“No. Absolutely not. You cannot move into that apartment. Do you know how much I’ll worry about you if you do? Absolutely not.”
Standing on a street corner in Brooklyn, in front of a bank I was about to go into to get a cashier’s check for the deposit on my new apartment, I found my 36-years-old self arguing with my Chinese mother on my cell phone, about whether or not I was “allowed” to rent an apartment.
Is the apartment in question in a dangerous neighborhood? Nope. Quiet, safe, convenient – my mom even marveled at the historic Victorian homes peppering the area.
Is the building dilapidated? Overrun with thieves and pirates? No and no. I showed my realtor mother pictures and she loved the tidy, pre-war lobby and liked that I ran into several friendly people with kids and dogs.
Is it way out of my price range? Again no. Due to how tiny it is compared to many of the nearby one-bedroom apartments, my husband and I got it at well below the median rent in the area.
Of all the places I’ve lived over the past seven years, this apartment may be the least spooky. No overwhelming roach infestation; no “bonus bathroom” that must remain sealed at all times because we’re convinced something died in there; no badger “fight club” meeting underneath my rural bedroom window every night; no neighbors conducting baffling rituals (in front of their window) where they flail around at 1am in near darkness except for the glow of a dim, red light.
At 36 years old, this may be the most grown-up apartment I’ve ever had. Take that as you will.
But after my mom saw pictures of the apartment, she no longer saw the gleaming, original wood floors or the perfect black and white tiled bathroom floor. Nope she only saw death.
“Your bedroom is shaped like a COFFIN. It’s a coffin! Such terrible feng shui! You can’t live there! Just my opinion…BUT YOU CAN’T.”
No, the bedroom is not shaped like a coffin. Not quite. Maybe from certain angles. Well…you see what you want to see.
Yes, it’s odd shaped. One side of the oblong room has a short wall, then the long exterior wall widens out to a point, then narrows again, meeting the wall at the other end of the room at an obtuse angle.
So fine, if you really want to see it that way it looks like…half a coffin. If we’re talking traditional western containers for burying the dead, wouldn’t technically all rectangular rooms be casket-shaped then?
I’m just saying.
“Coziest li’l coffin in Brooklyn!” I kept joking. My mom is not amused. A coffin-shaped bedroom, where you sleep, is calling upon the dead, inviting death in. In a bad way. The dead could see it as a mockery. My ancestors could see it as “rude”. Did I really want the dead to DESCEND UPON ME as I slept? Sucking away good energy?
Bickering with my mom on that street corner – listing all the positive energy elements of the apartment and the building – I was frustrated but I understood. My entire life has been about balancing life, death, and yes, spirits.
I can’t speak for all Chinese people or Chinese-Americans, but having lived in Hong Kong and having been brought up as a first generation Chinese-American, belief in how the supernatural has a say in your well-being is not entirely a thing of the past. Even now, in the glass and steel business metropolis of Hong Kong, billionaires will employ feng shui masters to ensure that their properties and business are facing the right way, have the best angles, room shapes, and views so as to invite in good energy and financial success.
No building’s configuration or design is haphazard in Hong Kong, and business failures have been publicly blamed on “bad energy” or “bad feng shui”. When I was looking for an apartment in Hong Kong a few years ago (I settled on the one that had the ritualistic “red light” neighbors), nearly every building I looked at in the more “Chinese” neighborhoods on Kowloon Peninsula (as opposed to the more westernized neighborhoods on Hong Kong Island) did not have a fourth floor or 14th floor.
Why? Because the Cantonese word for “four” is the same as the word for “death”. Four to Chinese people is like the number 13 to westerners. The number 14, if said like “one-four” in Cantonese would translate to “CERTAIN DEATH.”
Who would want to live on the DEATH FLOOR?
Incidentally, during my apartment search in Hong Kong, I looked at an apartment in a newer building that had a dreaded fourth floor. The apartments on the fourth floor were the least expensive in the building, despite having no discernible difference in size or layout.
When I asked the real estate agent what was “wrong” with the apartment she showed me, she laughed nervously and said, “Well…it’s the fourth floor and…someone left very quickly and…” She hesitated and looked around at the apartment, its new floors shiny under the harsh overhead light, like it might spew ectoplasm at her at any moment.
I couldn’t resist. “Did someone die here?” I asked.
She looked me right in the eyes and said, “It’s huge isn’t it? And such a good price!” Then she walked out and talked with another tenant who had been peering at us from the doorway. They spoke rapidly in Mandarin – I understand Cantonese – and as my husband and I exited, the neighbor lady switched to Cantonese and said, “Good price huh?” and laughed.
