hen I turned thirty-three, I decided it was time for a big change in my life. It was time to become a witch.
I have to admit that I was not sure if this would be a good idea.
My name is Ai Lian, “love lotus” in Chinese, or Eileen Chen in English. Although I was Western-educated and lived in the modern era, I believed somewhere inside me there lived a witch, at least in spirit. I grew up in a family who believed in anything metaphysical, however implausible.
Both my mother and grandmother were “witches,” or what the Chinese call
are also referred to as
people who have mastered the way and thus have the power to manipulate reality.
Both my mother and my grandmother could predict the future, visit the past, see auras, and talk to invisible beings. Unfortunately, Mother had died young in her forties, to the great grief of myself and her own mother, my grandmother, Laolao. Because she had lost her daughter, Laolao wanted me to be a shamaness to carry on the family lineage. Besides healing, casting spells, going into trances, and taking on animal powers, she organized underworld tours. Laolao would also cast the
â“beating the petty people” spells. These spells would ensure that the trivial, touchy, gossipy, jealous little men and women who cause us endless troubles got what they deserved.
From my mother and grandmother, I'd learned the basics of witchcraftâempowering amulets, concocting healing herbs, casting spells, communicating with the dead. And the great Chinese tradition of
âfinding out if a residence, whether
for the dead or
for the living, had good placement and energy flow. Though I was forced to study these skills, I'd never really practiced them. I prided myself on being a modern woman, not an old-fashioned or superstitious one. So, instead of becoming a shamaness like Mother and Laolao, I'd become a scholar of shamanism.
After I'd gotten my Ph.D. in shamanism, I'd started working as an assistant professor at San Francisco State University. Four years had passed and I desperately needed to get a book published in order to get tenure and a promotion to associate professor. The head of the anthropology department, Timothy Lee, had advised me to add a section on Western witchcraft to my dissertation, then publish it as a book. It was an excellent suggestion. However, while I deemed myself pretty knowledgeable about Chinese shamanism, my understanding of its Western counterpart was mainly secondhand from books.
What is a witch anyway? Do they really exist? Are they just ignorant, crazy people who try to scare you to get your money?
I decided that the only way to really know about witches would be to become one myself.
Was I scared? Of course. But I had to write my book, or otherwise I might lose my job. Timothy had hinted that he'd highly recommend me for the promotionâbut only if I got my book published. He always deemed me the best candidate because of my cultural background, which was filled with tales of fortune-telling, witchcraft, shamans, vengeful gods, voodoo, juju, and whatnot, actively practiced for 3,000 years from the Stone Age into the electronic era.
Did I really believe in witchcraft? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I was of two minds. Part of me believed I was a witch born into a long family lineage. Another part, my academic self, kept insisting that I was not a witch, but a normal woman studying witchcraft scientifically.
Either way, I needed to write this book. And to write it I needed to do fieldwork. So I decided to take a year off to look for witches, gather materials in order to write about them, and then, once I had tenure, relax and enjoy life.
At least this was my plan.
A Birthday Gift for a Witch
t was my thirty-third birthday. In Chinese culture, three is an extremely lucky number, because it is synonymous with the word
or “prosperous.” Needless to say, thirty-three is double good luck. So I wanted a special celebration for my once-in-a-lifetime thirty-third birthday.
My birthday fell during midterm exam week, leaving me stuck grading papers. So I was very grateful when my younger sister, Bao Lianâ“precious lotus” in Chinese and Brenda in Englishâoffered to organize the party for me. At twenty-nine, Brenda was already a real-estate lawyer aggressively climbing the relentless legal ladder toward partnership. My little sister's success was in part due to her knowing how to use her charmâespecially with men. I suspected Brenda had volunteered to host the party so that she could flirt with my guestsâperhaps even my on-and-off boyfriend, Ivan Collins. Her flirting was indiscriminateâanyone male, from her boss and senior colleagues to waiters, doormen, bartenders, taxi drivers, delivery guys.
Whenever I criticized her for this, she'd wink, and say, “Relax, Eileen. Life should be a big party with us all enjoying ourselves!”
As an assistant professor, of course I didn't have a large apartment to invite friends over to. Luckily, Ivan said we could use his big luxury condo in Pacific Heights as long as we cleaned up afterward. Brenda and I had no problem with that, as we'd both cleaned houses and apartments to work our way through college.
Of course Ivan had only said this as a joke. An investment banker, he could well afford a cleaning lady. Divorced for several years, Ivan had been looking for the right woman and seemed to think that I was the one. I appreciated him for his hard work and generosity but wasn't comfortable with his take-no-prisoners, overly ambitious approach to life. Nor did I want his hyperactive, jet-setting, breakfast-in-London and dinner-in-Paris lifestyle.
