Notes From the Covert World of Korean Shamanism
CELINE CROSSED HER LEGS and took a long drag of her cigarette. “The shaman told me my grandmother’s hometown. She pointed to it on a map,” she recounted in her thick French accent. “Later, the adoption agency gave me the exact same information.”
A couple other exchange students and I sat on perpendicular wooden benches in the courtyard of our fine arts studio at the Korea National University of Arts, listening to her reminisce about her visit to see a Korean shaman in France, who correctly predicted her geographic roots and enabled her to fall into trance. Celine had been adopted from Korea to France at birth, and at 25 years old, she returned to Korea to study as an exchange student and search for her biological roots.
A week after she shared her story, Celine went out of town and invited my then-boyfriend and I to stay in her downtown loft apartment while she was gone. The first night, we climbed upstairs and crawled on our hands and knees beneath the low ceiling. I saw a DVD lying on the mattress: a documentary titled Mudang, the Korean word for shaman. For several minutes we watched the film, resting our heads against the pillows as a shaman performed a ritual ceremony called gut. The shaman moaned and chanted as she attempted to beckon spirits to help resolve her client’s problems. The client clutched a wooden spirit stick and her arms thrashed back and forth, as if they were disconnected from her body. Two women beat hourglass-shaped changu drums in the background.
Shamans, the film explained, performed these ceremonies in a quest to heal the misfortunes of others. I was curious, but preoccupied.
We spent the rest of the night kissing. On the TV in the background, the quest continued, on mute.
Mudang are perceived as intermediaries between spirits and human beings and have the ability to willfully move into trance. They hail from the central and northern parts of present-day South Korea, and unlike shamans from the southern provinces, mudang have not inherited their spiritual qualities; instead, they have overcome torment from shinbyeong, spirit sickness, where they claim they are beckoned by gods to fulfill their destiny as shamans.
Despite being the earliest Korean religion, shamanism has endured centuries of social stigma from Chinese-influenced Confucianism, Japanese imperialists, and American missionaries and converted Korean Christians. In the 1970s, the Korean government tried to eliminate shamanism entirely. Christian missionaries demonized shamans, and many Koreans viewed shamanism as an embarrassment to their rapidly developing country. Throughout the ’70s, police would violently interrupt ritual gut ceremonies.
Shamanic activity in Korea is technically illegal, but people continue to arrange visits with shamans in secret, not in fear of breaking the law, but rather out of shame, desperate to avoid judgment from those in their community. In Seoul alone, there are an estimated 300 shamanic temples within an hour of the city center, hidden in dodgy neighborhoods and old buildings, and often camouflaged with Buddhist symbolism. In fact, there’s a resurgence of Koreans seeking help from shamans and fortunetellers, due to easily accessible online information, personal economic troubles, curiosity, and the universal desire to have one’s personal misfortunes addressed. Choi Lee, a mudang working in northeast Seoul, mentioned in a blog post how an influx of potential customers have contacted her after finding her blog. Although Korea has developed from a war-torn nation into one filled with designer handbags and upscale coffee shops in a mere 60 years, the ancient traditions of Korean shamanism are adapting to modern society and are nowhere near dying.
According to Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and other religious groups in modern-day Korea, shamanism is nothing more than mishin, superstition. However, as the layers of shamanism unfold, mishin turns into musok, the intricacies of shamanic religion and folklore, including, but not limited to, gut ceremonies, ecstasy, trances, and fortunetelling. Cheongho Kim, a Korean anthropologist, says in his book Korean Shamanism: The Cultural Paradox:
We can only make sense of shamanism if we first recognize that, in rational terms, shamanism does not make sense. It is the irrationality of shamanism that makes it unacceptable, but it is the same irrationality that makes it useful to ordinary people, who reject it but still use it when they find themselves in the ‘field of misfortune.’
Some scholars say that shamanism is a cultural rebellion against Far Eastern female oppression. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity are all male-centered religions, whereas shamans are primarily women working for women clients. They often smoke in front of men and elders, a taboo for women and younger people in general, and they indulge in sex more openly. They don’t live up to the same societal expectations as ordinary Korean women, but then again, shamans live life on the brink of society, often shunned by their neighbors. Many shamans attempt to hide their occupation, so their children and family members won’t become outcasts as well. Paradoxically, Korean feminists usually fight against shamanism, urging the nation to stamp out superstition in order to progress.
