Vast Visions

a year abroad in south korea

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The Fortune Teller


It’s 2am, and on club street in Daegu, warm light and Mao Zedong’s face glow from a cheap plate-glass facade; the fortune teller is within, furrowing her freckled brow, not-so-discreetly checking her phone on the table, turning her cards with the rhythm of time. And there’s a line.

For a long time I believed that my Korean friend was a little too trusting of fortune tellers. After complaining about the latest row with her boyfriend of a year, she tells me that she’s frustrated and in a bad place. I give her all the advice that I can, but being single, there is nothing I can say that she will earnestly listen to. With a tug at my arm, she shepherds me into a fortune teller’s stall, and into a unique cultural phenomenon.

Fortune tellers, mysticism, nine-tailed foxes – these all still exist in modern Korea’s consciousness. Call it adherence to tradition, call it a stubborn piece of history, but irrelevant it surely is not. There is no fortune teller in downtown Daegu in want of business, as young women in sharp heels perch on ragtag stools inside strangely decorated rooms, wasting time on their phones in wait. Inside, a “menu” of services, from a simple tarot card reading to checking up on your fate from a tome of a book. What’s more, there are a fair number of regulars that treat themselves to a reading, and they keep coming back as life always seems to procure an event worth seeking advice for.

I remember seeing fortune tellers as a novelty back in the States. Appearing in places like Manhattan and Atlantic City, they served as a kind of amusement for tourists. Some were next to the funnel cake stands, some were by the Thai restaurants, small and curious-looking, but completely void of intrigue. I may have been cultured to believe this, but they always appeared dirty: a place quickly cobbled together with carnival dolls and cheap velvet, smelling of old plastic and mildew. Behind the glass, white-faced mannequins with turbans and blank expressions, peering soullessly through dusty, curled plastic hair. To me, an unapologetic sham.

I, therefore, surprised myself by agreeing to get a reading done.  My friend and I walked through the vinyl plastic doorway into a relatively well-lit room. There were no candles, but strange decor, including a Mao Zedong frisbee mounted on the wall. In the cramped single room there resided three women in their own stalls, complete with their own respective lines of customers. “This lady is good,” my friend reassures me, pointing to the woman on the far right. The wait for her didn’t look so long, but there was a group of women at the table so there was no telling how many questions she had to entertain. As we waited there, I contemplated Mao’s benevolent open-mouthed smile and the Communist dawn breaking behind his head.

I’m actually still a little taken aback that fortune telling is so popular in Korea – there may even be one fortune teller for every food stall in Daegu. I found it strange that Korean women, who seem more in control of their lives than ever, pile into these shacks week in and week out to hear things they already know. It’s true: after my friend finished her reading, she explained to me that the fortune teller doesn’t tell you the future, but “what may be.” Great, I thought. I’m dropping $10 for a big maybe.

I sat down with my friend at my side to help with translating. She told me to ask a question in my head, to clearly picture who or what I wanted to ask about, and to pick cards. Unlike tarot readings that I’ve seen, she asked me to pick 6-8 cards, all of which she turned over at once. I decided to give it as genuine an effort as I could, and framed a question in my mind that had been bothering me for a while. I stared at the images, coming up with my own predictions, anxious about what this middle-aged woman was going to tell me as she laced her fingers and scrutinized my selection.

Fortune tellers indeed have a great power. They “sow seeds” when they do a reading. It’s such that even if you don’t necessarily believe what you hear, and consciously choose to ignore what is said, the subconscious hears it. Like my dreams that still take place in a house I haven’t lived in for ten years, I was mindful of the risk of hearing something that my subconscious would grab hold of. Fortune tellers have this ability, to plant the kind of idea that could consume a person, and honestly it’s a little scary.

I also learned that in Korea, fortune tellers could be responsible for much more. Another Korean friend of mine, set to get married soon, told me of the absurd circumstances that delayed her friend’s marriage for a year. This friend’s mother had consulted a fortune teller about the prosperity of the marriage, and when several fortune tellers warned her against it, she forbade her daughter from marrying her boyfriend of over 10 years. They eventually got married, but to break off an engagement based on a date of birth and an ancient chart, in the 21st century, is telling of the conservative culture that still grapples hold of a new generation struggling to preserve one of its strongest founding Confucian values: deference to society’s elders.

