Last month, Feb. 13 landed on a Friday. This month, it happens again, leading us to examine Country Day’s superstitions.
From horoscopes to feng shui: some families still follow ancient traditions
As an eighth grader, junior Manson Tung was sure he would be attending Mira Loma High School. He’d done his research, and the paperwork was finished.
So how did he end up at Country Day?
Simple: magic sticks.
Before making the final decision, Tung bent to the ground, asked whether he should go to Mira Loma and shook a jar of 100 numbered wooden sticks until one fell out. The number on the stick that fell corresponded to a specific poem that would answer his question.
“You have to interpret the poem, but it’s pretty obvious,” Tung said. “The answer to my question was like, ‘This bridge should not be crossed.’”
So Tung decided to go to SCDS instead.
For Tung, this ritual wasn’t out of the ordinary.
“My mom asks the magic sticks everything!” he said. “We even bought our own set from China (so we don’t have to keep going to the temple), and we have all the poems codified by number.”
Most Americans don’t have such distinct traditions, but the magic sticks are just one of many cultural superstitions practiced by Tung’s family.
In fact, when Tung’s late father was diagnosed with cancer, the family brought in a feng shui master to “read the energies” of their home.
According to the master, the angle of one neighbor’s house was channeling “fat energies” into the Tung house while another neighbor’s red front door was emitting “bad health energies.”
“The exact angle apparently made cosmic energies bounce bad health energies into our house,” Tung said.
“My mom was going to completely seal up the front of our home with plywood boards. But then our feng shui master said that wouldn’t be powerful enough.”
The problem was temporarily solved when the family moved to one of their rental properties in Elk Grove for a year to avoid the negative energies.
Inside the Tungs’ house, the furniture must also be arranged in a certain way. Even Tung’s bed is set up in a way to make it “auspicious” or lucky.
“I’m not allowed to move my bed until the (Chinese) New Year calls for a new type of pivot,” Tung said. “We’re down to the point where the New Year means my bed has to be moved about two degrees. So I have to take out a protractor and measure it.”
Tung’s family is not alone, though. Feng shui has its origins in ancient China, where the placement of a building or temple was decided based on the natural surroundings. Today, it is practiced by many modern Chinese families.
In fact, the feng shui master that Tung’s family used no longer travels to America because he’s so popular now in China.
Senior Aishwarya Nadgauda, whose parents and immediate family are from India, must also sleep in a certain direction, though the orientation of her bed never changes and the practice is not considered feng shui.
“I wanted to move things around (my room) and turn the bed 90 degrees,” Nadgauda said. “But I wasn’t allowed to do that because you have to sleep with your head and toes a certain way.”
Though Tung said he generally doesn’t believe in feng shui, he said he’s starting to believe in the power of his bed arrangement.
“(During) finals I slept in a different direction than I usually do, and I didn’t do as well,” he said. “So maybe there’s something to it!”
The energies of the area also played a role when Tung’s family bought a new house. Anything at a T-intersection was automatically nixed, since all the bad energies from the road would slam right through the front door, Tung said. And a house on a hill had to have limited windows since the wealth energies associated with a rounded hill wouldn’t stay in the house.
Additionally, the number four is considered unlucky in Chinese culture, mainly due to its pronunciation. (The word “four” is just one tone away from the phrase “to die.”) So buying a house with a “4” in the address wasn’t an option.
Likewise, the number eight is considered lucky because the word for “eight” sounds similar to the word for “success.”
In fact, Tung has relatives who have refused to buy a house unless the 4’s in the address were changed to 8’s.
“We are looking for a new house now,” Tung said. “When we pulled up to one of the houses we were (interested in), the address had a 4 in it, so we didn’t look at it.”
Nadgauda remembers going through a similar process when her family bought their home.
“You have to have your house facing a certain direction,” she said. “You have to have the good energy coming in.”
Both Nadgauda and Tung also have a calendar of personalized auspicious days.
“Based on your horoscope and the way things line up at specific periods, they can tell you specifically when you should do important things,” said Nadgauda, whose uncle is the astrologist who compiles her horoscope.
“When you’re making a big decision, you try to find an auspicious day to do it on.”
Tung also has set auspicious days when he plans to do important or possibly life-changing things. “I’ll probably end up submitting college applications on an auspicious day,” he said.
Even though these cultural ties are obvious at home, both Nadgauda and Tung say they usually separate that world from their school one.
“Especially in lower school, I didn’t talk about (these rituals and superstitions) at all because I didn’t want to be the weird kid who didn’t fit in,” Tung said. “But, honestly, a lot of it is my culture, so you should definitely respect that.”
Nadgauda feels similarly. “It’s what my parents do and what my grandparents do,” she said. “And for that reason I respect it.”