Of course, like most women, I didn't mind having a rich boyfriend. For some reason I just couldn't love Ivan back completely and that bothered me. While I felt attracted to his intelligence and success, I found his constant boasting about how much money he had made that week tedious. And so we drifted apart. Since he never complained about our on-and-off relationship, I guessed he must have other women on the side. Or maybe he just hoped that one day I'd come around.
Right now we were in a separation phase, as he put it, to give each other more space and time to reflect on our future. Or maybe it just gave him more space and time for other women. I believed Ivan truly loved me, but I knew he was also aware that if things didn't work out between us, he could have almost any woman he wanted.
When I talked to Brenda about my intermittent romance, she said, “Eileen, why don't you just marry Ivan and enjoy a luxurious life? After a few years, if you want, you can get a divorce and live off a big alimony check and child support. So you really have nothing to lose. Listen, big sister, only a crazy woman would let go of such a once-in-a-life-time catch!”
I gave her a dirty look. “Brenda, when did our parents teach us to be so practical and materialistic?”
But she ignored my question. “Trust me, Eileen, you've everything to gain and nothing to lose by marrying Ivan. Period.”
I wished I could pass Ivan on to Brenda, but there was no chance of that. At least if he was with Brenda the money would still stay with usâas Brenda wishedâand not be wasted on some unknown women. But unfortunately my little sister was too much like the other women Ivan knewâclimbing the corporate ladder, chasing after designer clothes, luxury cars, trendy restaurants, and exotic vacation spotsâto interest him.
I think Ivan liked me because I was not money and status crazy. He knew I cared more about the other world than this one. With me, he could glimpse a life utterly different from his own. But I worried that Ivan would get tired of me when the initial excitement of having a witchy, professor girlfriend wore off. Anyway, I was not yet ready to take the plunge. Since I was a child, I'd been waiting for something unusual, or big, to happen in my life. Life with Ivan was not it.
For my birthday party, Brenda and I had sent out over thirty invitations to friends and colleagues. But no students were included, because in case the professors got drunk, I didn't want gossip flying back to the university administration. There was always the risk that when faculty and students got drunk together, remarks would slip out that would later be regretted.
Brenda suggested that the theme should be witchcraft and offered to do the decorations.
I told her, “Fine, but everything should be innocuous, absolutely no creepy stuff like fake corpses or severed hands and arms.”
“At your order, ma'am,” she said. “After all, Halloween is months away.”
Since I had a late-afternoon class to teach on my birthday, I didn't arrive at Ivan's apartment until six. Entering his living room, the first thing I noticed was red candles lining the walls, giving the place a cozy, but also eerie, feeling.
Brenda dashed toward me, screaming, “Eileen, happy birthday!”
I eyed my little sister's long-sleeved red dress. The plunging neckline revealed quite a lot of her bosom. The whole effect was multiplied by her bright red necklace, earrings, and bloody-looking lips. She would get plenty of male attention tonight.
“Thanks, Brenda. Everything's ready?”
“Of course. You can always count on me, big sister.”
“Good.” I exchanged nods with a few early arrived guests, then turned to Brenda. “Now I need to change.”
Inside Ivan's marble bathroom, with its gold-rimmed mirror, I took off my pantsuit, refreshed my makeup, and put on my shamaness's gown. I had decided not to dress in a Western witch's outfit because I didn't want to wear black on my birthday. So instead I wore a pink Chinese dress, accessorized by a chunky silver necklace with Daoist motifs: bats for good luck, pears for immortality, and goddesses for beauty and compassion. After piling my hair into a bun and decorating it with a silk pink lotus, I looked at the mirror and was happy with what I saw. A mysterious, exotic shamanessâready to play tricks or cast spells.
Was it a real witch staring back at me from the mirror? The answer was yet to be found out.
When I went back out to the living room, most of the guests had arrived. They came up to greet me with the obligatory Chinese sayings Brenda had probably just taught them:
“Happy birthday, Eileen! May your good fortune
be as deep as the Eastern Sea and your longevity
as high as the Southern Mountain!”
“May every year be as wonderful as this one,
And every birthday like this birthday!”
“More wealth, more years, more fame,
More light, more pleasure, more luck!”
After greeting me, people gathered in small groups to talk or, with a glass of wine in hand, walked around to appreciate Ivan's luxury apartment and his collection of modern paintings, hand-crafted ceramics, Indian statutes, and exotic Mexican masks.
Soon Brenda materialized by my side, took my hand, and led me to a table set up as an altar. “It took me a few hours to set this up. I hope you like it!”