The fortune teller thoughtfully looks me in the eye, nods and explains the cards in an earnest way. I barely turn my head to hear what my friend translates her message into. It was only after this experience that I could understand why even a driven, self-motivated Korean woman could sit down and wait for a dose of mysticism. In a country that burns through stores within months to give rise to the new, where fluorescent light extinguishes the night, where buildings silently rise while you sleep, there exists a place where an ahjumma will take your hand, affectionately call you “sister,” and bring you some clarity through the chaos.  I don’t think it’s about learning your future, or even receiving cosmic guidance. Perhaps we crave something old, something familiar, to believe in – a weathered voice and an insight that we just weren’t seeing before. Perhaps it’s as simple as human contact – in an age of instant messages, someone who straightforwardly looks you in the eye, reassures you, and sometimes surprises you (with things you already know).

After I got my cards read, my thoughts lingered on a piece of advice I was given: “You’re trying hard to move on, but…if you give up, you will regret it.” Under Chairman Mao’s toothy smile, inside that odd little space, I’m not entirely sure that I would take her words to heart. But I will say, for coming in a skeptic, I left with a bit of wonder.



Together, Alone


New Year’s Eve is the time to celebrate, to gather up with friends and engage in some “rage” – that is, partying and drinking until you realize that you’ve lost all spacial perception.

Instead of staying in Daegu, I decided to spend the occasion in the lively coastal city of Busan. I had been there recently for a “12 Pubs of Christmas” bar crawl, the second that I’d completed over this past holiday season, where I hopped from Haeundae to KSU to Seomyeon to…? On this night, some people I knew were taking the KTX train down to where the party was at, bent on raging all the way there. It sounded like a fun way to kick off the festivities, so I planned on joining in.

Being the incredible split-second decision maker that I am, I chose to take a taxi instead of using the subway to get to the KTX station…and ended up missing the train because of the heavy traffic on the road. (It was New Year’s Eve, still not sure what the thought process was on that one.) The taxi driver was really nice though, and it was worthwhile chatting with him. All of the phrases I learned from k-dramas came in clutch! He was even nice enough to call the station and ask if there were any seats on the next train. He must have been so amused by my company that he shaved off 500 won from the fare as he gave me my change. Unexpected kindness in Korea, once again. I wished him luck for the New Year (새해 복 많이 받으세요!) and off I went to get a ticket for the next train.

As I boarded the train and settled in for the 40 minute ride, I found myself feeling a little ridiculous. I was sitting alone, wearing a sequinned out dress, traveling hundreds of miles away to an uncertain location somewhere out there. During that quiet ride in, I held my coffee cup for warmth and stared blankly at the darkened world that was passing by me, catching glimpses of my own reflection and the speeding landscape in turns, absorbed in thought.

For the first time since I arrived in Korea, I felt alienated.

What was I doing, exactly, traveling all the way to Busan? I was so determined to go that I never asked myself for a reason. I was going to meet up with some people from Daegu, have a few drinks, and celebrate the New Year – that was the gist of it. But once I found my way there, besides the “Hello what’s haaappnin'”s, the drinks, and some random clubbing in between, I already knew that the night wasn’t going to shape up to be more than what it’s always been:

Just another night out. 

I had never been a very social person in the past. I had a loyal few friends back home that I would see occasionally. I was often busy with either a job or school, and my friends never demanded constant contact with me. Yet suddenly, in Korea, I feel as if the contact never wanes – always someone here or there, always meeting up, always drinking, always traipsing back with pocketfulls of receipts at sunrise. Although, granted, I’ve never met so many great people before and been to so many rad events and places, I realized at that moment that I was building up an identity for myself that I never had. An uber-socialite? Me? As unbelievable as it seemed, there I was, so determined to party that I took the train by myself, sitting crosslegged with sequins boring into my side, checking my phone for location updates and texts.

So after finding the herd somewhere in KSU and dipping into Vinyl for what was supposed to be the last few minutes of the year, I found myself alienated once again; this time in an overcrowded space, jam packed with people I didn’t know or care about, peppered with a few drunken acquaintances.  The band was playing something in a kind of slow rock malaise, as the singer wailed in the throes of it. The air was thick. As I moved through the melee, I felt as if I was looking for someone that I knew wasn’t there. I wove in and out, searching and searching, feeling emptier at each strange face.

I felt so disheartened that I left.

