Superstition is defined as: “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief” (see reference). Synonyms include: myth, belief, old wives’ tale, and notion.
Before moving to Mongolia I was accustomed to what I’d call ordinary, everyday superstitions in America. I’d been warned to not break a mirror or I’d suffer seven years of bad luck. I’d been physically stopped from walking underneath a ladder leaning up against our home for a similar stated reason. Now that I pause to reflect on the topic, there is also the don’t-let-a-black-cat-cross-your-path superstition, and the if-you-spill-salt then shake-some-over-your-shoulder (this allows you to undo the impending bad luck?). Don’t open an umbrella indoors. Unlucky numbers include 13 and 666.
In the U.S. there are plenty of references to things that will bring you bad luck. I never put much merit or value into them. My first feline was a black cat and I named her Hades (she was a mean little sass!). It was more efficient to walk under the ladder than to go around (yes, I am a Type A personality). And you must open an umbrella indoors if you want it to dry out so that you can use it again or store it without it getting moldy or smelly. I feel most Americans don’t put much stock in these superstitions either.
Mongolia, land of the eternal blue sky, has an entirely different relationship with superstitions. Some seem to come from the influence of Tibetan Buddhism, others from the ancient practice of Shamanism. No matter the origin, Mongolians take them seriously! Just this morning I leaned in to kiss my husband goodbye through the doorway between the hallway and our living room. He resisted until he’d pushed me OUT of the threshold and INTO the hallway, reminding me that it was “no good” to kiss on the threshold between rooms.
I hear superstitions from everyone–my husband, my (step)son, other family members, my Mongolian co-workers, and even strangers on the street (you can FEEL their analysis of your clothing choices!).
Here is a list of the variety of superstitions I’ve heard or encountered since I moved to Ulaanbaatar over a year and a half ago:
- Don’t drink cold water if you are feeling under the weather. It will make you more sick.
- You will damage your kidneys if you wear sneakers–and not insulated footwear–in the harsh winter months.
- Be sure to consult the calendar before getting a haircut (days with the tiny scissors on them are approved!) or you might be trimming your very soul!
- In winter time, don’t take showers in the morning or you will get sick (it opens your pores to disease!).
- Do not write your name, or students’ names, in red ink. It signifies bad luck. I learned this one at work.
- If you see a wolf, you’ll get three years of good luck. This is SO much better than all the American BAD luck superstitions!
- If you step on or bump someone else’s foot/shoe with yours, you must shake hands to undo the bad feeling created. I’ve done this with strangers on a public bus.
- Do not step on the threshold between rooms (or the threshold into a ger/yurt) as it is like stepping on the owner’s neck. A family member reminded me of this while celebrating the Mongolian Lunar New Year–Tsagaan Sar–last year. I was resting my foot on the threshold. Ooops!
- While visiting people in their ger, do NOT show/expose the bottoms of your foot/shoe. Keep them firmly planted on the ground. It’s a sign of disrespect to expose the underside.
- You should always wash your dirty dishes before going to bed!
- If you have a sore throat, you should gargle with your OWN urine. It will cure you. (I draw the line with this one. No way!)
- Don’t whistle indoors as it’s thought to invite natural disasters such as windstorms.
- Do not talk about worst-case-scenarios! Doing so will invite those bad things to happen to you. This is opposite thinking of the common American who not only thinks about these, but makes plans for dealing with them should they occur.
- The number 4 is considered unlucky. Figures! That’s been my favorite number since I was a child.
- Do not wish on shooting stars! In Mongolia a shooting star is a sign of someone’s passing.
For the most part foreigners aren’t chided too harshly when they “break” one of these superstitions or unwritten rules. Many Mongolians are happy to educate you, inviting us into their world of understanding and belief.
I was reminded of these superstitions recently as I read the Friday edition of The UB Post (Feb 10)–Mongolia’s leading English language news outlet–and not surprisingly, learned a few more. In an article titled “Gift Giving in Mongolia,” author B. Myagmardorj says “…gifts with upward openings are preferred because they have a propensity to become full and represent prosperity.” He explained that for that reason hats are NOT a good gift, while cups, socks, or boots DO make good choices. Additionally, he tells us that, “Mongolians believe that a man’s luck exists in his belt, so for men, belts are good gifts. Also, horses and wolves are symbols of luck and fortune, so gifts that include horse or wolf images are good.”
It’s clear that my education of Mongolian superstitions is not complete!
Does your Asian man adhere to superstitions? Does the Asian country/culture which you call home have many? If so, please share an interesting or surprising one with us here. We’d love to learn about you and your place in the world.
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I’m living in Qinghai with my boyfriend and his family, and I’m discovering small unwritten rules every day. Here are a few:
1. Here too, you cannot whistle inside the house (becuase then the rats will move in). It is also concidered rude to whistle, and generally women are not supposed to whistle at all (frustration!!!). I’m a whistler, especially when I do dishes, so my boyfriend has to remind me of this all the time.
2. When you clean your hairbrush, you can not throw the old hair in the bin. If you do – all your hair will fall off and you’ll become bold. You are supposed to keep the hair in a little box or something like that. I have thrown my hair in the bin all my life, and my hair is fine, so I still bin it. But I don’t let my mother-in-law let me know I do haha.
3. You cannot say “zou” (走) when you are outside and it has started to get dark. Then the spirits that walk around will be upset.
4. If you see a cat when it’s dark outside you have to spit. Otherwise it’s bad luck.
Hello Miriam In China! Thank you for sharing some of the unwritten rules of your corner of the world. The one about spitting reminded me of one I forgot: If I have a bad dream at night, in the morning I’m supposed to spit into the entry doorjamb (of my apartment, or of a house) and tell the bad dream to go away from me. I confess….I’ve done it at my husband’s insistence. I figure it can’t harm me. 🙂
I had a scary paranormal experience based on the haircut one. I was dating a Mongolian when I was 19 and saw what I believe to be an entity that seemed malicious. Then my ex looked at the calendar and the first site she checked was blank and then the next one said “you will meet Erliq Khan” so so so weird and scary.
That is a really interesting post, Heather. As Ruth said, a lot of similarities with China. Though I am definitely with you, would totally draw the line on gargling my own urine to cure a sore throat! 🙂
As a Mongolian, living in the US, now I understand why these superstitions can be very strange to foreigners. All of you have mentioned here, I definitely got reminded by my childhood do’s and don’ts. Thanks for sharing your experience.
Thank you, Munktaivan, for reading, and for sharing your perspective. It’s nice to hear I wasn’t off base with my observations. 🙂