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.