Out in the cold, I started wandering around the streets, my heart feeling heavy. Wasn’t I supposed to spend NYE in that huge group, partying, drinking, dancing? Instead, I was walking by myself in the freezing midnight air of Busan’s usually bustling university party central, in a deep and pensive silence. Everyone had scurried indoors to witness the clock strike together, to yell “Happy New Year!” collectively, to exchange hugs and kisses. But with my soundless footsteps in the night, I walked on, directionless.

Dully, the cheers of midnight swelled from the basement clubs and bars. The moment came and went. I looked up, wondering if I had made the right decision – to be out there, all dressed up but “nowhere.” Looking up into the black sky, I remember telling myself that it was enough to be in Korea at that moment, in a place that I had only dreamed about going to not so long ago.

To be in a different country, to be alone but content, to embrace the night as me and just me without the forced well-wishes of a wayward crowd – it was more than I could have asked for.

New Year’s is a time ripe for introspection, and for me it couldn’t have come at a better time. Four months into my stay, I can say that I’ve lived it up every single weekend. Not one weekend have I spent at my apartment, shut in, bumming around. And I’m glad that it’s been that way for so long. It’s about time for a change of pace.


Carpe diem – seizing that day, every day – maybe through all of my experiences I needed to learn that it doesn’t necessarily mean always having a place to go or people to meet. If carpe diem is the means, the end must be this: to finally be content with the day that you are given, to be happy with the things you have, to cherish the people that you know and truly enjoy the place where you’re at. If not, you end up being carried so far away by the wind that you lose sight of what you really want. I know I did.

Maybe, four months in, I’m finding myself in need of some rest. Perhaps it’s been too much, the lifestyle of being out on Friday nights only to come back sometime on Sunday. I feel like this is the part of my karmic evolution that has become worn from a life of frivolity and excess. It’s fun for a while, but sooner or later you start feeling empty. Like eating too many marshmallows when you’re hungry. Or something. All the marathon partying has been a bright spot in my stay here, but now I think it’s time to take a breather.

I stayed in Busan to see the first sunrise of the New Year, and it was worth the wait.  


That morning, I packed in with the other Koreans on Haeundae beach. As all the balloons and fragments of yesteryear lazily climbed the skies, I knew the resolution that I had to make:

This year, I’ll be good enough for me.

I’ve constantly found fault in myself for failed relationships, missed connections, or things simply beyond my control. I had been caring so much about what other people thought of me that I began playing a part rather than living as who I am.  Some self-acceptance and a little more meditation every now and then are the best things that I can give myself for this new year.

Everything in moderation, right?

(Actually, in a few days I’ll be off to a few places for winter vacation, so I just might need to delay my ascetic cleanse for a bit longer… ;)

Stay true to yourselves this year, dear readers, and best wishes for 2014! ^^

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Seoul Search II: Eat, Don’t Sleep, Rave, Repeat


This is pretty overdue, but the past few times I’ve been in Seoul, I’ve been to some amazing concerts and places. So take a deep breath and get ready for a trip, because it’s about to get surreal up in here.


The first concert I went to in Seoul was last November, and it was an incredible few hours packed with some of Korea’s most current rappers. E-Sens, San E, Bumkey, Swings, and Geeks were some highlights of the show, and it was my first time ever hearing them. My friend, being a huge fan of Korean Rap, recommended the concert to me,  and it was one of those “Hey, why not?” moments that I am so glad I took advantage of. (Honestly, I haven’t regretted one of those moments yet.)


It was such a crazy clash of cultures – here we have some Korean rappers, swagged out, donning snapbacks and chains, manipulating their language into something you’d hear straight off the decks in NYC. Everyone in the audience bobbed their hands and heads to the flow, and let me tell you, these guys KILLED. Even though I couldn’t understand the language, somehow it didn’t matter. You FELT it – the precision, the timing, the tenacious bob and weave of every verse, till you were so into it you found yourself shouting “OHHHHHH!” with the crowd after a killer passage. I knew the language of music was universal, but this experience truly stunned me.


We stayed in Gangnam, because who wants to say that they went all the way to Korea and didn’t see Gangnam? My father had a good laugh about it, at least. Although Gangnam is characterized throughout Korea as a wealthy area, my friend and I found a reasonably priced hostel with this beautiful view of the city at night. It was a great weekend trip that ended with some Forever 21 shopping and a tonkatsu lunch (as you all know by now, katsu is my favorite :3)CAM00219…I’m just going to leave this here, in all it’s glistening tonkatsu-ey glory.

