A Habit Outliving Its Usefulness

Image by naoamano from Pixabay

My grandmother on my mother’s side spent the first thirty years of her life in a fishing village, where the only livelihood was fishing or fishing related trades. That was before the arrival of modern boats and other modern equipment. Needless to say, unexpected weather conditions or ocean waves could easily capsize a traditional boat and send the fishermen to their ocean grave. Such a life of uncertainty played havoc on villagers’ psyche, and their way of dealing with insecurity is praying to Buddha and living a life dictated by superstition. There are days one cannot eat fish; days one has to pay respect to the dead; days one cannot travel; days one starts to pickle duck eggs in mud mixed with salt; days one cannot drink; days one cannot gamble. Somehow I suspect that Buddha, as intelligent and benevolent as he is, never really cares about these superstitious display. It’s the people themselves who try to put all these restrictions on their own lives in order to feel that their life is under control and their days are blessed by deities.

Those superstitions followed my grandparents long after they had left the fishing village. My grandfather became an accountant in a big city and my grandmother became the mother of 9 children. When I was about 11 years old and lived with my grandparents for a while, they had been out of that village for almost thirty years. I was told never to say “4”, “death”, “overturn”, “flip”. One thing children sometimes do is that they use their chopsticks to flip things over in their bowl–for example a piece of fish or an omelette. That was strictly forbidden in my grandparent’s place.

And one thing I forgot to mention–there were many very strange customs concerning women. My grandmother told me that the old custom was very strict that women should never touch a boat or touch any fishing related gadgets. The marine deities, whoever they were, dislike women intensely and would send vengeful wind if anything on the boats were “tainted” by women. For this reason, women were not allowed on the beach when men went out to the sea or came back from the sea, in case…. And a pregnant women, a woman with her special time of month, a woman who didn’t have children when she should have, a woman who had children when she shouldn’t, and several other kinds of women (I can’t remember anymore) were to be avoided by men at all cost.

My grandma obviously continued to honor the ridiculous custom even if she no longer lived in the village and even if those misogynistic marine deities would have no influence (not even the imaginary influence) on her life anymore. When I was living with her, she often told me not to do this and not to do that. She was in general a very sweet and kind mother and grandmother, and I didn’t mind to be gently scolded. And the most serious displeasure I caused her was my attempt to do what boys wanted to do, which was completely against the village custom. One day my cousin stole two sips of rice wine from my uncle, and I followed his example, for which my grandma warned me that women should never drink alcohol. One day I came back with a good school report, she warned me that women should never be the first one because that would disturb the order of things. I knew she implied that the boat would flip if there’s a whiff of “disorder” in the air.

For years, I secretly mocked my grandmother who let her old habits to dictate her life even if those old habits had long outlived their usefulness or perceived usefulness. I was very sure that I would never make the same mistake even if I had her life. However recently I don’t feel so sure about this anymore.

My misgiving starts with my “new word” posts. I am interested in new words but I rarely use them. Same thing happens to idioms. I know people who use idioms regularly, like “holy moly”, “fingers crossed”, “knock on wood”, but I just don’t do it. I reflect on this and realize that it’s all because of my habit of not using them. I formed this habit because at the time my sense of English was still raw, awkward, and uneasy–I could very well use new idioms or new words in the wrong context, wrong time. Nervous about making unnecessary mistakes, I refrained from using anything that’s not completely safe. The habit was formed and stayed with me ever since. Even now, when I feel quite at ease with English (though not completely at ease with English), I continue to honor my old habit, and behave as safe and timid as I behaved years ago.

Basically I am making the same mistake my grandma made.

37 thoughts on “A Habit Outliving Its Usefulness

    1. Oh, tell me about it. Some people can be so superstitious that a sneeze can cause a cleanup and a psychological shock and many knocks on the wood etc. How much we are afraid of future disaster and how fearful we are. Yet we continue to do things to cause global warming and refuse to change our ways.

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  1. There are so many weird superstitions the older generations seem to take seriously. In history, we learnt that women were not allowed on boats/ships etc because it was considered bad luck but that eventually evolved into women being on ships is good luck. I remember my grandparents telling me not to whistle because girls shouldn’t whistle lol.