There are a handful of male shamans, called paksu; they are often homosexual. Laurel Kendall, an anthropologist who has researched Korean shamanism for 30 years, explains that when a male shaman performs a gut ritual, he often wears “women’s clothing, down to the pantaloons that hide beneath his billowing skirt and slip.” Shamanism provides an outlet for both homosexual men and women in a society that encourages conformity and casts out misfits.
I find a shaman’s ability to communicate with spirits questionable, but I’m drawn to the fact that this practice has persisted in Korea for so many years despite strong societal obstacles. There’s a mystery to shamanism, hidden in dark alleyways in desolate areas, contrasting with the elderly church ladies who proudly stand on busy street corners and offer passersby popcorn, hard-boiled Easter eggs, and packs of tissues with bright yellow crosses and their church’s name and hours advertised on the labels. Shamanism is buried beneath the K-Pop and the miniskirts, beneath the massive corporations and the private cram schools, behind the bright neon crosses and the Buddhist temples in the mountains — as well as in the throats of its people.
My exploration of shamanism took a roundabout path. Instead of trances, I started with numbers.
In early September, I found myself in a Saju cafe in downtown Seoul, anticipating the hour when a fortuneteller would lay out the course of my life. There were a few tables and chairs and a counter where you order your drinks. There were no middle-aged females wearing robes, sitting in small curtained rooms and chanting with heavily mascara-ed eyes, and it did not smell of incense.
I came across the concept of the Saju cafe while reading a CNNGo article one afternoon at work. “Get your fortune told…maybe accurately,” read the intro. I had never heard of Saju, a type of Chinese numerology where one’s fate is determined by four factors: the year, month, day, and exact time of one’s birth. Each piece of information is represented by two Chinese characters signifying the branch (elements) and the stem (animals of the Chinese zodiac). Janet Shin, the president of The Four Pillars Saju research center in Seoul, wrote an article for the Korea Times, claiming that Saju readings become more popular during recessions, elections, and political turmoil, as people want to know if their situations will improve in the future. They’ll ask about weddings, successes, deaths, or failures. Some Koreans have gone as far as aligning Cesareans with particularly lucky dates.
I asked Sunny, a Korean friend, if she wanted to accompany me to a reading.
“I am not really into Saju,” she responded. “It makes me feel out of control, and I’ve experienced it many times. All Korean girls go there. It’s like a phase.”
Young Korean girls visit Saju readers when facing a dilemma, out of curiosity, or solely for fun. They often seek advice about future relationships, and it’s possible to bring their boyfriend’s numbers to assess their compatibility. High school students often question Saju readers about their college entrance exam. It’s one of the most important events in a Korean’s life, encompassing a year of stress, where they study every day until 1 or 2am, rarely sleeping more than a few hours each night.
Like the Western zodiac, Saju readings are not meant to be taken word for word. I viewed Saju readings as a gateway to the world of shamanism. I secretly wondered if a Korean fortuneteller could uncover something about myself that I had not. I called up my linguistically gifted Kiwi friend Shannon and asked her if she wanted to accompany me and help translate.
In the cafe, we sat in a secluded corner and scanned the menu. A short, pudgy man in his forties or fifties approached our table. He was wearing Harry Potter-style glasses and clutching a book covered with bright red Pororo paper, featuring a popular Korean cartoon character. I glanced at the book again, perplexed as to why it was camouflaged as a children’s book. He asked me to write my name and exact birth date on a Saju worksheet printed with pie charts and an assortment of Chinese characters. “You’re 26?” he mumbled, while flipping through his numerology book, squinting at the small print on the thin pages. It reminded me of a Bible.
“Yes — in Korean age.” (Korean age is slightly different than Western age. Everyone is one at birth, and on Lunar New Year everyone says they’re a year older, despite it not being their actual birthday.) He wrote the name of the corresponding Chinese zodiac animal next to each piece of information: year–RABBIT, month–PIG, day–RAT, time–DOG.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Really? You have a lot of men in your life.” He made eye contact and chuckled, as he scribbled a number of symbols in the “romance” slice of the pie chart.
“Well…not that many…”
My voice faded as I mentally counted all the men I’ve dated, both casually and seriously, and then compared it to my Korean friends. My number was probably higher.