It was a good price, but everything my mom had taught me told me to stay far, far away. I’m sure part of the reason for the low price was because I wasn’t the only person listening to their mother’s deeply ingrained warnings in their head. There’s actually a market for “haunted” or unlucky apartments in Hong Kong and Asia. On the flat-hunting website Spacious, superstitious locals and westerners can get decent deals (or just a great story) on apartments that have hauntings or “tragic events” attached to them.
But I was not, and am not one of those people. A “haunted” apartment is not for me.
This is mostly because in a contest between my overactive imagination and any rational skepticism, my imagination will always win and every bump in the night or flicker of the light will become THE GHOST. However, there is also the “obedient daughter” in me that could never bear to tell my mom I live in an apartment that a potentially violent death has touched recently. In a way, it would be akin to a Catholic child insisting on hanging an upside-down cross in their home: both throwing belief back in the face of the person who tried to instill it in you, as well as yes, maybe daring negativity to come into your home – spiritually speaking or otherwise.
In hindsight, I was probably reading too much into my real estate agent’s behavior. When your earliest memories are of your parents sitting around the living room with your uncles and aunts, telling stories of the time your grandfather saw the dead walk through his village or the time your dad’s dead grandmother took up residence in his childhood living room for five days, you tend to see everything through spectre-shaded spectacles. Spectre-cles.
My family’s brand of supernatural tinged belief is firmly rooted in how the elements inform good and bad energy in the environments we occupy (feng shui) as well as how death, the dead, and certain influential spirits can spin fortune or misfortune in your life. I’d be lying if I said I knew where actual Taoist, Buddhist, or feng shui belief end and my family’s specially cultivated beliefs on spirits and the will of the dead begin, but that perfect storm of fear and delight in otherworldly powers has informed every inch of my life whether I like it or not.
I’ve hung special eight-sided bagua mirrors outside my front door to counteract bad energy encroaching on my home.
I’ve not even bothered looking at seemingly great apartments because the address was something like 444 44th Street, Apt. 14. (Just typing that many fours makes me a little wary.)
I’ve had to PROMISE not to wear a certain piece of antique jewelry bequeathed to me by a dead relative because it has something “dark” attached to it. I’m to look at it, take care of it, be respectful – but never wear it.
Once, when there was a death in the family, I found myself inundated with sweets – little candies, biscuits, and the like – after the funeral. “You always have to have something sweet after visiting the dead, just in case bad energy follows you home,” my mom warned.
I’ve bowed to the dead, left food for the dead, turned lights on for the dead, turn lights off for the dead, rang bells for the dead – all while going about what likely appears to be a very normal, modern life.
But amidst all the modernity, the life indistinguishable from most typical 30-somethings living in a major city, my mom’s beliefs, my mom’s guidance and instructions are always in my periphery. While I am not religious, beliefs on feng shui, the dead, and spirits are very much a tie to my culture and my family.
To completely turn my back on the superstitious or supernatural side of my Hong Kong Chinese culture would be a loss to me. It would be excising a part of my “Chineseness” that feels older and deeper than I can understand. I don’t see it as religion so much as an intangible connection to the past that informs my present. It really comes down acknowledging my ancestors, and I treasure that.
Do I believe it all 100 percent? I don’t think so. Do I believe enough that I’d prefer not to tempt fate? Yes. Do I participate in a lot of it out of respect for the living as well as the dead? Absolutely.
But the way I see it, along with Netflix and smart phones and 24-hour food delivery, there’s room for some good energy in my life.
Which brings us back to the coffin bedroom.
After much negotiating, with my mom, and after she consulted with an older, wiser feng shui master in Vancouver, it was decided that I could move into the apartment as long as I promised to do everything I was told to counteract the bad energy.
Furthermore, after copious pictures were taken of every angle in the bedroom, another feng shui master she knew (also in Canada, go figure) said that the room was actually shaped in a way that was positive.
As he explained, the room started narrow then widened out, meaning that my life would get bigger and better. So…a good luck coffin?
Whatever the case may be, my mom is now happy about the good things the room and apartment could bring me. I’ll still be strategically hanging mirrors and placing possessions from my ancestors in places of honor around the apartment, but the good energy is flowing.
I’m not sure if it’s feng shui, my dead relatives smiling upon my choices, or the approval of my mom, but things feel very positive in my new home. The way life can go these days, I don’t much care if it’s spirits or circumstance that are brightening my life.
Whatever you choose to believe, I believe I’m the better for both.