And then there was SENSATION.CAM00276

It was a spectacle of an event that I arrived to in style. On the last day of November, I took a party bus from Daegu, and on the way made a few good friends to rave the night away with. After a 5 hour ride, we were let loose into “Wonderland.”


The theme for this event was “Wicked Wonderland” and it was complete with free beers, pulsing green wristbands, and erotic dancers in strange, strange getups.


What’s going on now? Are those butterfly wings being inflated across the space? WHAT??


Visuals for the event were A+. Music was meh. Pretty much standard house music. And another thing – remember those awesome friends that I made on the bus? Well, the caveat to these “all white” dress code events is that YOU LOSE PEOPLE. Turn around for a second and…gone. Not that it mattered too much though, it was still a lot of fun to dance around and randomly bump into other people from Daegu, exchange the arbitrary “WTH are you doing here??” and keep raving away.


Something seems a tad overwrought here…upside down bulbous ukelele? Radioactive green garlic to keep the Twilight tweens away?

Anyway, I ended up standing/dancing for the length of the concert. I didn’t sit down for 8 hours. The chairs were constantly occupied by girls who thought it was a good idea to wear “kill heels” to an all night dance event. Thankfully, I wore flats, but they slowly got destroyed as the night wore on. The next morning, as we endured the trip back down to Daegu at 5:00 am, I’m pretty sure that my ankles were at 30% functionality as a result of the night’s shenanigans. But I survived!

And here’s the deets of trip #3 to Seoul that I took on the last weekend of 2013, a spontaneous road trip during December’s last leg that was fast, fun, and an absolute blur of a good time:CAM00346

Well, well. Would you look at that view?! That’s from Seoul Tower, where I got some great shots of Korea’s largest city. I thought Central Park in NYC was a unique natural respite in the middle of the city, but the rolling hills and thick forestry in the midst of Korea’s capital are beyond compare.


The windows at the top of the Seoul tower had various cities and distances on them, spanning every direction. Big ups to NYC~


Still keeping up with me? Next up, a lovely little teahouse in Insadong, the artsy district of Korea:


The white little fruit/nut thing on the plate (top right) was surprisingly tough, and when I tried to stab mine with the dessert fork, it…flew into the netherworld. Whoops. The tea that I had was apricot flavored, and it had a very strong fruit flavor, a lot more like hot juice than tea. I’m certainly not going to complain though, tea is always hella good.

Another great highlight of this trip was Castle Praha in Hongdae:


It’s styled very much like an old world castle (Czech?), complete with some full-flavored beers on tap and wiener schnitzel. No I’m not kidding, I ordered it and it was delicious ;D They also know how to do a good pour on the beers – the perfectly crested foam on top of my Weizen was heaven on Earth.

And then…we partied our hearts out until the next morning. I have no photographic proof of this, which probably attests to the level of cray that it was. Fast forward to hangover morning, 10 am:


There it was, right in the middle of Seoul: a homely respite that made me feel like I was in old school Korea. The traditional house-styled restaurant, complete with a courtyard opening up to the cold, clear sky, offered us as much of a spiritual cleanse as a culinary one.CAM00374CHICKEN. SOUP. FOR THE SEOULLLLL~~ (sorry not sorry)

We each got a whole chicken, stuffed with white rice and a split chestnut in the very center, steaming in a savory broth. Beautifully simple and filling.

After a restful morning and a visit to a jimjilbang (sauna, shower, spa etc.), we headed home, heads still spinning from the whirlwind weekend that was Seoul.CAM00380For those who were keeping track at home, that was two months and three trips to Seoul! Whew! What a way to wrap up the year!

After being in Korea for four months, I feel like the time has been going so fast. I’m fully immersed in this new lifestyle, and I’m busy nearly every weekend. Trips to Seoul, trips to Busan, downtown shopping sprees and that new restaurant that I always wanted to eat at. It’s a life full to the brim, and I am still drinking it all in.

[Edit: This frenetic lifestyle eventually leads me to a slight existential crisis, as you’ll see in my next post, but life’s not all roses and inflatable butterfly wings, right? Keeping it real with you all in “Together, Alone,” a reflection on how I’ve been keepin’ on so far in the ROK.]