He commented on my strong communication skills and my ability to adjust to life abroad better than life at home. He mentioned that I should be a teacher, and I skeptically thought, Of course you do — I’m already a teacher. What else would I be doing here in Korea, where the majority of young white females happen to be English teachers?
He mentioned that I was currently on a lucky streak, and I agreed, pleased to hear that this luck will continue until 2014. After that, for about eight years, I’ll experience some ups and downs. Until 2015, there will apparently be a lot of men, but none to plan a wedding for.
“Kind of like friends or friends with benefits — that’s my interpretation of it,” Shannon chimed in.
“At one point, you’ll be studying, but it will be very difficult for you, because you will stress yourself out. A man will enter your life and without realizing it, you will fall for that person. Just like that. He’ll be there to take care of you when you’re having a hard time.”
“Oh.” It sounded like a Korean drama, I thought.
He was positive that my husband wouldn’t be American; he would be Latin American, Australian, or maybe even Korean. Latin American, as in the only guys I dated before moving to Asia? He scribbled the years of my most compatible matches, and I questioned whether I should begin asking guys at parties what year they were born. He changed the subject:
“According to your health, your biggest problem is with your bowels and intestines.” My eyes widened, and I laughed.
“It is! Ever since I was a baby, and my mother took me off the bottle too early, I’ve had stomach issues.” Shannon translated what I said, and he nodded knowingly, with an expression that said, Of course I know.
“This gastrointestinal problem is connected to your uterus. Because of this, it could be problematic to conceive children.”
“Good,” I sighed in relief.
He looked horrified, like I’d just told him that I ate my pet rabbit. He clearly didn’t know about my mom and older sisters’ super-fertile track records.
I took a sip of my tea. As I set the glass down, he analyzed my nose, claiming that its height signified money and luck, as well as loneliness. I wouldn’t need to worry about money, he assured me, and I shouldn’t often feel lonely, because even abroad, I am surrounded by friends.
He grabbed my palm, and examined a thin line underneath my pinky finger. “You may have one son.” For a minute he stared at the rest of my palm and announced, “You have a lot of jeong, in connection with you and your friends.” Jeong is an East Asian concept, signifying devotion under duress, and unconditional commitment to long-term relationships. I smiled and thought about my family and friends back in the US, briefly feeling a wave of nostalgia.
The reading revealed issues that are culturally most important to typical young, Korean females, mainly pertaining to marriage, children, success, and money. The Saju reader assumed I wanted a man to “take care of me,” and was shocked when I wasn’t particularly interested in getting married or having children anytime soon.
I looked at the Saju reader as he scrawled on the bill. Despite wearing glasses that reminded me of Harry Potter and referencing his Pororo-covered Chinese numerology text, he now seemed wiser than at my first impression. Staring at his short, stubby nose, I wondered if his salary was as meager as his facial features suggested.
“Shannon, you should get a reading,” I encouraged.
“No,” she replied. “I don’t want to associate everything that happens in my life to Saju.”
Soon after, Sunny sent me a Facebook message in response to a blurb I posted about the reading. “I have experienced visiting the same cafe you did years ago! I don’t like Saju and I see you are wise to not hang on to it too much. I’m a Korean, and my softness and sensitivity can make myself sometimes gullible. I went to several Saju readings and they all say something different. I don’t know who to believe.”
I tried to console Sunny, reminding her that she shouldn’t take the readings so seriously. After all, can numbers really define our lives?
Maybe numbers couldn’t; but what about something deeper?
“I want to see a shaman,” I told my friend Haewon, as I sipped a mixed berry smoothie through a pink straw at a new, upscale coffeeshop near my house and Haewon’s university. The tables were stark and clean. Businessmen in tailored suits mingled with their colleagues in the smoking room while female professionals crossed their panty-hose-covered legs and sipped caramel macchiatos, their name-brand handbags resting on the empty seats next to them.
“There’s one right over there, across the street from Lotteria.” She waved her arm in the general direction of the fast food chain. “I used to walk by every day to go to class, and I always noticed her glamorous picture on the building. I thought it was so strange.”
“Do you want to go?” I asked, highly doubting that she would be interested. Her family was Christian, and I’d read Korean Christians are convinced that shamans are possessed by evil spirits.
