This episode deals with the number “4”. The show starts with Jessica working to sell a property for her real estate firm, owned by former rival Ashley. Her boss gives her the task to sell a house on 44 West 44th Street. Only a small problem surfaces: the number “4” in Chinese sounds like the word for “death”. In Huang household, they aren’t allowed to pronounce “4” even in English. Louis, the rational man (great stereotype), proclaims, “Every generation gets less superstitious”. I suppose he means that every generation becomes less superstitious as westernization takes over. In real life, the matter isn’t that simple.
Contrary to the stereotypical mystical, mysterious, mythical and superstitious oriental, the number “4” deserves more explanation than that of the show. “4” sounds like death in the Chinese language, especially in the Cantonese language. Behind such a superstition is the entire phenomenon of the Chinese language that has nothing to do with superstition. “Death” is something no one wants to talk about, not even if you’re white and western. More important than this obvious unpleasant, unavoidable and unspeakable fact of death is the tonal nature of the Chinese language. Unlike the western languages, Chinese languages can have anywhere from five to seven tones (or maybe someone can correct me and tell me there’re more). Since Chinese is a tonal language, its cultural expression of concepts come not in the pronunciation but the tone of the character. To merely see “4” as a superstition misses part of the point. The point is that in every culture, there’re taboo words or symbols. “4” symbolizes the tonal expression of the Chinese culture. The concepts are in the tone. To have too much fun with the number “4” is just a social faux pas.
If we compare the simplistic explanation of the Chinese superstition of the number “4” with the way superstitious numbers occur in the West, we’ll surely find that the West often is more and not less superstitious in this regard. Think about “13” the unlucky number and the combination of Friday and 13. That’s an unpleasant thought. Many explanations go into why these are unlucky numbers but none of them explain too well what the superstition is about. It’s simply an unfound fear. At this stage, we probably should at least remove the blindfold over our seemingly rational eyes to see our own western superstitious being worse in some ways because there isn’t even a linguistic phenomenon associated with it.
I’m writing this post for Christian readers. I think it’s important to know a culture and language before assuming anything about a culture. What we do know about superstition is simple. Superstition is just a way to explain otherwise unexplainable fears and realities. How we express that isn’t simply superstition. How we express it is simply cultural.
Another implication of such a show is that we can so easily have blind spots. Many of us assume that the “other” (those who look, speak and live differently from us) is more superstitious. Many of us tend to think of ourselves as superior and intelligent, much more so than the “others” anyway. We should always remover the beam from our own eyes so that we can see whether there really is a splinter in the “other’s” eyes. Cultural blind spots die hard, but die they must.
Oh, the story has a happy ending. Jessica sold the house with the number “4”. Who’s afraid of “4”?