Awkward Encounters Abroad

That Time My Soul was Stolen in the South of Seoul

south koreaKelly Kern4 Comments

I'd like to preface this story with the fact that my soul has not actually been stolen (yet) and I’m alive (for now) and have not been formally accepted into a cult (pending). Did that make the title less ominous? No? Eh, I tried.

Being a foreigner in Korea has made me extremely self-aware. Gone are the days of proudly being that one girl who you might have had every class with for four years but you can’t quite remember her name. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and a permanent derp face basically make me a walking target for unwanted attention. On the subway, I’m frequently being stared at and receiving the up-down. Cashiers and shopkeepers simultaneously cringe when I walk into their store, silently begging me not to ask them for help (which is fine because we’re totally on the same page). Don’t get me wrong, there are some fun parts when it comes to being the blonde fuzz that sticks out in the crowd. Little kids at the grocery store or on the street run up to me to practice their English. People handing fliers out on the street actively avoid me. Random people tell me I’m pretty and ask if my eyes are real. You know, all of life's real perks.

This past weekend, I went out for a bit of exploring. Winter is coming and my coats aren’t quite making the cut, so I decide to make a trip to Anyang, a city a few subway stops south of me, to do some wheeling and dealing at the underground shopping stores. After walking around and making it my job to avoid eye contact with every store manager possible, I finally found a store with coats that were close to what I was looking for. The shopkeeper, an adorable and friendly older woman, started showing me the coats and offering me discounts on some of the items. Feeling overwhelmed and over it, I hastily bought a coat from the woman for 5,000 won cheaper than she asked because I’m poor and didn’t have enough cash on me. Score, right? No, the exact coat I was looking for was one store down and 10,000 won cheaper than what I ended up paying for a coat I bought in a moment of pure spaz. Woops.

After I (un)successfully purchased my coat, I went outside to explore some more. Suddenly, I was approached by two girls my age, who began asking me where I was from and why I was in Korea. I’ve been approached by university students a few times before, asking me to help them with their school project or wanting to practice their English, so this wasn’t something out of the ordinary. They were very friendly so I continued talking to them and asked what they studied.

“Korean traditions and culture, and today is your lucky day because you have met us,” one of the girls said. “Do you have time to help us with our project? We would teach you a Korean tradition.”

“Sure, why not!” I happily agreed. I had nowhere to be, nowhere to go. I needed some Korean culture in my life. I know the pains and struggles of having to find a willing stranger on the street to participate in my school project. Plus, I’m just desperate to make friends and they said I was pretty; they had my full attention.

“Wait, you guys aren’t going to kill me, right?” I half-jokingly said. (I’m a real people person).

They laughed.

“Wait, like, am I going to die?”

“Oh, no, no no.”

“That wasn’t very convincing."

Who was the last person I talked to? I thought, suddenly remembering that the US issued a worldwide terror alert and I'm supposed to be on high alert and have a safety plan. I think Georgi. Yeah, I mentioned that I might be leaving my apartment sometime this weekend to buy lemons. So, if I don't tweet for like two days she'll totally come to the conclusion that I did leave my apartment and was taken by a Korean cult. Phew. Glad I had that safety plan in my back pocket. 

Next, the girls took a piece of rice paper and wrote down my name, lunar day, and birth year.

“What’s your wish in life?” They asked as they filled out the necessary information on the rice paper to perform voodoo on me.

“That’s a pretty deep question to ask someone you just pulled off the street,” I replied, starting to regret my decision.

“Don’t talk. Make a wish.” They rolled up the piece of paper and put it in my hands, then lit it on fire. What followed was about thirty seconds of extreme silence and crazy eyes (by me) while the girls bowed their heads and the paper burned in my hand. As the fire came to the bottom of the paper they took it away and extinguished it, bowed their heads, and said “your wish will come true.” In ancient Korea, they said, the sky would read the smoke from the fire that held your wish and grant it.

They then asked me for money to donate to their organization.

Then I had to explain to them that I literally had no money (remember the coat, and how the woman let me buy it for cheap because I DIDN’T HAVE MONEY).

“It’s okay. You’ll help people in need when your wish comes true.”

“Of course I will.” I said as I left and declined their invitation to dinner both this weekend and the next three weekends following.

Back at school this week, I taught one of my higher level students and told her about my weekend and the Korean tradition I had performed on me. After explaining the rice paper and the whole lighting it on fire in my hand, I asked, “what kind of tradition is that?”

“I’ve never heard of that before,” she replied, with a bewildered look that probably resembled my own when I was holding fire.

“Oh, so it isn’t a Korean tradition to light a piece of rice paper on someone's hand and grant their life wish?”


I put my research skills to work and did a Google search using the phrase “Korean traditional rice paper fire wish.” My findings confirm that this is not a Korean tradition.


So, the only logical conclusion I have come to is that my soul was taken by a cult of some sort. That or I am just an easy target for touristy gimmicks.

I guess the only way to know the truth is when my wish will come true and I start helping others, which we’ll know as soon as Harry Styles agrees to move in with me.

Jokes aside, I would like to take the time to mention how incredibly safe I have felt since I’ve been here. With new threats and crimes against humanity happening every day, it’s easy to see danger everywhere, especially living alone and far from home. But, to be completely honest, I have felt safer in Korea than I have at home walking in a parking lot alone at night or going to a movie theater.

I know with the media and everything generally believed about North Korea and every other thing going on in the world, it’s hard to believe that there are good places and good people out there beyond what we’re familiar with. So, I’m living the tale and I’m here to say that you can’t spend your time locked up fearing the world and those in it. You can trust your local voodoo performers, they will offer you dinner after they steal your soul.