“You want to go now?” she asked, her eyes brightening. “I want to ask about my ex-boyfriend.” She paused. “Oh my god, I’ve walked by that place so many times, but I never thought I would do this. I could never tell my parents this. I guess if anyone asked, I could say that I went with my foreign friend — like a tourist kind of thing.”
The shaman’s place was located in a two-story building above Beer Cabin, a crusty beer-and-fried-chicken joint, mainly frequented by drunk, middle-aged men relieving stress after 14-hour workdays. It was dingy on the outside and slightly run-down. The name “Choi Lee” was advertised on the outside windows, next to an old, worn photo that had diminished into a sort of illustration over years of contact with snow, rain, and the changing seasons.
I’d envisioned Korean shamans working in sacred temples located on desolate mountains, beckoning the spirits in colorful, flowing hanbok. This is what I had seen on TV — these shamans, titled “national living treasures,” are among the few that have been socially accepted by Koreans to preserve their ancient culture, performing their gut ceremonies abroad and at folk festivals as a traditional Korean art form. On TV, I’d watched them balance barefoot on rows of sharp knives and rapidly twirl in ecstasy, their colorful hanbok billowing as they moaned and chanted, while the media sought to document their encounters with spirits. Later in my research, I realized these shamans are a tiny percentage of the estimated 300,000 that currently practice throughout the peninsula, mostly in darker establishments in grungy neighborhoods such as mine in northeast Seoul.
I clutched my small purse and Haewon carried a backpack filled with binders and textbooks as we walked into Beer Cabin to ask about Choi Lee. The older woman working behind the bar had skin as pale as porcelain, and she wore a red apron covered in chicken grease. She advised us to ring the bell next to the salmon-colored double doors outside. When nobody answered, she pulled out an old flip phone, covered in scratches, and casually dialed Choi Lee’s number. She didn’t answer, so the woman behind the bar rattled the number off as Haewon typed it into her iPhone.
Five minutes later, we walked to my apartment down the street, turned on my laptop, and scrolled through Choi Lee’s blog, containing lists of scattered posts and performance videos with broken links. We discovered that Choi Lee had appeared in some segments on popular Korean television networks, in addition to her private meetings with clients. These performances attracted more potential clients to her blog. However, the backlash from non-believers and advocates against shamanism saddened her. She stopped performing on TV, and now remains relatively hidden, accessible to only those who seek her help. She wrote about the droves of young people who had desperately approached her, confessing that they wanted to commit suicide due to a repetitive cycle of never-ending stress caused by societal and familial expectations to study hard for hours on end, look beautiful all the time, get accepted into a top-notch college, get a well-paying job, and be married before 30. “Suicide is not the answer,” she wrote in a blog post from 2010.
We called shortly afterwards to make appointments, but Choi Lee was booked the whole week. I was astounded.
“Next Wednesday at six o’clock,” Haewon confirmed over the phone.
A week to wait, and to wonder: What mysterious part of my being would be unearthed next?
“Sarah, that’s much more serious than the Saju readings,” Mrs. Lim warned me, with wrinkles of concern forming on her forehead, covered with white foundation that starkly contrasted with the skin on her neck. “I really believe that the mudang have bad spirits inside them. One time I saw a gut, you know gut?”
“Well, the mudang was so scary. Her voice completely changed and her eyes rolled back into her head. Ahh, I never wanted to see that again.” She shook her head.
I was in the office at our elementary school, waiting for my water to boil so I could make a cup of tea. Mrs. Lim was sitting at her computer, one earphone in her ear and the other dangling below. She’d explained that her mother used to go to shamans often.
“She paid so much money and nothing ever came true,” Mrs. Lim said. “I think it’s so stupid.”
I didn’t ask why Mrs. Lim’s mother visited a shaman so frequently. She had previously told me about her mother’s difficulties in life, raising seven children in the Korean countryside with an alcoholic husband; I figured those hardships were reason enough.
“But, isn’t your family Christian?” I asked.
I was confused; I’d seen Mrs. Lim pray every day before eating her lunch, closing her eyes briefly and slightly bowing her head over her tray. I had noticed her Bible on the bookshelf, worn pages marked with florescent sticky notes, shoved between English teaching resources.
“No, just me. I’m the only Christian in my family.”
“Why did you become Christian?”
“My neighbors introduced me to Christianity. I would pray to God for my parents to stop fighting, and when I prayed, they stopped.”
