College Essay: Johnathan Rafailov

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Superstitious Security

My mother takes a plain, perfect chicken egg and orbits it around my head five times. As she does this, she vehemently recites a verse in our native language, Juhuri, diffusing the bad spirits from me to the egg and focusing the glare of the evil eye elsewhere. She puts the egg into the trash, careful not to shatter its shell. Then, she repeats the process with each member of my family.

Only recently has it dawned on me how ubiquitous superstitions are in my family. For as long as I’ve lived, I can remember having an unopened water bottle sit beside my doorpost, but never questioning why. I can remember receiving a crisp 50-dollar bill every time my uncle left for his home in Azerbaijan, only to have it rest in my sock drawer until his next arrival in New York. I can remember buying baby clothes with my mom only after Shira, my oldest sister’s daughter, was born and resting well in the hospital.

The concept of superstitions is hard to explain, yet easy to follow. To outsiders, the superstitions we believe in seem unusual, but to me, they are completely normal—and most are logical: the Poland Spring bottle that sits in the corner promotes good health to all that it greets. The currency acts as a placeholder to await the traveler’s return. The purchasing of a baby’s clothes in advance of her birth aims the family’s attention in the wrong direction; the welfare of the mother is more important than a visit to Gymboree.

But the superstitions that defy logic are the ones that baffle me most. Over the course of a year, we throw away nearly two dozen eggs for no apparent reason. “Why do you have to use an egg? Why can’t you break it?” I would ask my mother. “Does it work?”

“Bad spirits go from life to life. If you break the shell, they escape,” she would respond. But she could not tell me definitively if it worked. I asked my grandma and uncles for their opinions, but they could not make up their minds either.

No one, myself included, could point to an explanation behind this superstition. The only thing constant among all superstitions is the sense of security they seem to provide. Because superstitious acts are performed right in front of us, they provide a safety net on which we can fall back. As my mom hovers the egg over my head, I have little choice but to trust it to do its job. If it works, great. If it doesn’t? I might as well believe it does.

Superstitions, I have learned, are able to propel us forward: they convince us that all is well with fabricated feelings that allow us to start anew. Whether they fulfill their intents or not is beside the point; believing that they work makes all the difference.

Twenty years ago, my parents immigrated to the United States with nothing but their traditions and superstitions to guide them. Their story was a typical one: they abandoned everything in Russia and Azerbaijan with hopes to establish better lives for their children. Superstitions gave them security—or, at least, the illusion of it—in the midst of chaos.

Twenty years later, my family has settled into the once-new life. Today is no longer a day that requires me to rely on superstitions for safety. Rather, it is a day that lets me attain safety and stability for myself. This does not mean abandoning the superstitions I’ve been raised with; I’ve come to accept the egg-circling, water bottle permanence, and currency rituals as part of my culture’s customs. But turning my passions into something productive—a college education, and a future for myself and maybe for my own future children—will supplement my definition of security.