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    1. Oh, that’s soooooo true. Whistle too is forbidden by my grandmother. Actually nothing was allowed by her orthodoxy mind, and only eating and being silent were not forbidden. And she often wondered why people didn’t gravitate towards her. Hahaha.

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  2. Familiarity often offers comfort. And many are afraid of venturing far from that. Only those who are willing to take risks and accept a new thought pattern or action will taste the freshness of change. I think superstitions are very prevalent in India too. But the newer generations don’t care about them. Let’s just live and let live. Nothing to fear…

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    1. So true. I have to say a lot of times people’s views and gestures are so fossilized due to adherence to customs, but change is hard since every little change is a risk, which can cause people to lose what they’ve already had while waiting for the good effects of change which may not come as promptly as people would like to wish.
      Yes, wish the new generation takes stride for the future. And women especially.

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        1. People use idioms all the time, right? I heard of this phrase being used so regularly that I should feel the natural flow of it, but no, I am still not using it and I’ve always wondered what has inhibited my mind.

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  3. Interesting. This used to be a common theme in psychoanalysis: people were limiting themselves by employing strategies that were useful when they were children, but which no longer served any purpose for an adult. I’m sure we must all do it to some extent because the period 0-7 years old is crucial in our development.

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    1. Wow, that’s refreshing. Thank you for sharing such a psychological insights. We must have a lot of conscious and subconscious habits that we still follow even if their usefulness are only in the childhood.

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  4. There’s just something about traditions that stick in our subconscious. We may have gained more knowledge, but somewhere embedded in us is some irrational belief.
    Often times, we repeat our parents/grandparents mistakes unknowingly, maybe in different forms, but the same idea.

    This is a very interesting place, where your Grandma lived. Their beliefs are most certainly old fashioned, but it seems so new to me.

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    1. Tradition can be so irrational. I wonder if future generation will think that people like me are very strange and odd and old fashioned. That will break my heart a little bit, but I understand.
      True. Their beliefs are so weird that it almost feel new if it is put in a twisted Halloween movie.

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        1. True. I just think of different beliefs and I am a little confused what to believe in. Often we believe certain things only out of habit and not out of reasoning. Or even it is a reasoning, it is a reasoning based on an old habit.

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  5. What I found strangest is that girls should not top the class for it would β€œflip the boat.” These are really interesting and bizarre superstitions, like not to say number 4 lol. I know they say that about 13, but 4 has its reputation too, in most of Asia. πŸ™‚

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    1. That’s soooooo true. My grandmother is huge about women not doing anything to frustrating men, which will lead to a capsized boat in her opinion. I have to say she is never angry and always very good tempered, which is something I wish my mother inherited but she didn’t.

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    1. Thank you so much. Thank you for your compliment and it made my day. I am not a native speaker and I often struggle with English. LOL. You are soooooo right. Let go and see where it will take me. That’s a great way to express our thoughts. So beautiful.

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  6. If writing ‘safe and timid’ can produce such lovely readable pieces i don’t know what would happen if you let go lol…πŸ₯°
    V enjoyable post. Yes. All grandmothers are bound by customs and odd beliefs which seem so odd to the new generation! It would be interesting to study the origins of these beliefs..

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    1. Thank you, Shammi. Love your compliment. it made my day. Hahaha. I really want to let go but I know I can’t. I am incapable of “letting go.” Yes, grandmothers are very interesting creatures and they can believe in unbelievable things. I don’t want to be too harsh on my grandma, knowing that younger generation will judge me the same way…

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        1. Thank you for your wonderful compliment and encouragement. Hahaha. I wrote one but dare not show it to others since it is so bad. I am still sharpening my skills so that I can write something that will not be as bad.

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  7. Traditions and even superstitions are part of our past and also give it a certain charm.

    As regards new words, I find that your posts that list and explain them are wonderful, IIt doesn’t matter if you don’t use them; people’s passive vocabulary, i.e. the words they understand, is considerably superior to the active vocabulary, i.e. the limited number of words they use daily

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    1. It is so true. This is why people follow their own tradition in a very charming way.
      I agree with you totally. The passive vocabulary is so useful and actually most of the words are probably in a corner of the brain, never to be used actively.

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