Redefining how Chinese superstitions influenced my identity
I have always lived my life in the tight grip of my mother’s Chinese superstitions.
Strangely enough, I was otherwise not a superstitious kid. I reluctantly went along with my parents’ Santa and Tooth Fairy shenanigans and was proud of my reliance on science in the triumph of reality over fairytales. By college, I even stopped attending Sunday Mass after proudly arguing against my devout Catholic father that God had set up Adam and Eve for failure.
But despite my efforts to base my life on facts, the Chinese superstitions of my childhood kept their grasp on me and influenced my identity.
Rabbits and Sheep
I was eight when I first learned that I was a Rabbit. Under the fluorescent lights of a Chinese buffet in my small Texan hometown, my younger sister and I traced our fingers over sticky plastic-wrapped menus, sounding out the words on the page as my mother filled our plates with lukewarm steamed buns and greasy noodles. Ox, dragon, monkey, rooster…
According to the menu, because I was born in 1999 I was a Rabbit, which meant I was quiet, gentle, responsible. As a Dragon, my sister was confident, proud, and charismatic. And my mother was supposed to be a calm, docile, and soft Sheep.
She was none of these things.
When she placed a dumpling on my plate, I attempted to stab the dumpling with the still foreign chopsticks and instead knocked it onto the carpet. She roared to her feet and smacked the chopsticks out of my hands, sending them clattering onto the table.
The familiar Chinese expression stung. “How many times do I have to teach you how to hold these?” I started to sputter out an explanation and in response, she gave me a glare that stopped me dead in my tracks.
“This is why you will never be like me, Stephanie. You are a Rabbit and I am a Sheep. We are incompatible.”
Living in the shadow of Chinese superstitions
Those words took root in my mind and quietly seeped into every corner of my life, bringing along with them all the Chinese superstitions of my childhood.
When my abdomen twinged with that familiar once-a-month pain, I fought against my ice cream cravings and drank hot soup, remembering my mother’s warnings that eating cold food during my period would render me infertile. Growing up, my mother would always tug on my ears, explaining how the long, thick earlobes of ancient Chinese emperors were a sign of wealth and a long life, while my small ears signified that I would work hard but remain poor. Now that I’m considering abandoning my lucrative job in finance for a less traditional, more risky future in journalism, I’m wondering if she’s right.
To this day, my mom and I squabble every time we see each other. And every time, it makes me wonder, are these the disagreements of a typical mother daughter relationship or those of a divine fate?
Unearthing the truth
My senior year of college, I was once again at a Chinese restaurant, staring down at a menu explaining the Chinese Zodiac. I told my friends the story from my childhood, and they laughed.
“Your mom wasn’t even right,” my friend said. “See, it says right here that the Rabbit and Sheep are highly compatible. Plus, you’re not a Rabbit anyways — apparently you’re actually a Tiger since your birthday is before the Chinese New Year.”
Sure enough, according to the menu and confirmed by my research later that night, not only were Rabbits and Sheep an “ideal match,” but I also wasn’t even a Rabbit in the first place, a mistake that had arisen from the difference between the Lunar and western calendar.
For years, I had allowed my mother’s Chinese superstitions and myths to silently guide my life, only to discover that her severe interpretations were false.
The core of the Chinese superstitions
For weeks afterwards, I replayed the childhood incident in my head, searching for a phrase that I misunderstood or a word that I misheard.
I found none.
I was angry. Angry at my mother, for uttering untrue words that I still hear 15 years later. Angry at myself, for trusting without questioning, which I rarely did in other aspects of my life.
But all of those emotions were overcome by one that I didn’t expect — relief that my relationship with my mother wasn’t pre-determined.
And with that relief came the memory of another one of my mom’s strongly held beliefs. A story of her own childhood, sitting on the front steps of her family’s rural home as she studied English by the dying light of the setting sun. Despite lacking family connections or even electricity, she claimed that she had an unwavering knowledge deep within her that she would go to America. She believed that someday, that if she merely believed in something hard enough, it would come true.
I imagined her as an eight-year-old girl, with a will ballooning big enough that it would carry her to a new land. Sure enough, 20 years later, my mother found herself on a plane to America.
My mom used superstitions to understand and navigate the strange new land she was in. She called upon the recipes of her grandmother to give her new husband strength as he worked long nights as a new professor, even as he turned his nose up at her traditional liver and mù’ěr dishes. She avoided cold foods to protect her unborn daughter when her doctor claimed to not understand her broken English, a phrase she could barely make out through his southern Texan drawl. And she pulled on her children’s earlobes, imbuing them with the hopes and dreams and good luck she had brought across the sea.
She promised herself that her children would only speak perfect English, play American sports, and go to church every Sunday. And simultaneously, she stowed away her past, one that her children would only glimpse when she unknowingly slipped into Chinese at home or let out one of her Chinese superstitions in frustration.
She had said those words to me, not out of anger but out of regret. Because the unavoidable incompatibility she expressed was that of our cultures rather than my relationship with her.
Chinese superstitions influenced identity
Just as these superstitions connected my mother to her home culture, they do the same for me as one of the few remnants of my Chinese culture I had left to hold onto.
However, while for my mother these superstitions were brimming with nuance and hidden meaning, I took them at face value. In doing so, I flattened centuries of history and culture into phrases that represented my young self’s entire conception of my unfamiliar heritage.
When I felt the heat of shame spread across my face after struggling through yet another conversation with my grandmother in rudimentary Chinese or when strangers looked at my mother’s coarse black hair and my straight brown strands and asked if we were related, I clung onto my knowledge of these expressions as evidence that I deserved this heritage and that I belonged. I thought of them as secrets, like inside jokes with my mom that only we could understand.
But in doing so, I gave these myths an almost magical quality, living by them in such a way that they became reality.
I thought back to the countless times I stopped myself from reconciling with my mother after fights about careers, school, or boyfriends because I believed that our differences were an immutable part of our nature. This was our fate, I told myself.
But in reality, I gave the superstitions power over my life in an attempt to uphold my Chinese identity.
Redefining the superstitions
Nowadays I’m starting to think that life’s deeper intricacies — compatibility, success, happiness — are more than just Rabbits and Sheep. Still, I’ve found ways to redefine my relationship with the Chinese superstitions that so shaped my upbringing.
When my mom does scold me with those familiar reminders, I see beyond the face value of the superstitions. They’re not unbending prescriptions; they are rules of life that have been passed down by mothers and daughters. And they’re my mother’s attempt at bridging cultural divides to connect with her own daughter.
The Chinese superstitions influenced my identity, but aren’t the final word on who I am. They no longer chain me to preconceived notions of my heritage, but rather encourage me to build my own understanding of my complicated background.
So I pull on my ears to appease her, dry my hair before I sleep, and eat “cooling” foods in the summer. But now, I grant equal respect to all the other reminders of the culture my mother gave me, from the foods I eat to the values I hold. Because at the end of the day, I now know that these myths are just one piece of my identity as a mixed Chinese American.
Featured image credit: photo submitted
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