The Fortune Teller
I had no intention of calling the ghosts into my life but that’s what I stirred by returning to Korea after eighteen years of living in New York. It was my punishment for abandoning my father’s conservative culture as a hotheaded, rebellious teenager. I was going to reconcile with my past in the name of a Fulbright research grant. My naïve goal was to write a groundbreaking book on Korean architecture.
To make up for my lost time, I would split my days in Seoul between Korean language classes in the mornings and meetings with architects in the afternoons. I would joke with my friends that I lived a ten-year cycle each day. When I attended the language classes at Yonsei (fully paid by the Fulbright program), I felt like a teenager jabbering with friends in hallways. When I left the classrooms and walked the Yonsei University campus, I felt like a college student. When I interviewed the architects and professors in the afternoon, I finally reached my professional level as a licensed architect. It was an amusing and confusing way to live.
After the language classes and lively lunch with my Yonsei friends, I often roamed the streets between the two major Korean universities, Yonsei and Ewha. I thrived on the synergy of the two campuses. I felt energized yet safe on those grounds.
About halfway between the two schools stood the Sun Tower, designed by an American firm called Morphosis. It was about eleven stories tall, and the exterior was clad in metal mesh that looked as if it had flown from a nearby construction site and got stuck on the building at various angles. I loved it. I felt liberated just by staring at it. This architectural movement called “Deconstructivism”—fragmented, breaking down of a built world, unleashing the freedom from the classic forms—blended well into Seoul’s visual context: controlled chaos.
What was unsettling in this college town were the old houses that were sunken about eight feet below the street level. Newly paved sidewalks negotiating the natural grounds with the new developments had risen so high above these old houses that the patinaed tile roofs undulated at our feet. Chrome railings were installed to keep people from falling into the crevices. Some homes were marked with a Buddhist symbol which can be confused with swastika. No relation there.
The adjacent five-story building with a popular beer lounge had direct views into their small, private courtyards.There was a set of narrow concrete stairs that led down to their underworld. The visual clash of the sunken old homes, high retaining walls, new modern sidewalk, and the tall commercial buildings towering over them was disturbing. How did they survive the bulldozer? Why were they trapped in this concrete tub?
“You know what they are, don’t you?” asked Ms. Cha, Eun-Ah, a colleague of mine who was studying gender issues in architecture at Ewha Women’s University for her master’s degree.
“They are the houses of famous mudang, the fortune tellers. Do you know? Most of them are women. When I was exploring my thesis topics, I went down there to interview them. I wanted to know if there was anything feminine about their live-work spaces. But before I could even knock, an old woman abruptly slid the door open and snapped at me, ‘Get out of here. I have nothing to tell you!’
“Isn’t that scary? I didn’t say a word, but she knew that I was there for a different reason.” As a result, Ms. Cha Eun-Ah shifted her focus to studying women’s boardinghouses instead. Then I understood. No one wanted to disrupt the spirits that circled these houses.
Mudangs are Shaman priestesses who have supernatural powers to reach the other world. They hold magical powers to heal, tell fortunes, appease the spirits of the dead, and divert harm by performing “goot,” a spiritual cleansing ceremony that included traditional prayer, singing, and dancing in colorful outfits accompanied by traditional music.
During the last dynasty of Joseon Period, a male-dominant, Neo-Confucian society that suppressed feelings, mudangs provided emotional outlets for the Koreans. Like the Deconstructivist architects, they knew how to tame and control the chaos of the spiritual world.
* * *
One day, after our Korean language class at Yonsei, my fun-loving Korean-American friend Laura thought we should all visit a fortuneteller for a dose of Asian advice. She didn’t know that I was lost between too many research advisors, nor did she know about Cha, Eun-Ah’s story. She thought this would be a fun thing to do for a mere 10,000 won (~$10). By the time Laura rallied the group, there were about six of us, including my husband. And as light as she made it seem, Laura had been seeking her counseling for two years. She took her words seriously.
This fortune teller was not part of the group that was confined in the “concrete tub.” Laura led the group and I simply followed. We walked down a small side street where older, one- to two-story, post-Korean War concrete homes were clustered together in a community. This spiritual advisor worked and lived on the ground floor. The sun-filled storefront area was for receiving customers. The back area was for sleeping and cooking. The sacred room was set in between the two.
We all took turns seeing the master. Laura went first. I don’t remember who went in next. When my turn came up, my friends thought I should go in with my Irish-German-American husband, James. At that time we were newlyweds of a tender two years.
As we entered the room, I inhaled the air of sweet incense burning. The radiant floor was warm. It was covered with light-yellow linoleum that was made to look like a traditional wax-paper floor covering. We sat on the floor, each of us having our own colorful square sitting mat made of a polyester blend that mimicked the traditional silk. I was accustomed to the synthetic materials in Korean homes. What struck me was the way the room glowed with the late afternoon sun filtering through the red curtains, backlighting the altar of Buddhas. There was no artificial light in the room. One single window radiated while the corners of the room faded away.
