My mom is a superstitious lady. She is full of anecdotal evidence and swears by old wives’ tales. Her kitchen cabinets are stocked with herbal remedies and a tea for everything that ails you. Got a bruise? Use this stuff that smells like Tiger Balm but isn’t. Insect bite? Rash? Open wound? Use this other stuff that smells like Tiger Balm but isn’t. When I was a kid and sick with something – anything – she forced me to drink a puke green powder, mixed with water. It had the bitterness of bile multiplied by bitter melon. I gagged and cried, but she was relentless. If I heaved the contents of my stomach after drinking the stuff (9 times out of 10), she’d make another batch.
I grew up hearing warnings such as:
Don’t eat laying down – you will turn into a snake.
Don’t drink too much orange juice – your insides will overheat.
Sugar is poison, but bitter is medicine.
I sometimes take medical advice from her only because she is my mother; plus, I recognize that she managed to keep me alive in the worst environmental conditions. Her remedies aren’t always based on anecdotes – she was once a certified midwife and studied some nursing before the challenges of acculturation overwhelmed her. She serves as an effective bridge for my older relatives when they need help navigating conventional health care.
Mom looks for meaning in everything. If a bird gets trapped in your house, that’s good luck. If wasps build a nest in your front doorway, making it impossible to walk inside without being chased by half a dozen angry insects, that is also good luck. Once I asked her what it means if a bird flies into your storm door and commits suicide. I held my breath, dreading the worst.
“Eh…that mean nothing,” was her surprising answer. Then she told me to bury the bird and wish for it to have a good rebirth.
When I was a teenager, Mom woke us up early one morning and rushed us, one at a time, into the bathroom. She snipped a lock of hair from me and one from Brother, then flushed the clippings down the toilet. All she would say was, “Mom had bad dream.”
That vivid memory sums up the blind faith we put in her that eventually developed into a superstition all its own – if she told me something was an ominous sign, I believed her and acted accordingly. Some people might think it was just her way of imparting some universal wisdom or tricking us into acting right. In any case, it is not a supernatural ability but rather intuition that makes her interpretations relevant.
Despite my firm belief in scientific evidence, I still find myself calling her after I have a particularly strange dream. She has a record of 85-90% accuracy for knowing when something is amiss. If nothing else, these conversations help me better understand my mother and how she perceives her only daughter.
I always seem to remember animal dreams best. Mom has had a dream guide book for as long as I can remember. Since it is written in Thai, I could never read it, but I like to look at the sketches. Each animal is designated an astrological number and once in a while, after a dream, she plays the lottery. She doesn’t encourage habitual gambling, but every once in a while she just feels lucky.
I recently dreamed that I was standing on a cliff, overlooking a beach. The ocean waves were washing in and out. A turtle appeared – not a sea turtle, as you might expect in this habitat, but a freshwater turtle. It made sense to my dream self, even though in real life it would not survive in salt water. (Upon waking, I decided that my real life turtle drama has seeped into my subconscious.)
Then a baby elephant appeared on the beach, in the way that characters in dreams have a habit of doing. Elephant and Turtle met and began to play in the crashing waves. My dream self thought, How cute! I watched them for a long time, until I suddenly noticed the baby elephant had disappeared. I waited for him to reappear but when he did, I was horrified: as the waves receded, the lifeless body of the baby elephant rolled across the sand. It had been smashed against the rocks of the cliff. The sad turtle turned and went back into the ocean.
She decides right away that I am the turtle (naturally). I tell her about an article DP read, which states that the turtle is the animal sign for introverts, and that explains a lot. Mm-hmmm, she agreed; I pictured her nodding.
But what about the elephant? I asked. It worried me that a beloved and auspicious animal died so tragically in my dream. Must be a bad omen.
[The elephant is revered in Lao culture. The Kingdom of Laos was called Lan Xang – Land of a Million Elephants – and displayed a three-headed elephant on its royal flag. Queen Maha Maya discovered she was pregnant when she dreamed of a white elephant entering her womb, holding a lotus flower. She eventually gave birth to Siddhartha, the future Buddha.]
Not really bad, Mom explained. The elephant is a messenger; he came to warn you. He tells you, “Stay away from big people who will lead you down the wrong path.” [By “big,” she means important or powerful.] The small thing try to be the big thing…not good. Be who you are – there is nothing wrong with that.
As usual, I then went through the process of sorting out what she really meant. I decided she could mean one of two things: 1) I should play it safe and be careful about opportunities to rise to power (I am ineligible for presidential office, so no worries on that front); 2) I should not take unnecessary risks (Hmm. That one could be difficult, as I am known to eat unrefrigerated dairy products and think pizza is occasionally an acceptable breakfast item).
What old wives’ tales or cultural beliefs are passed down in your family?