Multicultural Manners : A Chilled Misunderstanding

Melanie attends a New York college and rooms with Heng, a Chinese girl from Malaysia. When Melanie returns from the library one day at exam time, she opens the refrigerator to get a soft drink and notices a glass of cloudy water.

"Ooh, Heng," she says. "You have moldy water in here."

Embarrassed, Heng says nothing.

What did it mean?

The glass contained water mixed with ashes from a burnt hoo, a piece of paper containing characters written by priests at a Malaysian temple of Kuan Yin, a Chinese goddess of mercy. Because she had been worried about the outcome of her exams, Heng had followed a Chinese tradition to receive help in the form of a blessing derived from this talisman.

Heng had burned it, setting fire to it from the bottom. Then she dissolved its ashes in a glass of warm water. To make the blessing effective, she had to drink the water/ash mixture, but since she was not able to finish it, she had refrigerated the rest to drink at a later time.

Believers in the power of the hoo also use it to bless a new home, sometimes by simply hanging it from a doorway or mixing its ashes in water and splashing it around the house. They pour any unused ash and water mixture onto something living, such as a plant, but avoid pouring it down the drain.

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