I was relieved that my little sister had kept her promise and hadn't displayed anything creepy. There were candles, crystal balls, a deck of tarot cards, jars of colorful “medicine,” small plates of exotic herbs, a witch doll with a comical face, a witch bracelet with miniature charms, and a Ouija board for conjuring. The table-turned-altar was bedecked with a floral shawl with long black tassels. To complete the scene, Ivan's black cat, dressed up by Brenda in a witch's cape and hat, posed regally on the altar as if she were the real boss of this party.
Just as I was about to complain that there should also be an altar for a Chinese witch, Brenda smiled mysteriously.
She led me past a few guests toward the other end of the living room before she stopped in front of another display. To my delight, this one was decorated with Daoist talismans: gourds, a long string of prayer beads, a small drum, a bronze mirror, a ceramic mortar and pestle, a small three-legged cauldron, and a Prussian blue string-bound book entitled
Jade Lady's Feminine Fist
Chinese shamans are expected to have great longevity, heal diseases, undergo otherworldly journeys, practice internal and external alchemy, and, of course, cast spells and curses.
Jade Lady's Feminine Fist
is a manual for the practice of achieving internal
energy. Chinese people believe that if you have strong
you can practically do anythingâlevitate, knock people to the ground without even touching them, stay alive without food, survive severe cold without clothes, even be buried alive and emerge a few days later.
My little sister, despite our family's heritage, had never shown any interest in either Western or Chinese witchcraft. She only cared for practical things, which was not a bad thing, but I believed that people should also cultivate their spiritual side. So when disaster strikes, as it always does sooner or later, you have something to fall back on.
I was amazed by my little sister's efforts, and I said, “Thanks, Brenda. How did you know about all these things?”
“I read your papers and dissertation for ideas.”
“But then where did you buy everything?”
“Haight-Ashbury.” She chuckled.
Just then my off-again boyfriend Ivan materialized. He draped an arm over Brenda and me.
“Girls, everything going well?”
Like me, Ivan had had to work late, but unlike me, he had to sweet-talk the big wigs and sign seven-figure contracts while I lectured, graded papers, and met with curious students. I suspected my students' enthusiasm to meet me after class was due to rumors that I was a real witch. They wondered, though wouldn't dare ask, if I burned old socks on my lover's side of the bed so he'd stay faithful. If I'd put my menstrual blood into my boyfriend's soup for the same reason. If I could concoct a brew of exotic herbs to mend a broken heartâor to break one. I had no one to blame but myself. For, in order to attract more students to my class, I often hinted that I was a witch.
“Yes, Ivan,” Brenda and I said simultaneously.
“And thanks for lending us your place,” I added.
Later, when all the guests had arrived, Ivan made a public display of affectionâeven though I wasn't his girlfriend at the momentâby holding my waist and kissing me on my lips.
“Happy birthday, my dear Eileen.”
Everyone raised their glasses and toasted. “Happy birthday, Eileen!”
Ivan stared at me lovingly. “Eileen, you look very beautiful and exotic. But please don't put anything into my soup or drink tonight, promise?”
That was why I liked Ivanâdespite his driving ambition, he had a sense of humor. He looked particularly attractive tonight with his well-shaped nose and strong jaw. At forty-three, he possessed a muscular physique due to his relentless gym visits. He was a charming man even without the overflowing bank account.
He whispered in my ear, “Can you spend the night with me tonight, please?”
I cast him a mock dirty look. “Ivan, aren't we sepâ”
He cut me off. “Eileen, it's cold tonight and I'm lonely. . . .”
“Okay,” I said, and smiled, “I can spend the night. But since I promised not to put anything in your drink, then you can't put anything in me.”
He made a face, whispering back, “Ah, can't outsmart a woman, especially one with a Ph.D.âin witchcraft, no less.”
Enjoying being the center of attention, dressed in my exotic costume, I floated around the apartment greeting people, all the while imagining myself as Xiwang Mu, Queen Mother of the West who reigns over all the immortals. And Ivan as if he were the King Father of the East, casting me protective, or controlling, glances as he chatted with his friends. A friend of mine strummed a guitar, providing soft background music for the partygoers.
In a corner next to the altar, Brenda talked with one of the male guests, her delicate hands and fingers, never having practiced nonattachment, lingered on the man's arms and shoulders. Brenda always told me that a little flirting never hurts, for all men like it, even gays and grandfathers.
After all the greetings, Ivan came back to me. We took food from the table and sat down on a couch to eat. My department head, Timothy Lee, came to sit with us.
Downing a big gulp of Ivan's expensive wine, Timothy smiled. “Happy birthday, Eileen. How are you?”