And, according to Nadgauda, her family’s practices aren’t unusual in Indian culture.
“Most of the Indian families I know have superstitions embedded in their culture,” she said.
Even though these practices come from years of tradition, Tung is unsure of whether he will continue with many of his family’s traditions when he has children of his own.
“I probably won’t have a feng shui master,” said Tung. “For the price that the master (costs), you could just buy yourself something nice.”
Tung said the family’s feng shui master cost more than $10,000, as the family had to fly him to America, in addition to housing and feeding him.
But for Tung’s family, the price didn’t matter. “My dad was just diagnosed with cancer,” Tung said. “So we were willing to do anything to find the truth.”
When a cursed day is also your birthday
Back in lower school, the first day of class always included an awkward icebreaker. There were many different games, all variations on the theme of “Tell us something interesting about yourself.”
Even though most kids dreaded the forced socialization, I liked revealing my jaw-dropping fact: I was born on Friday the 13th.
Whenever I shared that tidbit, I would get some gasps, followed by a deluge of questions concerning black cats and ghosts.
But as I got older, that sense of wonderment slowly faded. Once we began to understand the power of film special effects and physics, the idea of a haunted birthday became laughable. In fact, when my birthday fell on a Friday during junior year, no one even mentioned my “curse.”
Yet, in a way, my day of birth was unlucky. As a Caesarean-section baby, my delivery was planned from the beginning.
And when the doctors at Sinai Jewish Community Hospital in Baltimore saw that my due date was on Friday, Sept. 13, they immediately asked my mother if she wanted to reschedule her surgery.
“I just said, ‘No, I’m not superstitious,’” my mom said. “It didn’t matter to me, so I chose to stick with my due date.”
And so I was born on a day so feared that it has its own phobia. (Paraskevidekatriaphobia, in case you’re curious.)
But perhaps that fear is justified. As my mother’s doctors forgot to mention, Sept. 13, 1996, also happened to be Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
As a result, her group of doctors, who were all Jewish, left us in the hands of nurses and interns as soon as I was born.
“If the doctors had told me that the hospital would basically shut down because of Rosh Hashanah, I would have changed the (surgery date),” my mom said. “There were minimal pharmacy services, but there were rams’ horns blowing in the halls. My husband had to go to another hospital to fill a prescription I needed.”
Like me, sophomore Isabelle Leavy, who was also born on a Friday the 13th, sometimes uses her birthday to impress others.
“I’m not particularly superstitious,” said Leavy, who was born on August 13, 1999. “But I do use the fact that I was actually born on an unlucky day to make myself sound interesting in social situations.”
And like mine, Leavy’s parents were also aware of the superstitions surrounding their daughter’s birth date.
“I was born at 11:43 p.m., so my parents joked a lot about trying to keep me from being born a little longer to keep me from being unlucky,” Leavy said.
But, according to Leavy, no one seems to consider her unlucky. “The number-one thing people say when I tell them is, ‘Oh, well that explains (your personality)!’” she said. “It gets a bit old, honestly.”
Sophomore Maryjane Garcia, who was born on Dec. 13, 1998, has had similar experiences.
“(People) either tell me to be careful, or they tell me to do all these good-luck superstitions,” she said. “It gets rather annoying.”
Junior Amelia Fineberg was also born on Dec. 13, a year earlier than Garcia. Though she says she’s not superstitious, Fineberg said she does like having her birthday fall on a Friday every seven years or so.
“It’s kind of cool!” Fineberg said. “It’s just fun to play with something that’s so anathema to some people and (pretend I’m haunted).”
Sophomore Anny Schmidt, who was born on the same day as Garcia, already knows that her 21st birthday will be the next time she can celebrate on a Friday.
“It feels really special (when my birthday is on a Friday),” said Schmidt, whose last Friday birthday was in 2013. “(One time) when I was little, my birthday was on a Thursday, and I was really looking forward to the next year (when it would be on a Friday).
“Except for it was a leap year so it skipped my birthday, and I was really disappointed.”
On the other hand, freshman Molly Gherini, born on July 13, 1999, says her birthday is usually pretty normal, even when it does fall on a Friday.
“Nothing really significant ever happens,” she said.
In fact, not one of the high schoolers with 13th birthdays considers herself unlucky.
“I prefer to believe in good-luck charms but not in a lot of bad-luck ones, including the date of my birth,” Leavy said. “As far as I can see, it only makes me lucky because I can have my birthday party in a cemetery.”
And Fineberg said being born on the 13th gives her something interesting to share with others.
“A surprising number of people are born on the 13th, so people actually bond over it,” Fineberg said. “I guess it wouldn’t be the same if you were born on the 17th because who cares?”
Both stories previously published in the print edition on Feb. 17, 2015.