a duotheistic Dark Wiccan cult (story for another time). I was like the Pitbull of religion and culture.
Safe to say, a few of these cultural and environmental quirks became part of my everyday life. Now that I’m an agnostic theist in tertiary education, I didn’t realise how many of these cultural superstitions I carried with me, or just how kooky my family is. It extends further than avoiding the number four and frothing everything to do with the number eight. Additionally, I’m rolling oranges over my front door every new year to bring in wealth; I avoid eating fruit at night because it’ll make me ugly, and I’m stocking up on red underwear to wear for my 本命年 (the birth sign year). Noodles, dumplings, rice cakes, fish, and duck are must haves on my New Years dinner table while chicken, white food, and multiples of four are strictly forbidden. The fridge is always packed for days after to make sure the stove gods get their yearly holiday and there is no way I’m washing away the luck imbued in my clothes, hair, or sheets. Everytime someone turns an age ending with 3, 6, or 9, we have to cut up a piece of meat (representative of their physical flesh) behind our front door to dispel malevolent spirits that may have attached themselves. Not to mention gift-giving rules! I’d adore if someone gifted me Jeffrey Campbell loafers but it would also symbolise the end of that friendship.
I know there is no basis for any of these weird rituals, but as an immigrant, they bring me indescribable comfort. They act as cultural quirks which my ancestors passed down by word of mouth. Sure, I drag my flatmates into annual orange rolling and yeah, I traumatised my ex’s perception of the number four, but these silly and specific acts open up a safe space for conversation about culture and connectivity.
My favourite way to entertain my white friends during school lunchtimes was vividly and dramatically recounting the kooky antics of my Chinese family. It was kinda like a show-and-tell where I exposed my quirky parents’ superstitions, while simultaneously also making my non-POC pals a little more cultured and wOkE. Evidently, my 12-year-old self definitely needed to work through that glaring internalised racism. But in all fairness, superstitions, regardless of what culture they stem from, are pretty whacky. And that’s precisely why they’re so interesting and lovable!
Chinese New Year is hands down the best time of year. You get your aunt’s peak cooking, coin from your relatives—which always mysteriously disappears after your parents promise to “look after” it for you—and to participate in fun superstitions! In my family we make sure to eat a type of sticky rice cake called nian gao to bring in prosperity, as the name is a homonym for “higher year”. Like every other basic Chinese family, we also eat fish because its name is a homonym for abundance. After handing out so many damn red pockets to our snotty younger cousins, we HAD to go hundies on the steamed flounder to make sure we made bank during the new year.
When it wasn’t the new year, growing up with a hypochondriac mum meant that I also subscribed to WeChat health discourse. This included ideas like going to bed with wet hair will give you a cold and eating cold foods during menstruation will freeze your eggs, thus leading to infertility. For the purposes of balanced journalism I did ask my mum what the science behind these ideas were, to which I received an unsolicited lengthy, angry, but also vague lecture on how I’m being brainwashed by Western medicine (a very valid point I gotta say). While these notions are legitimately rooted in Chinese traditional medicine, her lacklustre attempts to explain these ideas shows how sensationalised and unquestioned health discourse is on WeChat.
To be fair, this is coming from the same woman who purposely picks out carrots at the supermarket that look like those screaming mandrakes from Harry Potter because she believes they’re less likely to be GMO than the nice looking ones in the same pile. Unsurprisingly, we have the all-mighty WeChat to thank for this handy health tip! WeChat 万岁！
Growing up in Hawkes Bay with a very small Chinese community meant I didn’t have much interaction with the Chinese world. I’m a sceptic by nature and there weren’t many superstitions impressed on me, and so the ones I do hold on to I’ve kept close. I can’t let them go even when the science tells me otherwise.
When I was younger, the idea of ghosts freaked me out. And being told that if I put my slippers pointing towards my bed was an invitation for ghosts to join me did not help. Why ghosts would want to get into my tiny single with the bedsheets I haven’t washed in months is beyond me, but I still can’t shake the idea they’ll try something. My slippers will point away from the bed, thank you.
Leaving grains of rice in the bowl is another one I can’t stop. Each grain of leftover rice would predict how much acne I’d get. It was such a death sentence for self-conscious teenage me that I made sure my bowl was CLEAN (no crumbs, girl). Obviously, that one’s complete bullshit; my mum was definitely just trying to stop me from being a wasteful brat. Even now though whenever my skin is acting up, I’m convinced it’s because I forgot a fuck ton of fried rice in a old bowl in my room. Old habits die hard.
And sticking your chopsticks straight up in your food will kill you. Strike me down, ancestors, you won’t (please don’t). Chopsticks sticking straight up are like a grave marker. What you’re doing is offering the food up to the dead. When you eat, you’re taking that food back—that’s rude bro. The dead won’t forget. They’ll curse you, so when you die offerings won’t be made to you. So sure, it’s convenient to stick them in your rice whenever you’re carrying something, but getting cursed is a major hassle. No way am I taking that risk! I’m sceptical that ghosts exist but if chopsticks are upright in that bowl, I’m a believer.
I don’t believe in superstitions half the time. But I don’t dare fuck around with them, even if they’re just silly things I do to cling to my culture. Who cares if they make sense or not?