My informant is a Vietnamese student currently attending high school in Irvine, California in a predominantly Asian-American neighborhood. She was born in Irvine and has lived there all her life, and the high school she attends now, ranked in the top ten public high schools in America, is notorious for its rigor, and its extremely studious students. When I asked her whether she knew superstitions pertaining to her school, she jumped up with this one almost immediately:
I know it’s probably not just my school, and there are probably people that do this in schools everywhere, but I think it’s especially bad here because everyone does it and everyone really believes in it too. Like, before a test, you’re never supposed to say out aloud that you think you’re ready. Ever, like, it’s taboo or something. You’re always supposed to say, “Oh my God, I’m so screwed,” or like, “I’m gonna do so badly on this,” because otherwise, there’s this stupid superstition that you’re gonna fail. [Laughing] And it’s really annoying when the super-smart kids do it too, and you know they’ve studied for like the past week straight, and they’re saying things like, “Oh, I just started studying yesterday,” and I’m like, “No you didn’t!” Like, if you say you think you’re ready and you think you might do well, people kind of look at you like you’re being cocky or arrogant or something. And then people say all the time how once, they thought they were ready for a test and said so, and they ended up failing. And then the next time they like, lowered their expectations or whatever, and said they were gonna fail, and they end up getting an A-plus. Everyone does it. [Smiling] I mean, it’s stupid, but I do it too. What’s better than like, not having any expectations at all, you know?
In a school culture dominated by grades and academics, this superstition, which is, as she said, probably present in any high school, is intensified and ritualized. Saying, “I’m gonna do so badly on this” is a student trying to lower their expectations in case the test is more difficult than they had thought, and at the same time trying to disarm, in a way, “the competition,” as my informant put it. “People at my school are super-competitive.” She said. “It’s funny, like, there’d be people that would even argue about which one was more not ready, so that if they did get a bad grade it’d be justified or something.” The lower the expectations, the less the disappointment would probably be–which is why it is such a good defense mechanism.
That these students even need a superstition like this seems testament to the immense amounts of pressure placed on them as high school students expected to advance to prestigious universities. By telling themselves and others that they aren’t ready for an exam, they push the blame for a bad grade on not being ready, instead of, perhaps, the scarier alternative, which is not being smart enough. A minor superstition, but its proliferation at her high school probably expresses a certain terror for not being capable enough–we can always try harder, but if we try really hard and we still can’t get a good grade, then where do we go? Are we just not smart enough? And that question is what these students seem the most afraid of.