A superstition is defined as ‘any belief or practice that is irrational’ and every culture is bound to have at least a few. In Malaysia, where we’re known for our racial diversity, we’ve certainly got no shortage of urban legends and scare stories passed down by our parents and peers!
We’re of the belief that most superstitions were created as a way to encourage children to behave or keep them safe by scaring them with cautionary tales. Others, however…well, maybe they were pranks that just never ended.
Here are a few of the more common – and outlandish – ones that Malaysians will be familiar with. See if you’ve heard of any of these!
#1: The number ‘4’ is bad luck
This is one of the most famous Chinese superstitions worldwide – the pronounciation of the number four sounds like the word for death in Mandarin and Cantonese.
As a result, the Chinese avoid using the number where possible. Some of the most obvious examples are in house addresses and elevator numbers; you’ll often see ‘3A’ or ‘13A’ to replace the number four and 14 (the latter sounds like ‘will definitely die’…as if just ‘die’ wasn’t bad enough). Car number plates don’t escape the prejudice either.
#2: Don’t sit on a pillow
Apparently if you sit on pillows you’ll develop pimples on your butt. We’re not sure if this applies only to bed pillows or to cushions as well…
#3: Jungle etiquette
There are many superstitions over what to do and what not to do in the jungle, but here are some that our team has grown up hearing:
- Ask for forgiveness before relieving yourself: It’s said to be disrespectful to the jungle spirits if you don’t. If you think about it, you’re basically soiling their home, so the least you can do is say sorry!
- Don’t use your real names: Not using your real name is meant to prevent spirits from impersonating your friends to yell out your name and lure you deeper into the jungle by making you think you’re answering their call. Having said that, you’d probably answer if they used your code name too, so…
#4: Don’t let the ends of the broom touch your feet
Apparently a common saying among the elder generation, having the broom brush over your feet is supposed to be bad luck. We believe it’s because brooms are used to sweep up dirt and messes, so you don’t want to come into contact with ‘unclean energy’.
If – horror of horrors! – you should feel the brush of bristles against your toes, a supposed remedy is to spit on the broom. A form of denouncement, perhaps, if a rather icky one…no one wants to be sweeping spit over the floor either!
#5: Don’t clip your fingernails at night
It seems that the penalty for daring to trim your nails at night has varying degrees of severity – you might attract evil spirits, bleed to death, not be able to see your parents on their deathbed or worse, be the cause of their deaths. All because you clipped your nails after the sun went down!
The logic behind the myth, however, is likely more benign than any of the above: lighting used to be expensive in the olden days and not being able to see what you were clipping would lead to many accidental flesh wounds.
#6: Don’t give clocks as presents
Another superstition that finds its origins in Chinese homonyms, the phrase for ‘giving a clock as a present’ sounds the same as ‘sending a person to their end’. As a result, clocks are a no-no for gifts, unless you’re secretly wishing the recipient to an early grave. Another variation on this superstition is that when the clock that you gift the person stops, so will his or her life.
Watches should fall under the same category, but they do have another name that doesn’t sound like death and are a common gift choice worldwide now, so they might be able to skip by on a technicality.
#7: Finish every grain of rice on your plate
Not out of guilty thoughts for the starving kids in Africa, but so that your beloved won’t have a face full of pimples. It’s said that every grain of rice left on your plate will be a zit on your future husband/wife’s face.
I have to admit, it probably proved a more effective way to get kids to clean their plates instead of the more practical reason of not wasting food.
#8: Young women shouldn’t sit on the house steps
This harkens back to a time when everyone lived in wooden houses on stilts (rumah atap) in the countryside. Young, unmarried women were told that if they were seen sitting on the steps, they’d never get married.
The true reason behind the myth is simple: sitting on the house steps gave an impression of laziness, as society back then believed that the women should be in the kitchen cooking, or cleaning, or doing other chores around the house instead of being idle, which was seen as undesirable.
#9: Don’t sing in the kitchen
…or you’ll marry an old man. We’re still not sure how the two correlate, but the saying was meant to warn girls from being distracted in the kitchen and burning the food.
#10: Don’t point at the moon
Apparently this warrants a cut on your ear, either from evil spirits or a vengeful Moon Goddess. We wonder if eating mooncakes would be an appropriate apology?
Similarly, if you point at a rainbow, your finger will break. We think it's just to teach kids that pointing is rude (as it's considered more polite to point with your thumb here), but the consequences seem pretty dramatic...
#11: Don’t step over people when they’re lying down
Or they’ll die. Uh…so we’ve heard.
This saying likely applied when people slept on the ground together on mats, and space was limited in the house. It was meant to teach children to respect their elders – just step around them instead. No harm taking all precautions right?
#12: Don’t sleep facing the mirror
This is a popular feng shui philosophy but also crosses the threshold into the realm of superstition because of the reason behind it: the Chinese believe that when we’re sleeping at night, our soul leaves our body. If it sees its reflection in the mirror at night, it may get startled, or it might believe that the reflection is the real body and try to possess that instead.
In a similar vein, we’re told not to look in the mirror at night (in some variants, brush our hair facing the mirror) for fear that we might see devils.
#13: Don’t change places while you’re eating
Some of us like to begin our dinner at the table, then move to the couch, or perhaps to our computer table. Apparently this is a prediction of your marital fortunes and it means you will marry many people!
We’re more inclined to think that our elders just didn’t want us trailing food everywhere and messing up the house. Judging by the popularity of this superstition – and others with outcomes that affect marital statuses – kids take their future marriage(s) very seriously!
What about any interesting superstitions you've heard? We know there are more out there - tell us what you know!