The fortuneteller sat facing us with about two hundred Buddhas behind her, in case we doubted her message. The fusion of Shamanism and Buddhism was common and seamless in Korea. The mood was sublime and serious but her face was bright and pleasant. She seemed to be in her mid to late forties. It was early winter but she was wearing a short-sleeved white Polo shirt with a pink emblem over her heart, and she fashioned a pair of white jeans. She looked like an average person you would meet on the street, not a person of supernatural powers. However, when she rattled the heavy brass bells and whipped her fan open, a chill ran through my body. It sounded as if she had cracked open a fresh book to read.
She took one quick look at my husband, James, and at me, and smiled devilishly.
“You two have to switch.”
What? Our seats?
She continued, “You,” pointing to me, “were born with a man’s fate.”
Well, that explained my frustration.
I didn’t want to give her any clues so I let her continue.
“You are the aggressive ‘outside’ person. Your husband will take better care of your kids than you.” She stared at us sideways with that mysterious grin.
What was she saying? That I would be an unfit mother?
“He needs to go back to school and get a doctoral degree. He is very patient. He’ll be a good professor and a better parent. You’re better off at the office.”
We didn’t have kids yet, but James and I joked about how he would raise our kids while I worked.
She confessed that she had a hard time reading James beyond that because he was not Asian. Whatever that meant, we understood in the context of the moment, the mood of her place.
Speaking to me, she said, “You should invest in houses.”
“Do you mean…design houses?” I almost gave away that I was an architect.
“Focus on houses. Don’t spend all your money frivolously. Put your money in houses. Many people are willing to help you. Take upon their kindness.”
I was studying Korean houses at that time, but she couldn’t mean that, could she? How could I invest in Korean houses anyway? The real estate market was hot in the United States. Perhaps she was telling us to buy lots of houses when we got back. With what money? Maybe she was talking about the housing development idea that we were brewing. Maybe investors were waiting for our proposal. Who knew? She wouldn’t elaborate but repeated herself when I asked for more details.
Then she pointed to me again.“You have to be careful. You tend to spend too much money on a whim. That’s not good for someone who won’t be working for a regular salary.”
Come again? Could she possibly know that I’ve always dreamed about running my own architectural practice? I didn’t have the proper connections or inherited wealth to get me off the ground, but somehow I was going to make it happen.
“There will be times when you won’t have much money. But when it comes in, it will come in a big lump sum, big numbers, but not on a regular basis. And you’ll always juggle three jobs.”
“What do you mean?”
“Aren’t you doing that now? You have a career, you go to school, and there is something else. It will always be like that.”
She wouldn’t go any further. Maybe she intentionally left gaps for me to fill. I was always juggling too many things, but who didn’t multitask these days?
“You will cross many borders,” she said. “Your career will take you from one country to another.” Suddenly I felt that she was reading my ambitions, not my fortune. Maybe she was a mind reader. What a phony, I thought to myself. I sat back and crinkled my nose. I tried to communicate with her telepathically. How are you doing this?
But she stared back blankly and continued. “You need to learn a third language.”
“I always wanted to learn Italian.”
She squinted and said, “No…I think Spanish will be better for your career.”
That was a curveball. She knew I had figured her out.
“No, I prefer to learn Italian.” With my Korean tongue, I was better at imitating Italian accents than Spanish.
“I’m telling you that Spanish will be better for you! And you need to get a higher degree.”
“No, I’m sick of being poor. I don’t want to be stuck in academia. I want to work. I want to make money.”
“Why are you arguing with me? Did you come here for my advice or to debate on your life? And you should have that mole under your eye removed. It makes you cry too easily. It brings you too much sadness.”
That was just a cultural superstition. My grandmother used to say the same thing.
“And you should write,” she said.
“Pardon?” There—she caught my attention. I wanted to hear that I would write many books on Korean architecture.
“Write out all that you feel.”
Feelings? I was going to make an architectural breakthrough with this research. Who cared about feelings?
“You are a very emotional person. Admit it. Your friends think you are a little strange because you cry ‘hoo, hoo’ one moment and turn around and laugh ‘hee, hee’ at the next moment. You feel two, three times more than an average person. You feel too much. You have to write it all down.”
“Write what down?” I was testing her again.
“It’s written on your face,” she said.
“I lost my mother when I was young.”
I was not ready for that. I felt a rock in my throat.
“Write it all down. It’s all there.”
What’s all there? And what’s that got to do with architecture?
Juhee Lee-Hartford is a Korean-born American architect who has been published in the Fulbright Journal. She has been awarded significant fellowships for her research and writing: the Fulbright Grant, the MacDowell Fellowship, and a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Juhee earned her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Pratt Institute and studied Korean architecture as a Fulbright Scholar. She attends writing workshops with the Hudson Valley Writers Center. Juhee is the founder of River Architects, PLLC, which she established in 2002.