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Superstitions are fine, until they are not

By Marko Nikolic   January 22, 2020 | 08:01 pm PT
Soon, millions of Vietnamese will partake in various cultural and belief practices, mostly due to incoming Tet celebrations, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
Marko Nikolic

Marko Nikolic

To exercise one’s belief is a spiritual need, and a right protected by laws. But as important as they might be, we should exercise them with reason and appropriacy, not setting them loose to cloud our judgement.

Despite civilization’s modern advances, many superstitions still exist around the world, including  in Vietnam. Beliefs in the supernatural first began in ancient times, and have persisted throughout history. Irrational fears of the number 13, lucky charms, rituals for wealth and good health are all relics of a time long past, though still prevalent today. In Vietnam, for example, students would avoid eating eggs before a big exam for fear of getting a "0" mark, or banana for fear of failing due to the slippery nature of its peel.

Superstitions are rooted in fear, scientists say. Specifically, the fear of not being in control in stressful situations, with superstitions instilling confidence to make us feel safer, more grounded. The problem doesn’t exactly lie in superstitions, but the fact that people could mix healthy belief systems and practices with fanatical obsessions. As much as superstitions ground us, they could also make us put blind faith in mysterious, supernatural forces with no basis in reality, causing us to behave without reason and common sense, costing us property, relationships, and even our own lives.

Vietnamese superstitions, meanwhile, are vast and deeply embedded in people's psyche. They pray and give offerings to ancestors to show respect, something beautiful and healthy. Vietnam’s massive library of idioms also teaches important values and life lessons: to work hard, to love one another, to remember one’s roots. Most Vietnamese families have altars, decorated with pictures of deceased loved ones and where offerings are made to the dead. All beautiful Vietnamese traditions.

But, one particular practice has proved to be controversial even among the Vietnamese. The burning of joss paper.

In Vietnam, joss paper is burned as offerings to the deceased in certain occasions, including the Lunar New Year Festival. Illustration photo by Shutterstock.

In Vietnam, joss paper is burned as offerings to the deceased in certain occasions, including the Lunar New Year Festival. Illustration photo by Shutterstock.

This practice commenced in ancient times, unrelated to conventional religions like Buddhism or Confucianism. Every year, Vietnamese spend approximately VND400 billion ($17.2 million) to burn around 50,000 tons of joss paper for "the deceased." I feel some people tend to burn a little bit too much joss paper, many on the belief that the more money they spend, the luckier they will get. And businesses know that; nowadays joss paper is shaped like cars, watches, high heels and iPhones among many others. The act of burning pollutes the environment and depletes natural resources, specifically paper and plants. Have I mentioned human deaths? In 2017 alone, around 10 house fires were caused by burning joss paper, killing 20 people in Saigon.

The matter has even gained enough traction to reach the ears of authorities. In 2018, the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam requested followers avoid the joss paper burning practice across all Buddhist facilities. If you ask me, I would much prefer joss paper burning as something symbolic and in moderation, opposed to spending an entire fortune on unguaranteed luck or supposed offerings to the dead. Once a person's dead, they no longer have any material aspirations.

While I hold a rather neutral stance on joss paper burning, I vehemently oppose fortunetellers. Many thrive on people's insecurity and naïveté to make money, weaponizing fear and greed.

In Thanh Hoa Province, a grandmother murdered her own grandchild because a fortuneteller told her only one of them could live. In Quang Ngai, a family decided to leave their home because a fortuneteller told them the house was "poisoned." 

And in case anyone hadn’t noticed, none of these fortunetellers could have predicted natural disasters, like the numerous storms at sea or the Australian bushfires.

But, somehow people keep falling in their trap. It’s a trick they use, according to science. Fortunetellers can accurately evaluate and analyze one’s mental workings, using it to their advantage by making vague and generalized claims that could simultaneously apply to many different people. Then confirmation bias kicks in, causing us to believe whichever piece of info we most identify with, while ignoring the rest. Our memories then filter them out, and come up with the conclusion that whatever the fortuneteller is saying must be true. The human brain is exceptionally good at filling in gaps, which is beneficial for survival. But in this case, it only does us harm.

The freedom to believe in whatever you want is inherent in us all. But we must know how to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not, what’s healthy and what’s detrimental, what’s appreciation and what’s obsession. Or else, true disasters could befall us.

*Marko Nikolic is a Serbian writer based in Vietnam. His story was originally written in Vietnamese. The opinions expressed are personal.

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