(4/13/2018) Today is Friday the thirteenth, a date most westerners associate with ill tidings, negative omens and bad luck in general. An entire blood-soaked film franchise is based on Friday the Thirteenth’s nefarious nature, and more than a few folks avoid traveling on the 13th day of any month that happens to fall on a Friday.
In Taiwan, however, the date is meaningless, and more than one Taiwanese friend has asked me,
“Josh, why is Friday the thirteenth considered an unlucky day in America?”
To which I’ve wisely answered (being something of an expert in both Taiwanese and American culture):
“Errrrr…let me get back to you on that.”
And then consulted our good friend Madame Wikipedia on the subject.
While there are a few theories floating around, there’s no concrete evidence pointing to exactly what – culturally or scientifically – makes the phenomenon of triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen) prominent in western culture. But as the number of buildings with elevators skipping from 12th to 14th floors (or using some sneaky accounting trick like calling floor 13 “floor 12.5” or some such thing) are prominent enough to not raise eyebrows, it’s clearly “a thing” in the west.
There’s even less evidence for what causes the even more impressive sounding (and kinda more ridiculous) paraskevidekatriaphobia (“fear of Friday the 13th). But according to the very impressive sounding Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina:
“An estimated 17 to 21 million people in the United States are affected by a fear of this day, making it the most feared day and date in history. Some people are so paralyzed by fear that they avoid their normal routines in doing business, taking flights or even getting out of bed.”
Meaning that fear of Friday the 13th is definitely a thing back home.
Of course, in Taiwan the number 13 isn’t considered any less lucky than 12, 17 or 9, since fear of the number 13 isn’t a thing here.
And this is because Taiwanese people are way less superstitious than Americans, right?
Actually, the phenomenon that makes elevators skip mysteriously from 12 to 14 plays a similar trick, not just in buildings around Taiwan, but in other countries throughout east Asia. Only here the number considered unlucky enough to warrant creative counting of floors is 4, and this Tetraphobia (yup, you guessed it, “fear of the number four”) is far more prominent in Asia than triskaidekaphobia is in the west, to the point where people actively avoid having phone numbers with the number four in them, and giving four of anything is considered unlucky at best (and downright threatening at worst). (Read more: Do in Taiwan as the Taiwanese do! Seven Taiwan Taboos worth knowing about)
But unlike the western 13-phobia, the East Asian fear of 4 is actually based on something tangible, specifically the fact that in the region’s languages the word for “four” is a homophone for the word “death.”
In Mandarin, it’s a mere difference of tone – sì (四，fourth tone) versus sǐ (死，third tone). It’s a similar story in other Chinese dialects, with either an easily missed tonal difference or, in some cases, no difference at all. (In non-tonal Korean and Japanese there’s no difference. Not surprisingly, the same taboos exist in those nations.
As for Friday the thirteenth (which falls more-or-less randomly across the calendar year over year), the date is insignificant in Taiwan. Just another day before Saturday the fourteenth, no matter which month it falls.
But what about April 4th? “Four-Four”, by its very numerical nature is predictable, falling each year on the same date (though if you use the lunar calendar it would be the fourth day of the fourth lunar month, which in Chinese still nets the same inauspicious-sounding Death-Death). Surely 4/4, which fell last Wednesday, must be a day of dread throughout Taiwan, a day when the superstitious choose to stay indoors for fear of tempting the fates, or otherwise attracting bad mojo?
Actually, in Taiwan April 4th is Ertong Jie – “Children’s Day” – a public holiday specifically set aside for celebration of and by children. It’s a day of merriment and joy, one in which the laughter of children (excused from school) ring through parks, playgrounds and malls from Keelung to Kenting.
So why does Taiwan chose what should be the least-auspicious (linguistically speaking, at least) day of the year as its national Children’s Day instead of picking 6/1 (Russia’s Children’s Day) or 10/1 (ditto, Singapore)?
I’ve usually got good answers for most Taiwan questions starting with the letter W.
“Where can I get the best dumplings in Taipei?” (Wu Hua Ma on Tienmu West Road. No offence, Din Tai Fung, just a personal preference.)
“When should I visit Penghu?” (Probably May – September, unless you’re coming for the wind surfing, in which case the winds start in the Autumn and keep getting stronger all winter.)
“Who are those kids on the back of Taiwan’s NT1000 bill?” (Elementary students from Taipei in 1999, and not, as some say, the grandchildren of former president Lee Tung-hui.)
But when it comes to questions starting with the word Why…especially when it comes to questions like “Why do Taiwanese people consider the number 4 unlucky but also make 4/4 a holiday geared towards kids?”
I’m afraid I must humbly demure. Questions like this are way above my pay grade.