Shopping for futures

Our wandering correspondent toys with fate in South Korea,


Rolf Potts
September 14, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

By the time Mrs. Kang agrees to take me to a fortuneteller, the only old
friend in Korea I have yet to visit is M.

There is, of course, good reason for this oversight: M is my ex-girlfriend,
and everyone knows that looking up old lovers is like submitting oneself to
an audit. Not a financial audit, or even an emotional audit, but an audit
of life in general -- a subliminal cataloging of slight changes, reneged
moments and expired possibilities. Since such audits have always made me
nervous, I've been mentally postponing a rendezvous with M.

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A visit to get my future foretold, on the other hand, is a much easier
proposition. Today's trip to the fortuneteller is an extension of a failed
project I started while traveling through Southeast Asia. Originally I'd
planned on visiting a whole slew of fortunetellers in various countries and
writing a whimsical article about it. Since Southeast Asia is such a
colorful place, I anticipated all sorts of eccentric characters and
outrageous fortunes -- small Chinese-Thai women extolling me to go into
taxidermy, perhaps, or saffron-robed Lao monks solemnly telling me I was a
boll weevil in another life.

Unfortunately, most of the English-speaking fortunetellers I found in
Southeast Asia were low-rent con artists. Though I made various attempts to
get my future foretold in places like Vietnam and Thailand, few seers were
interested in giving me a no-strings-attached prophecy.

"You have a lucky nose!" an old Indian man had told me one day in Bangkok.
"Now, I will guess the name of your mother for 500 baht. If I cannot write
the name of your mother, you can keep the 500 baht and get a free fortune!"

Having seen the name-writing ploy before (it was a clumsy old
sleight-of-hand trick), I made to walk away. "I already know the name of my
mother," I said to the man. "I just wanted a normal fortune."

The old man grabbed my palm and gave it a cursory glance. "You will meet a
yellow-haired girl whose first name starts with D. Now the rest of your
fortune will be free if I cannot write your correct birthday!"

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"No thanks," I said. I turned away and started walking.

Chasing after me, he grasped my hand again. "You will start a business with
a bald-headed man and make $85,000! Now please come and I will write the
name of the woman you are thinking of right now."

"No."

"Someone in your family who is sick will get better! Please, my friend.
Let us see if I cannot write down the name of your job!"

The old Indian man went on like this for five minutes, tossing out
mini-fortunes and doggedly trying to talk me into the name-guessing scam. I
almost felt sorry for the guy, stumbling after me like some kind of Hindu
Willie Lohman, desperately trying to stay in character. In the end, I
finally had to break into a run to get away from him.

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"You will live to be 89 years old," he called after me woefully. "You will
die at home; no sickness, no injury!"

By the time I left Southeast Asia for Korea, this was as close as I'd come
to getting a legitimate fortune.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The way to the fortuneteller's house follows a familiar route through the
Onchonjang district of Pusan. I lived in this neighborhood during my Korean
expat days, and I have temporarily returned as I recover from a bout of
cholera I caught in Laos. Mrs. Kang's husband is a professor at the Pusan
National University hospital, and I am staying in their home until the
doctors give me a clean bill of health.

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I have talked Mrs. Kang into accompanying me for two reasons. Not only can
she help me translate when I get my fortune told (my Korean is
elementary-level at best), but she will also ensure that I am not the victim
of a scam. Since Mrs. Kang is a traditional middle-aged Korean lady, she
sometimes visits fortunetellers for advice or predictions about her family.
"We'll go to see Miss Choi today," she tells me. "She's pretty good."

In Korea, fortunetelling is a vestige of the shamanistic religions that
dominated life on the peninsula over 1,000 years ago. Confucianism,
Buddhism, Christianity, free-market economics and American-style pop
culture have lessened the visibility of shamanism, but its influence
remains. Construction sites are still summarily abandoned on the advice of
geomancers, potential brides and bridegrooms are still shunned if their
stars don't match up and schoolchildren's given names are still
unquestioningly changed at the whim of fortunetellers. Korean shamanism
has even been mainstreamed to the point where Seoul department stores run
fortunetelling promotions in the same way that American filling stations
offer free car washes.

Mrs. Kang leads me down a twisting alley and through a metal gate embossed
with Buddhist swastikas. A thin, pregnant girl waves us in through a door
and takes us upstairs, where we meet the woman who will tell my fortune.
Miss Choi is an unremarkable Korean woman who looks to be about 50. Her hair is permed in a style popular with women her age; she wears a thick
sweater, slacks and wooly socks. She holds her hands up in front of my
face. "Feel my skin," she tells me.

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Mrs. Kang interprets. I take Miss Choi's hands into mine. "Cold," I say.

Miss Choi seems pleased. "My soul is not in my body; it's in the spirit
world." She holds onto my hands for several seconds. "It's good that you
came today," she continues. "I can feel there is important news for you."

Opening a door, Miss Choi shows Mrs. Kang and me into a small altar room. A
statue of Buddha sits at one end of the room, surrounded by bowls of water,
children's shoes and stuffed animals. We sit down at a low table, and Miss
Choi asks me for a 10,000 won note (about $8.50). Taking the money, Miss
Choi wads it up and places it into a bowl of water. "When the money becomes
flat in the water," she says, "your fortune will be finished."

As the 10,000 won bill soaks into the water, Miss Choi asks me the date,
location and exact time of my birth. She writes this information into a
book, then takes a string of cedar beads into her hand and begins to rock
back and forth. Softly, she begins to make bird-like noises, and as the
chirping gets louder, she begins to talk.

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"You are lonely, but smart and kind," she says. "You have a job helping
other people, but soon your job will change. Your father is gentle, and
your mother is like an Oriental; you have two older sisters. You are not
married, but you will be soon."

Miss Choi stops for a moment and asks me if her predictions are correct so
far. Though nothing she has said is exactly right, I'm not interested in
accuracy so much as the novelty of her impressions. I nod, and tell her to
go on. Her chirping gets louder, and she scribbles a bit in her book.
After a while she begins to speak again.

"In two years you will get married, and your wife will not be an American.
You will have one son very soon, and when he grows older, you will realize
that you want more children. Then you will have three more sons. All of
your sons will be smarter than you, and will help you when your wife becomes too sick to work. After the birth of your second son, you will go home to America ..."

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Miss Choi continues like this for 20 minutes as the money slowly stretches
out into the water. In between the chirping noises, I learn that I will
move to California and lose my hair after the birth of my final child. I
will work for an important company, then quit to start my own business, then
become rich from investments. I will do great things and be very generous
and die from an ulcer at age 72.

When the 10,000 won bill is completely flat, Miss Choi stops and smiles at
me. "Do you feel better?" she asks.

Though I didn't feel bad to start with, I can see how this could be a kind
of therapy. "Yes," I say. "Thank you."

By the time we put on our shoes and head out the door, I am smiling at the
thought of myself as a rich, bald 72-year-old, surrounded by sons and dying
from an ulcer. By Korean standards, I will have lived a perfect life.

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Mrs. Kang seems pleased with my cheerful attitude. "Did you learn lots of
interesting things about who you are?" she asks.

The question catches me off-guard, since from the start I considered this
more an exercise in self-indulgence than self-perception. As an American
with American prejudices, I never expected self-knowledge to come from a
stranger who clutches wooden beads and tweets like a bird. Insight into who
you are is much more likely to come from people who know you in ways you
don't know yourself.

And that's exactly why I've found it so difficult to make a simple phone
call to my ex-girlfriend.

"Sure," I tell Mrs. Kang. "I learned lots of interesting things."

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Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Rolf Potts

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