Superstitious Realism

Magic realism has become an international style, especially among writers from countries that still believe in magic. Better be safe than sorry, it can’t hurt, the gods and demons must be placated. Like the Chinese, Mexicans and southern Italians, Vietnamese are highly superstitious. They possess an unscientific mindset that allows them to believe just about anything... as long as there’s enough poetry in it.

A pregnant woman must never squat inside a doorframe, lest she will have a difficult childbirth. To avoid a late pregnancy, she must never step over a buffalo's harness. At the sight of the deformed and the handicapped, she must turn her gaze away. She should look often at the beautiful faces on calendars.

To ward off an outbreak of thrush, a child’s first excrement—an odorless yellow slime resembling egg yolk—is smeared into his mouth right after birth. At one month old, a baby’s scrotum is caressed upward with a warm hand, to prevent it from sagging. To tighten his nutsack, three pouches of uncooked rice could also be hung over a door, to be squeezed by people entering the room. If it’s a girl, a heated betel leaf is rubbed on the vagina, to prevent it from flaring. A child with a drowned relative must wear a brass anklet to insure against being “dragged” to a similar death later in life. Children under ten are discouraged from looking into a mirror, lest their soul, embodied by the mirrored image, should play tricks with them.

There’s no end to the superstitions. They are to guide you from the cradle to the grave. You must squash a snake’s head after you’ve killed it, else the head will return to bite you three days later. A chunk of cactus, latched to a door, prevents “bad spirits” from entering a house. Remove all buttons from a corpse’s clothing, else the spirit won’t be able to leave the coffin. In the house of the recently dead, a chalk “X” is drawn on all glass windows, to prevent the ghost from reentering. During the mourning period, strips of white cloth are tied to the legs of chairs and tables, ditto stems of plants, since a plant that does not grieve would surely die. When coffin sales are slow, a coffin maker would sleep inside a coffin to suggest death to the gods, to simulate/stimulate business.

Most interesting are brand new beliefs, reflecting contemporary life. Some people believe that an X-ray will trim a year or two from your longevity. Drinking milk will make your skin lighter, ingesting soy sauce will make it darker. Discussing a sensational murder, a Saigon woman told me that if the corpse’s eyes were wide open at the moment of death, the investigation was in the bag. “If they develop the frozen image in his eyes, they can see the murderer's face.” The eyes are cameras, literally, in this woman’s eyes.

A former Vietcong, Mr. Hanh, told me about Bay Dom, a South Vietnamese general in charge of Chau Doc during the war: “Bay Dom could not be shot with a bullet. Once he dared an American advisor to shoot him several times, pointblank, with a pistol! But the American missed him each time! The only way to kill him was to shoot him in the eye!”

“Which eye?” I asked him.

“Either eye! The eyes and the asshole! But it has to be a bullet aimed right into the asshole. Once Bay Dom sat on a hand grenade but it would not explode!”

I thought it strange that Hanh would elevate a former enemy to a mythical figure. A scrawny man in his early 50’s, he wore a gold earring in his left ear and talked with a vast repertoire of hand flourishes and facial expressions. Later, his wife told me that her husband had become gay after a recent blood transfusion.

"You mean he’s HIV positive?"

"No, just gay."

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