Haewon and I rang the shaman’s bell. An ancient Korean tri-color symbol, called the Samsaeg-ui Taegeuk, was printed on the door — the yellow third representing humanity, the red heaven, and the blue earth. The script, “You can do anything you set your mind to” was written over the symbols in Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. My heart was beating slightly faster than usual. My throat was dry. I’d forgotten my water bottle. The door buzzed and Haewon slowly opened it.
Along the wall inside were silver-studded, suede, knee-high boots with four-inch heels, glittery stilettos, and tall boots with long black laces. They looked like they belonged in an elaborate dress-up trunk. After watching gut performances on TV, in documentaries, and even once in person overlooking a valley as I was hiking Inwangsan, a mountain in Seoul deemed the center of shamanic activity, this was not exactly what I expected to see in the workplace of a shaman.
“Wow, she’s so fashionable,” Haewon commented, gazing at the rows of elaborate footwear.
An older woman peered over the edge of the staircase, greeted us, and welcomed us upstairs. I slipped off my sandals and slowly walked up the carpeted steps, fumbling with my smartphone in my bag. I pressed the red circle on the voice recording app, wanting to record my session without creating an awkward situation.
The hallway smelled of incense and I noticed several plants and ashtrays filled with cigarette butts resting on the railing. The door to the apartment was left ajar. I followed Haewon and the older woman inside to the spacious waiting room. On the kitchen counter was a gas range, a toaster oven, and a jar of peanut butter. There was empty space in the middle of the room, and I wondered if Choi Lee’s family slept there, dragging floor mats and blankets out at night in traditional Korean style. A woman in her twenties with long, black hair, wearing gray leggings and an over-sized button-down shirt, played with a baby on the floor. There was another man who appeared to be in his thirties. The older woman, who I assumed was Choi Lee’s mother, touched my arm and led Haewon and I to a loveseat.
“Do you want coffee?” she asked.
“Sure,” I replied, running my tongue along the dry roof of my mouth.
She stirred an instant package of sugary coffee into a small paper cup filled with hot water and grabbed a packaged strawberry-flavored cookie from a tray on the table before me. She tore it open and handed it to me.
“Eat,” she said, smiling slightly. My stomach began to churn.
“She looks like a doll,” the older woman said to Haewon, motioning towards me.
I smiled and sipped my coffee, crossing my legs and sitting stiffly on the couch. She led Haewon into a small section of the room, curtained off by thick, opaque bolts of fabric.
“Is this your first time here?” the man asked me in Korean. I stammered that it was, and he continued to ask me questions, such as where I was from, and if I make better money in Korea than I would in the USA. The latter question made me feel uncomfortable, so I lied and said that I did not.
I stared at an altar in front of me, filled with candles, large figurines of colorful deities, a golden Bodhisattva-type figure, and an envelope for money. There were dried fish tied together with ribbon hanging over the doorway, and talismans, simple ink paintings, pasted onto the ceiling, which I later discovered are intended to prevent problems with the spirits. I continually glanced at the curtained room, straining to listen to Haewon’s session and fidgeting with my phone.
When it was my turn, I pulled the curtain back and sat in a chair across from Choi Lee, separated by a small wooden table between us. She held a fan over her face printed with the same colorful deities as the figures on the altar in the waiting room. While chanting and reciting mantras, she shook a rattle-like object, and then ran her hand through a shallow bowl full of big brown beads. She took out a few beads at a time, knocking them on the table and furiously scrawling a list on a piece of paper, occasionally pausing to gaze at the ceiling. I couldn’t understand what she was muttering, besides the word “foreigner.”
“You have stomach problems,” she announced suddenly in English, looking at me and waiting for my response.
“Um, yes, actually I do,” I stammered, immediately remembering the Saju reader.
I was shocked to hear her speak English; her website and advertising was entirely in Korean. She had read me so precisely. Or maybe she could tell that this cup of sugary instant coffee was making me nauseous.
“Mmm.” She stared at me. Her surgery-altered double eyelids were painted with thick eye shadow, and her eyelashes were coated with layers of mascara. She wore an ordinary gray t-shirt under traditional Korean hanbok.
“Not serious? Not like stomach cancer?”
“No, no, nothing too serious.”
She glanced at the white sheet of paper again, and changed the subject. “You have a lover,” she smiled slightly.
