SEOUL — The shrine with statues of unknown deities, the candles, lanterns and incense were all there. But somehow the lighting did not seem quite right. I was thinking more of dim red lights but found myself in a spacious room with sunlight breaking in through large windows.
"Please sit down. You can place your offerings right here," said a woman with a warm smile as she pointed to a small bowl of uncooked rice on a low wooden table. Not sure what else to do, I sat down on a small silk cushion on the floor and put my money on top of the bowl.
Just like many other South Koreans, I had come to meet a shaman in hopes of learning about my uncertain future in the jittery job market. A friend, who had recently been laid off, accompanied me, wanting to know what to do.
During times of uncertainty, many South Koreans seek out fortune tellers for guidance on how to deal with their economic conditions and also for a sense of comfort and encouragement.
Not being all that familiar with the shaman culture, I first ran a search on “famous fortune tellers” on the Internet. I then booked a session that would cost me roughly $40 at a place located in one of the busiest districts in Seoul.
I was expecting a fortune teller robed in colorful traditional garments to shake bells and hit a gong while calling on the gods, but the shaman I visited was more like a psychiatrist.
Ham Bok-ja, 49, said she accepted her fate of becoming a shaman 18 years ago when she was suddenly hit with indescribable pains in her body. With no medicine or scientific evidence to explain her condition, she sought out a monk who told her to receive the gods and become a shaman.
Since then Ham has seen people through good and bad times, and said all the talk is about money these days. To join the trend, I gave Ham my name, birth date and time of birth and waited as she started scribbling notes on a large sheet of paper.
"I see you have a fortune of movement coming up," she said as if reading something off the paper. As a freelancer, I was facing the possibility of some major changes in my work (and cash flow) at the end of May and wanted to know what to do.
"You should be aggressive about getting new work," Ham said. "There will soon be a lot of good people around you. Use those connections to get yourself to a higher position. The luck is with you, but you need to push from your end as well."
I asked her if I should be concerned about money.
"I see a lot of money in your fortune. You're born with a lot of money. There is no need to worry about it," the shaman said with a light chuckle, as she fingered four grains of rice, a movement fortune tellers sometimes use to call on their gods. Suddenly learning of my prosperous future, I couldn't help but smile.
Questions about money, business contracts, investments and reorganizations are among those most frequently asked these days, the shaman told me. Usually subjects would have varied from marriage and relationships to health.
“A lot of people come because they are desperate and want to know whether they should pull out of their businesses and give it all up,” Ham said. She sees about 10 to 15 people every day and feels the weight of the economic crisis.
A number of shamans I found on the Internet all agreed that their clients' main concerns were related to the economy.
“The question I get most often these days from my customers is whether they will get reorganized,” said another shaman called Master Jang, who sees a large number of VIPs — celebrities and company executives.
My friend, on the other hand, had already heard the verdict from his company and was told April would be his final month at the firm. With a wife and 1-year-old son to support, he wanted to know his options.
“I was thinking of starting something up with a couple of friends,” he said. “Would that be OK?”
“I told you. This year is not a good time. Preserving what you have already is difficult, and you’re talking about putting your money out there?” Ham answered with a tone of sharp warning.
My friend was advised against making any aggressive moves for the time being and was told to wait until his next birthday — still months away — has passed.
Half an hour later and $40 poorer, he emerged. While he didn’t look absolutely content, he seemed somewhat more relaxed.
“I think I’ll end up taking her advice into consideration when making decisions. There’s nothing bad about being careful, and I don’t really think there’s the need to pursue something when you’re told it’s not a good idea,” he said.
Was it worth the $40?
“I kind of feel like part of the money was wasted, but I do feel more comforted,” he said.
As we stepped out on to the bustling streets of Seoul, neither of us had any clear-cut answers. But we agreed that the simple act of attempting to understand what is happening to us made the visit worth it.
More GlobalPost dispatches about South Korea:
Ban on books deemed inappropriate for South Korean soldiers
Golf goes downscale in South Korea
Liquid status on the Korean peninsula