I do not have a bucket list. Even if I did, going to see a fortune-teller would not be on it, not even at the bottom. I have never had the least desire or need to avail myself of clairvoyants. I feel no contempt for those who partake, but I sure find it puzzling. Despite 10-plus years in Korea, I remain a Western man. That means I am down to earth and fact-oriented. Is a fanciful notion like fortune-telling literally true? Can it be measured and verified? Does it lend itself to empirical quantification? I simply do not believe that the position of the moon and stars at the time of my birth controls or affects my fate. I have never paid attention to the zodiac—I am said to be a “Sagittarius”—or related pseudosciences. I am equally skeptical about UFOs.
A good career choice
Nonetheless, visiting fortune-tellers is quite common here. The number of saju masters (fortune-tellers or shamans), whether registered or not, tops 450,000. And they seem to have plenty of customers. Every year, $3 billion is spent on this questionable activity. The government tried to stamp it out in the 1970s, to no avail. These experts of the divining arts seem to be doing well, and their numbers are growing. An academy affiliated with the Korean Fortune-Tellers Association touts it as a good career choice: “In a reality where employment is hard and there is an increase in the aging community, fortune-telling can be a lifelong and secure vocation.”
(I try to keep in mind that despite Korea being a modern country, it has a long tradition of mysticism. Kings and generals consulted geomancers as a matter of course. On this basis, King Taejo chose Seoul to be capital of the Joseon dynasty in 1394; a harmonious balance of heaven and earth, and fire and water made it an ideal site. Feng shui is still taken seriously here.)
One of my former colleagues went to a fortune-teller and became convinced that the quality of her life would improve if she changed her name, and so she did. An estimated 1.5 million others have done that in the last decade. Korean moms want to know how their kids will do on the suneung (college scholastic ability) exam, businessmen seek advice, couples ask whether their planned marriage is propitious, and parents want guidance on what to name their babies. The list goes on. Entire shelves at Seoul’s Kyobo Bookstores are filled with such esoterica. Many people insist that visiting a saju master is nothing but a lark, just for fun. The practitioners themselves, of course, say they are involved in a legitimate academic pursuit, one not to be scoffed at.
Audrey had everything set up. She made an appointment at a rather famous place called Jaeminan Jogakga, which translates to “Funny Sculptor.” It has been in business since 1995. We stepped inside, looked around and saw that virtually every other person there was a young female. More than 80% of unmarried Korean women have paid at least one visit to a saju master to ask about love and marriage.
Jaeminan Jogakga is both a café and a fortune-telling establishment. Numerous signed photos on one wall feature Seoul’s glitterati, famous people from TV, movies and sports. No great surprise, since we were in Apgujeong, one of the city’s ritziest districts, two blocks from Rodeo Drive (modeled after the one in Beverly Hills). We waited 20 minutes, and then our saju master came and sat down. A stately woman of perhaps 60 years, her name was Heo In-Hee. Not speaking a word of English, she informed Audrey and me that she had studied epidemiology, psychology and philosophy before becoming a fortune-teller. On most weekdays, she saw 20 people—30 on Saturdays and Sundays.
For some reason, this session was almost entirely about me, not my girlfriend. In-Hee spoke confidently and without hesitation, and Audrey took notes. Referring now and then to a dog-eared book opened up to December 9, 1952, she made a number of observations about my past and future. She somehow characterized me as chivalrous, clever, sensitive, generous to the poor, independent but weak inside (!), that I like winter, that I like women and that I have a problem with my back. Some of these were accurate, whereas others were ludicrously off base. She then proceeded to tell me what my life had been like every decade starting in my 20s—sometimes right, sometimes wrong. I was informed that 2015, 2016 and 2017 had been especially distressing years. Not a shred of truth in that statement.
In-Hee does a tarot reading
It may have been at this point that the lady pulled out a set of tarot cards. I was told to put my hand on them, after which she put hers on mine and said a little incantation. Cut the cards three times, she told me. I complied and then selected three (face down on the table). She looked at them and began advising me of things I should watch out for over the remaining 10 months of the year. They pertained to health, money, job and being “careful with words.” By then, I had grown bored and was hardly listening. Audrey asked if I had any other questions for In-Hee, but I demurred. What was I going to do—beg her to explain the Four Pillars of Destiny, astrology, yin and yang, and other celestial topics? I saw no point in seeking her opinion on things she really did not know about. This stuff is bogus and a sham. In-Hee knew neither my past nor my future. She had been guessing! Maybe, if she was perceptive, she understood that I was ready to leave Jaeminan Jogakga. We said polite good-byes. It had been my idea all along, so I paid the 40,000-won fee at the counter. Once was enough.