When this story was still fresh, I was actively prohibited from talking about it. once the prohibition had been lifted, I kind of forgot about it, except for referring to it as “that time I got recruited into a daoist cult.” They (being parents, teachers, anonymous travel blogs) often tell you about being careful in any of the big cities in the world: don’t get too drunk, don’t lose your money or your credit cards, don’t get into scuffles with the police, don’t leave your stuff unattended in a public place. Has anyone ever told you “be careful of who you talk to because they might conn you into joining a cult!”
This is that story.
I spend a lot of time in the city alone. I’m not dating anyone, I live alone, and it’s easier to get one person to go out to a cafe or restaurant than coordinating a lot of people from various places all over Seoul. As such, I spend a lot of time walking through crowded Hongdae streets alone. This works out mostly fine for me, except for after this incident. I had brought my laptop around and had intended to find a cafe to set up shop and write in. It was maybe 9:30 or 10 at night, so the cafe options are more limited, but still plentiful. The one I had wanted to go to, which I call “fern cafe” (that’s not its name), was too full or was having a staff meeting that night.
I was waiting for the stoplight to change when a boy and girl of about college age came up to me and started asking me questions. I’m immediately thrown off when somebody isn’t carrying flyers or hasn’t directly emerged from a store or outdoor table. (I must add at this point that I had just come from Vietnam, where talking to and befriending strangers had ((mostly)) yielded wonderful results). They seemed pretty genuine, and didn’t ask any of the leading questions that church people tend to ask you when getting you to join their church (yes, that even happens in Seoul). So, I was lulled into a false sense of security.
They asked me if I had ever worn a hanbok (traditional Korean dress), which I hadn’t for a myriad of reasons: fear of cultural appropriation, fear it wouldn’t fit me, too expensive, friends won’t do it with me, et cetera. They offered me a chance to wear one. I had heard of this sort of thing in Japan, where they had opportunities for foreigners to try on a kimono at a museum, to some backlash. They also said it was free. Free is my favorite word. I thought, these must be some college kids and they’re putting on some kind of event for their school club and they’re eager to get some more foreign faces for their promotional photo. So, stupid human that I am, I agreed.
w h y . . .
First of all, what they failed to mention is that their “studio” was not in Hongdae as I originally expected. They were not Hongik University students as I originally expected. We had to go way farther down the subway line and make a transfer. I didn’t notice this originally because the conversation flowed so nicely and I was so at ease throughout the ride.
We got to the studio and I got to choose my hanbok. I settled on an American-flag-colored one because I’m tacky and uncreative. Second of all, it wasn’t just taking pictures, it was a full-blown bowing to the ancestors ceremony. (This is apparently what the younger family members do at Chuseok or Seollal when they bow to the grandparents and ask for money.) This is damn hard work, and with no understanding of the old Korean chant that is being said, there’s no way to gauge how much time has passed. There were other foreigners at the ceremony but I seemed to be the only one having trouble remembering the movements, trying to perform them fast enough, and struggling to not tear the skirts of my hanbok in half. I was sweating buckets by the end.
But wait! That wasn’t all. Then we cut up the fruits and other food offerings at the altar and got to eat them, washing them down with a shot of soju. (The boys assembled at the table were impressed with how quickly I downed the shot, as if I don’t do more than that every weekend). This is where things started to deteriorate. The boy of the couple launched into a detailed explanation of all the mythology of the event. In short: maybe some of my ancestors had done some bad things, so instead of going straight to heaven, they were stuck as ghosts in limbo on Earth. They would be stuck there forever unless somebody with good karma (paraphrasing here) could open the door to heaven with their good deeds. Apparently – allegedly – I’m the sole representative of my family who could perform this ceremony and accrue enough good karma to get all of my family members into heaven. We wrote down wish-prayers and then burnt them to “”send them up to god””, but I was also told I wasn’t allowed to talk about the ceremony for 100 days or the prayers wouldn’t work (I think the secret is that you’ve thoroughly forgotten what you wished for in 100 days’ time, but they don’t tell you that).
My second mistake is that another way of accruing “”good karma”” is donating to their project, which seemed to be some kind of mission/meals on wheels/old folks’ home type of thing. I couldn’t really ascertain what the purpose of this group was. Even now, I still don’t know. So 10,000 won gone to that, and nearly missed the last train, and I was done, right?
My third mistake is not immediately deleting the boy of the pair’s number as soon as I’d texted him I’d arrived home. My judgement is constantly muddied by a business-school fog of “”networking”” for both friend, professional, and dating purposes. So I don’t like to delete friends unless they’re actively annoying or threatening me. Usually this doesn’t bother me much.
“So that’s that, right? You never saw him again, right?” people usually ask at this juncture. These people really underestimate the depth of my stupidity.
A week later, boy from the cult texts again. I need a few “follow-up” appointments, as he explained. “It’s like a surgery, the ceremony, so we need a few follow-ups to sort of check up on you,” he explained. I wasn’t too sure that they weren’t going to keep taking my green 10,000 won bills each time. But I a g r e e d, again, because I’m incredibly stupid. (Mistake number 4? 5? infinity?)
“You actually went back?????” the people continue, incredulously. Unfortunately, yes.
This second visit, I was more wary. I still didn’t get the answers I was looking for. I still don’t know what the group is called, what religion they’re actually affiliated with, or anything. The second visit the boy just explained more thoroughly what the mythology of the ceremony and whatever religion sort of thing he was preaching. Out of academic curiosity I continued on, but at the end he asked something to the effect of “so do you believe it?” as if he’d converted me with all this. I straight-up told him no, or something even more ambivalent. We had dinner at the sort-of cafeteria in the “studio,” and the other foreigners grilled me about this and that. I couldn’t really figure out why the other foreigners were there, either. Did they really subscribe to these beliefs or were they just here to language exchange? Were they here for the “”free”” food?
“Sounds like a cult,” my friend Stephanie said after I told her the story, breaking the rule of 100 days’ silence after only 3 days. My family is now cursed, probably (sorry, family).
Since then, I read other expats’ posts about similar experiences. Nobody was able to identify what the name of the group was, but it was deemed to not be of a nefarious nature. Just some fundraising for a college or religious group. That’s a long time and a lot of effort for just a measly 10,000 won, is what I think.
After dinner, I bowed out with a promise of returning back for my third and final visit. I still have yet to make that visit. I still have yet to delete cultboy’s number. And this remains one of my most mysterious and confusing, yet most entertaining to tell of my experiences in Seoul.
A toast to weird chance encounters that only seem to happen to me.
Update: after lots of worried comments from older relatives/ adult people, I offer this as a rebuttal/ defense, flimsy though it may be.