Tuesday, September 14, 2010

around academia and especially where different cultures come together, it is common to discuss "superstitions" and how different people do a variety of things for no better reason than to get good luck, avoid bad luck, or follow a silly custom that has come down through the ages. it is generally accepted that the college-educated crowd doesn't believe in these things, but i, being a rebel, not only started believing them but also picking them up when i went abroad. if people told me you shouldn't write names in red, in korea, then i stopped writing names in red, not only in korea, but also when i returned home where the superstition isn't shared. as we teach the standard ones- not walking under a ladder, the black cat, thirteenth floor, etc., i find myself wondering if anyone actually practices these, or if visitors, upon noticing our habits, would pick any of them up, just in order to do as the locals do.

some of them are more just cultural habits than superstitions, but in practice, they are similar. for example a colleague told me that in turkey you do not walk out in the street with wet hair, or people will judge you poorly; as a result, i no longer want to walk around with my hair wet, especially after i swim. the knowledge that this sets off bad thoughts in people's minds is somewhat like using your left hand to hand someone a paper, after you learn how difficult it is for some people of other cultures to receive that without making assumptions about your motive. you begin to realize that life is fraught with opportunities to be paranoid about what other people are thinking about you, and there's no way you can avoid slipping and doing something that will offend someone of another culture, who might be in your midst.

but i finally realized why i tend to honor the true superstitions that i find out there, such as the prohibition against putting your name in red. a good superstition is really no more than a symbol of respect, a token gesture pointed at the spirit world of which we know absolutely nothing. activities that you do to ward off bad luck rarely take you more than a minute or two (consider walking around the ladder) but make you feel that, by some small gesture, you have shown respect to an important force that really, you don't understand at all. and that's why, when you learn one from abroad, it's all the more important to be respectful. there are legions of korean spirits, for example, and, since i have just become acquainted with them, it's all the more important that i should show them respect. the same old ones that i have been living with for decades, however - they know me; they'll forgive me if i slip up once in a while.

in a way, it's the cultural majority's overwhelming insistence that we call these "superstitions" that i object to the most: if i go around a ladder, am i some kind of dumb or what? this is enough to make me actually look for a ladder to go around, because i hate when people make judgments like that. another problem occurs when you open a door for someone and they get mad at you, as if you thought they couldn't open the door for themselves. this hasn't happened to me for a long time, but i've always felt like, it had nothing to do with whether i thought someone couldn't open a door. it's more like, if a couple of steps out of your way could help you show respect for someone, why not do it? it's a symbolic gesture, but it doesn't imply that someone is a king, or queen, or someone is better than someone else. it's more that, and i feel this way about the spirit world too: we barely know you, but we at least recognize that you're there, and that maybe you have feelings. would it be ok to stop for a minute, recognize that, and then go along on our way?

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