Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What's wrong with just saying "Don't do that"?

Over dinner with my friend H (previously mentioned here), we got into talking about weird things our parents told us growing up. More specifically, the weird Korean things our moms told us. Even funnier since I like to make fun of my mom because she's Presbyterian and some of these superstitions aren't very "Christian."

Neither of us are particularly superstitious, but strangely we found out that somehow even now we were uncomfortable with breaking some of these taboos. And not because we belived that they were true in some way, but it just felt wrong to do it after being told not to for so long.

For example, you're not supposed to sleep with your head to the west. This came up because we had just watched "The Science of Sleep" and the character of Zoe mentions something about not making the best face north because it's bad feng shui.

H's mom's reasoning was that it was bad for you and has something to do with the flow of energy in the body, but I remember my mom telling me that the west is where dead people go, so having your head face that way is putting your health in danger. However, those two explanations aren't too far apart if you're familiar with Korean shamanism/mysticism, Oriental medicine, or any Chinese exorcist/vampire killer movie for that matter.

Thanks to that, even when I went off to college, whenever I was assigned a new dorm room, I found myself reflexively checking to see if I would be sleeping with my head toward the west. I never attributed anything negative to that except feeling uncomfortable once I realized it. H on the other hand, swears she gets headaches.

Another thing was, you never throw out your fingernail or toenail clippings haphazardly because those are extensions of you. My mom always made sure I flushed them down the toilet and never threw them away in the garbage can. While the origin of this superstition may have earlier roots, most kids know about this because it is tied to a folktale about how a spoiled rich boy carelessly threw away his fingernail clippings only to have a 100-year-old rat gnaw on them and turn into a clone of him and the real rich brat gets kicked out of the house for being an imposter.

The moral of the story is supposed to be that the brat got his comeuppance for being spoiled and not listening to anyone (since he didn't listen to the advice to not throw out his nail clippings), but in the end realizes how good he had it and should be more obedient...but for some reason the real lesson you got out of this story was to guard your nail clippings like they were your life.

H laughed because "I mean come on...what's with Korea and 100-year-old things? A 100-year-old rat?"

I answered with the true but time honored cliche, "You clearly have not seen how big rats here get. I seriously would not be surprised if some New York ones were 100 years old."

But she had a point. Korea does seem to like their 100-year-old things. Ogres are sometimes common household objects that have been used and felt the touch of human hands for 100 years, the Gumiho, or nine-tailed fox, gets a new tail every 100 years...

By the way, the ending to that folktale? The old man whose advice the spoiled brat didn't listen to the first time around hands the brat a cat and tells him to go home. The brat doesn't know why since he doesn't know the identity of his clone, but now a more humble and obedient kid he takes the old man's advice and heads back home with the cat. The cat attacks the clone, kills it, and the kid realizes what has happened and lived out the rest of his days as a wise, rich man.

The thing is, I feel like many times some of these stories are just ways to make kids do things. Like I could see some frustrated Korean mom way back when putting down her sewing with an exasperated sigh as the latest fingernail clipping flies and bounces off her face going, "Sam-shik, you really need to cut that shit out."

And Sam-shik, the smart aleck answers, "Whatevs, mom, it's not like anything BAD could happen to me. It's just some grody old fingernail clippings. What, the bogeyman's (or I guess Grandpa Wicker Sieve would be more culturally appropriate) gonna take me away?"

Then Sam-shik's mom spots a fatass rat scuttling away out the corner of her eyes and launches into the story.

My best example of this theory? Since when I was little, my mom told me I should not wash my hair at midnight. I had to do it before. Why? Well because when she was little, some ladies where she lived decided they were going to go wash their clothes by a stream and gossip since they didn't have time to get it done during the day. They decided they were going to wash their hair too while they were out there. But it was late at night, midnight to be exact, and the women never came home. Their husbands went out looking for them only to find their heads hanging by their hair from the branches of a tree all braided and done up pretty with ribbons.

I was 8-FUCKING-YEARS-OLD. You don't tell a 8-year-old something like that. That is all kinds of messed up. I suffered a "shower/wash my hair at midnight phobia" for years. Even now I'm creeped the hell out by this story and find myself looking at the clock before I hop in the shower at night.

It did not help much that around the time I was 13 one of the hit books of the summer was "Horror Special," a collection of old and new horror stories. One of those stories went something like this (more of a reasonable facsimile since I've heard numerous versions since):

"Da-hae came home late again. It was the third night that week she had to stay over for late studies at school. And a usual no one was home. Mom and dad were both working late again. At least mom had left out some dinner for her. She ate a little then changed into her pajamas and watched some TV to unwind. Somehow "Just one more show" became two more and three more. Da-hae finally glanced over at her clock and realized it was close to midnight.

'Ugh, not again. I better take a shower and get to bed. I have to get up early tomorrow to clean the classroom.'

She trudged into the bathroom and began to take her shower. As she washed her hair she thought to herself, 'Hmm, I seem to have more hair than usual...but that makes no sense. I must really be tired.'

Da-hae wrapped a towel around her hair and went to her room to blow-dry her hair. As she clicked the blow-dryer off she noticed a constant dripping coming from the bathroom.

'Crap,' she thought, 'The faucet's leaky.'

She walked back to the bathroom to try and tighten the faucet, but paused as she stared in horror. A ghost* hung upside down from the ceiling of the bathroom, and before Da-hae fainted, she heard it giggle and say, 'You forgot to dry my hair...'"

* "Ghost" in this sense being the relative translation of "gwee-shin," or the traditional female ghost with long black hair in white han-bok.

Ok, so that story was one of the "humorous" ones in that collection, but thanks to that I had a better idea as to how and when a ghost might behead me. It would hang upside down while I was unawares with my eyes closed and would snatch my head off my neck. I had many a "What was that?!" moment after reading that story and would pop my eyes open while washing my hair only to be rewarded with stinging and tearing eyes.

Years later, I thought about that story again and realized that my mom probably had more sinister reasons. She just wanted me to go to bed, and that couldn't happen unless I would take my bath. I always "fought with sleep," as my mom put it, and still do. I never liked going to bed and still like staying up too late. Now, I'm not accusing my mom of psychologically scarring me just to get me to go to bed early, but once she put the fear of ghosts in me about washing my hair before midnight, I made sure I got ready for bed WAY before midnight.

I told H that I don't really worry about that too much anymore...though, if I do find myself heading towards the shower at midnight I might wait 5 minutes or so. You know, just in case.


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