Los Angeles– It's 7 o'clock on a Friday night in Koreatown. Cafe Jack, a fast-casual Asian fusion restaurant on the corner of Western and fifth street, is full of Korean millennials speaking excitedly. A large menu is on display and there's a strong smell of pork cooking on the grill, but there isn't a single person sitting at a table. No one has much of an appetite it seems. All the customers' attention is focused on a small room in the back of the restaurant. A Korean psychic is inside with a client, reading fortunes and offering advice.
"That's how shamans function in the 21st century," Nak Jung Kim, director of the Los Angeles Korean Cultural Center said. "They're fortune tellers."
Saju, or fortune telling, is a main staple of Korean culture, rooted in ancient tribal religions. It's a way of predicting a person's fate, akin to guidelines for the journey of life. Known as Shamanism to scholars and historians, it's presence remains vibrant in the 21st century.
"It's pervasive throughout Korea," Kyung Moon Hwang, professor of East Asian History and Cultures at USC said. "Even if you go to smaller cities and rural areas, you can find local shamans set up in back alleys and on the streets. The Korean community in Los Angeles is no different."
Regardless of religious affiliation, Korean culture remains extremely spiritual. A 2016 study from the South Korean National Statistics Office found that while 56 percent of South Koreans have no formal membership in a religious organization, only 15 percent claim to be nonreligious. For Koreans who don't participate in an institutionalized religion, many fulfill their spiritual needs through shamans.
Jack Pack, center, prepares for our fortune telling session that is about to begin
The shamanist fortune telling sessions are grounded in spirituality and mysticism in a way that's unique to Korean culture. The rituals are based on traditions that go back thousands of years on the Korean peninsula. I observed this first hand during my psychic reading with Jack Pak, the restaurant's owner. A waiter takes me back to a room full of elephant idols and golden shrines- symbols of wealth and wisdom in Korea. There's a heavy aroma of incense that pervades the entire area. Pak is sitting at a table in the center, talking hurriedly on the phone with another client. If you saw Pak on the street, you wouldn't know he could read your fortune. His t-shirt and jeans seem out of place with the tarot cards and patterned tablecloth in front of him. Pak hangs up the phone and greets me and my translator in Korean. Our session is entirely communicated in his native tongue.
After I pay $80 in cash, Pak explains the background of the ritual, detailing the intricacies of Saju and the philosophy he uses to read people. Our session will be rooted in the four "pillars" of my birth: date, year, time, and place. These are the "barcodes" of a person's identity and will reveal my fate.
Pak asks me for the pillars of my birthday. I tell him I was born on March 4, 1996 and he pulls out a chart filled with Korean writing and symbols. Pak pauses for a moment, staring at me with an inquisitive look on his face. The silence is comfortable.
"You have a good fate," he finally says. "There's a lot that's in store for you."
The next 70 minutes is jam-packed with information about myself. We cover everything from personality characteristics to career trajectory to romantic relationships. Pak's reading starts with broad strokes. At first, it feels like he's reading my horoscope off an astrology website. But as the session progresses, we get into the nitty-gritty. He predicts I'll be married at 32 and have two daughters.
The session is mostly favorable: a powerful job awaits me in my 30's, good health until I reach old age, and more money than I can image down the line. But Pak doesn't shy away from problems. My relationships with women will be unstable until marriage and there's not a lot I can do about it. We end our session on a note of caution.
"You're on a good trajectory, but no one's fate is set in stone," Pak says as he lights a few incense sticks. "If you stray from the path, your life could end up being very different."
I left my session with Pak thinking of all my defining personality characteristics, something Professor Hwang says is common.
"There's a lot of psychology in it," Hwang said. "These psychics tell fortunes but they also help you get rid of stress and anxiety. You might be ailing and you can't figure out how to cure yourself so you go to the fortune teller, hoping they can heal you… Many people leave these sessions feeling relieved."
These introspective feelings attract Korean youth, especially when their faith in the institutionalized religion of their parents is fading. Sooji Nam, 21, is the daughter of Protestant immigrants. She doesn't practice her parent's religion, but she still visits fortune tellers.
"I've been to two or three," Nam said. "Some of my friends go to fortune tellers regularly. You have to take it with a grain of salt, but it's a great way to express your spirituality and see a deeper meaning in your life."
Back at Cafe Jack, the Korean teenagers in line to hear their fortunes tell me a similar story. Of the six people I talked to, only one still goes to church. Fortune telling is the only spiritual guidance they're interested in.
"Young adults like these fortune telling sessions because it provides psychological stimulation for them," Hwang said. "The advice is especially enticing because their whole lives are ahead of them."
It's not just millennials who turn to shamans. Pak says people of all ages come to him.
"It doesn't matter if people are religious or not," Nam said. "Koreans are very spiritual, which is why they go to see where their future lies, whether they'll find happiness, whether they'll be rich. These are answers you don't find in church."