“Not Korean,” she stated matter-of-factly. She scrolled through the list, and revealed my life’s numbers; I would meet someone significant at 28, but I wouldn’t get married. At age 32, I would marry and later have three children, two boys and a girl.
“You should stay in Korea for three years,” she advised. “You are having good luck here. If you leave before three years you will not have the same luck.”
I nodded, thinking about the Saju reader’s prediction that I would be the luckiest until 2014. I’d been in Korea since 2011. Three years in Korea: I realized that Choi Lee was making the exact same prediction. Was it a coincidence?
“So what’s your problem?” she asked, running her fingers through the brown beads in the wooden bowl.
Suddenly, I was at a loss for words, and I felt stupid for scheduling an appointment. What do I want to tell Choi Lee? What do I want to know? What kind of problems do her customers usually talk about?
“Well…” I started, “I…I sometimes, I wonder, what my purpose is? Career-wise. I love writing, but I also love art. Those are my biggest passions, but I feel like I’m always sacrificing one for the other. And teaching — well, teaching is great for the money and stability, but I don’t especially love it.” Choi Lee told me to keep writing.
“Art is good too,” she said, “but writing, writing is good for you now.”
I already knew this, but her assurance made me feel better.
“And, I wonder if my relationships with my family and friends will suffer the longer I live abroad. I don’t always keep in touch.”
I told her about my constant desire to be in two places at once, my restlessness, the constant thrill I feel exploring new places, even if it’s discovering something new in my Korean neighborhood, as well as the guilt I sometimes feel for missing Christmas dinners, graduations, and the births of my nieces and nephews.
“You shouldn’t worry about that, because you are good at communicating. Even though you feel homesick sometimes, you do better living abroad.”
She asked for my birthday and drew three Chinese characters on a new piece of paper, much like the Saju reading, but without referring to an ancient text. She pointed at each character and claimed that I will have a long life, lots of job opportunities without financial problems, and I must surround myself with people, but I need not worry, because I already have lots of friends. Again, this sounded all too familiar. Could the Saju reader and mudang both be highly intuitive and skilled in the power of observation? Or were these statements much too vague? How could they both have given me such similar results?
I smiled and asked about my family, wondering if anything unfortunate might happen in the near future. She immediately brushed the thought away, assuring me that the future looked clear. “Don’t worry, be happy!” she said. Then paused. “Oh,” she said, craning her head towards the ceiling and blinked a few times. “Tell your family to be careful of cars. Do they drive a lot? And…tell your father to be careful about investing money. He could lose money in 2014.”
I nodded, slightly taken aback by these ambiguous warnings mixed with the assurance that there’s nothing to worry about. I didn’t want to talk about myself anymore. I didn’t want to ask her about my relationships or my future. I wanted to know more about her life. I wanted to ask her about her paintings on the walls and ceilings, the photos of her performances framed in the waiting room, where she was balancing on the sharp edges of knives.
“Why did you decide to become a mudang?” I asked hesitantly.
“Because it was my destiny.”
She didn’t go into detail, but she had experienced shinbyeong, spirit sickness, where she would feel sick without any physical symptoms, she would have vivid dreams, and she would make predictions that came true.
“I used to work as an English teacher at a hagwon,” she explained in Korean, “but I stopped to fulfill my destiny.”
I couldn’t fathom how she led such an ordinary life before accepting her supposed fate to become a shaman. She was a teacher, just like me. She could have been Mrs. Lim. She could have been the 25-year-old sixth-grade classroom teacher whom I co-teach with once a week. She could have been any of my co-workers, living with a hidden sickness, a hidden secret, and one day disappearing from the public sphere.
Moments later, Haewon and I left the room and slid two 50,000 won bills into a decorative envelope on the altar in the waiting room while the elderly woman and the younger man watched. Choi Lee told us we could call her anytime, but I was skeptical of her sincerity. I had read about shamans earning great quantities of cash under the table, unashamedly charging hundreds of thousands of won (hundreds of dollars) for gut ceremonies, and demanding extra money for the “spirits” in the process, banking on others’ desperation. She seemed honest, but an hour and a half is not long enough to really know someone, and I was (literally) buying into the stereotypes myself.
