Monday, April 25, 2005

Ghost Story

I have to admit, in all fragrant honesty, that there are times around here when I have a strong suspicion that I'm living in a foreign culture. The superstition of Taiwanese is not something that recent arrivals here are very much privy to. Taiwanese are perfectly aware that such things are considered strange by Westerners, and so they are disinclined to share that part of their lives with foreigners until they've known them for years. But many people here have beliefs that are quite alien to our own. I thought of this today when I bumped into a Chinese teacher from the school I worked at for years until recently. Her story is eye-opening:

This woman told me her husband had been acting strangely lately, being hyper-critical of her and short - tempered around the house. He's been marginally employed for some time, and some business deals he's had haven't worked out well. She suspected she knew why, because she had been experiencing some strange things herself and she suspected they were being haunted. Before her husband had married her, as it turns out, her husband had been engaged to a woman who had gotten cancer during the engagement and died. When my friend had gotten married, it was with a stipulation from the groom: on the day that they got married, there would be two wedding ceremonies, the first to the deceased woman, making her the "first wife" (大太太)and only after that could the man marry his living fiancee, who would be considered the "second wife" (小太太). Moreover, the couple was told by a priest in a temple that they could not sleep with each other for three days after the wedding, because for those three days the man should be "sleeping" with the first wife, which was her prerogative.

Recently, with things not going smoothly in their household, they went to the priest for a consultation. They were told they were being haunted by the first wife. The (living) woman had faithfully, on a daily basis over the years, prayed to and worshipped the ancestral tablet of the "first wife", but in fact, they had not really observed the three day no sex rule. This, they were told, was the source of their problems. But that's not the full extent of their difficulties. The first wife, when she had been dating the husband, had gotten pregnant and had an abortion. The priest also said that my friend's youngest son (they have three children), two years old, has a ghost who is following him around everywhere he goes - apparently the aborted child. They have not yet been told how they can resolve these difficulties.

I do find stories like this fascinating. We Americans definitely are entirely too dismissive of the idea that luck, or fortune, plays a huge role in who lives a good, full, prosperous life and who doesn't. The old puritan idea that material success confirms one as a good person, and among the "elect" to go to heaven always struck me as ridiculous on the face of it. "We make our own luck" is pretty much the American credo, and mostly I think it makes people feel good because it makes them feel in control. But Taiwanese seem to go to the other extreme. Many people here believe in a world of spirits that simply control their lives and make the efforts of mortals all but irrelevant. Anyway, I hope my friend can resolve her problems.