Meanwhile, I was reminded of my own form of dishonesty; my recording was still running. I pressed the stop button. Then, anxious to hear what I had captured, hit play. It wouldn’t start. I tried again to no avail and clicked on some random samplings of other recordings, which all worked perfectly. I was overcome with an uneasy feeling. Could it be…? No, I thought. That’s impossible.
When we left the mudang’s place, Haewon and I settled into a booth at Beer Cabin. We ordered a fruit platter with a massive tower of shaved ice as well as two tall mugs of Cass beer. Haewon was content with the shaman’s relationship advice and assurance that her future was bright, a distraction from her fast-paced schedule, jam-packed with film theory classes and weekend shootings in various cities across Korea. I, on the other hand, was intrigued by the visit but expected it to be more dramatic than it was. Of course, I didn’t want to hear that I would unexpectedly get pregnant or die soon, but I thought I might feel something — not necessarily a spiritual awakening, but something other than the coffee settling unpleasantly in my stomach. Although Choi Lee spoke English relatively well, I wondered if the language barrier prevented me from having the same connection as Haewon.
“I really liked her,” Haewon said. “She seemed kind of man-ish even though she had plastic surgery and likes to wear lots of makeup. We could see her personality just from the entrance — her style, the bling bling heels. A lot of shamans are like that — even the men — getting plastic surgery and wearing tons of makeup. They try to look pretty for the gods — and they make so much money, they can afford it.”
Haewon admitted that she was scared to enter the curtained room, but afterwards felt as if Choi Lee had lifted a burden off her shoulders.
“I’m kind of relieved that she only predicted good fortunes for me. I was asking her about bad things on purpose, stuff that could happen to me or my family. My family had samjae, samjae is bad luck for three years, and the bad luck is ending this year. I already knew that, especially this year, I had so many ups and downs, breakdowns, for six months I was depressed. I told her about Joon. She knew exactly about him. She said, ‘You know what, Haewon, didn’t you know he had a lot of girls?’ She said he was like an ax and I was like a tree.”
I wondered: Does a shaman actually tell fortunes? Or merely act as a therapist, using their wisdom to advise their clients to make rational choices in life?
“I wanna meet her again someday,” Haewon mused.
“Do you think shamanism will die out anytime soon?” I asked Mrs. Lim, as I stood next to her desk in our deserted office, fiddling with the silver bracelet around my wrist.
She looked up from her computer. “People are curious about their future. They see the mudang when they have problems, and they want to believe what she tells them.”
After discovering the existence of Saju readings, I began noticing Saju cafes and small booths with signs written in Korean scattered around Seoul. In Hyehwa, a trendy area filled with live music and theatrical performances, I passed by rows of Saju booths lined up along the narrow streets. Teenage girls in leopard-printed backpacks and sparkly leggings received readings alongside women in their twenties carrying fake Louis Vuitton purses. Similarly, after visiting the mudang, I found myself stopping to analyze rundown buildings with Buddhist symbols marking the entrances in old, cracked paint as I ran errands throughout my neighborhood. I would peer into these establishments, positive that a shaman was conversing with a client or performing a gut ceremony at that very moment.
From the young Korean girls who visit Saju readers before their high school exams to the middle-aged women who seek help from a mudang out of desperation, broken from an abusive husband or the death of a child, Korean fortunetelling is merely one outlet for Koreans to deal with life’s daily struggles. I’ve dipped my toes into this world, but I’ve often felt like a fraud. Why did I schedule an appointment with a Korean mudang? I don’t have wounds that need to be healed. I’m not adopted and on the search for my roots like Celine. I am not desperate to deal with an alcoholic husband who doesn’t pull his weight like Mrs. Lim’s mother.
But visiting the Saju cafe and Choi Lee’s curtained enclosure was unlike the full rows of church pews and solitary Buddhist meditation that I had briefly experienced in the past. If only for an instant, if only for that one moment looking into Choi Lee’s plastic-surgery-altered eyes, laden with thick, black mascara, I began to understand why Korean women secretly schedule appointments to come here. Even without the fortunetelling and communication with spirits, the mudang offered comfort and companionship, taking a moment to listen to our problems, failures, fears, hopes, and dreams. In this stressful, fast-paced environment, the curtained enclosure on the second floor offered a sense of calm. Down below, the city rushed on.
* Special thanks to Renee Kim and Shannon Malam for helping with translations.
* Most names have been changed.
[This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]