Getting Swindled in Hongdae

Authored by:
Madeleine D.

Madeleine D.

Seoul is known to have the stereotype of being a very safe place to live.

That stereotype, in my experience, is mostly true. I have seen situations where someone lost their credit cards and a good samaritan placed them on the sidewalk. In America, no one would’ve done that and if someone did, those cards would’ve been taken the moment they were left. In Korea I saw the citizens walk past the cards without showing any desire to steal them. There have been many similar instances where Korean people’s kindness surprised me. Even though good deeds like these happen here, don't be fooled. It’s dangerous to overly glamorize any place. It leaves you susceptible to being deceived and taken advantage of by the natives. Before coming I tried not to idolize this place. I learned about many different social issues and cultural differences in Korean society to keep myself from having only a one-sided of South Korea but, after living here for two months I began to see why everyone had this fantasy about South Korea. I unconsciously began to have that same mindset that everyone was kind and honest. Because of this idolization I was taken advantage of by a business that preyed on the naiveness of people, especially foreigners who couldn’t understand Korean. 
Seoul is a bustling city where everyday something is happening and people go out all the time, even on weekdays. Today was one of those days for me and my friend. We decided to meet up on a Thursday to do work then planned to go out to Hongdae to explore and eat dinner. In-between then we thought it would be fun to go get our “fortune” told. Previously, I got mine read on the same street as this second time but on the front side. Me and my friend went on the other side of the same long stretched street. My first experience was decent but not what I expected. The store’s front sign said that they spoke English but the entire time they used the translator app “Papago”. I told my friend about it and said it’d be an interesting study abroad experience I felt like he should have. We couldn’t find the first place I went to but found another place that said they spoke English. When we got there the first thing my friend noticed was the giant Pokémon Charmander plushie at the back of the room on the shelf. 

Once we got inside I asked her if she spoke English. Instead of answering she asked me (in Korean) if I spoke Korean. Usually when I tell people no they ask more questions since they find it unusual for someone who looks Korean (so I’ve been told when my mask is on) to not speak it. There’s always a bit of judgment at first but when I tell them I’m Chinese they stop expecting me to speak Korean. In this situation the women did the same. She then proceeded to pull out a binder and ask what option we wanted to do. She spoke in Korean while I spoke my minimal Korean and pointed to which option I wanted. We went on and started the reading. I’ve had tarot card readings before and she did it unlike any other I’ve had before. Usually, the most common method used is the 3 card method (past, present, future). In this case, the woman told me to pick 6 and even after I picked 6 she’d sometimes pick a card herself from the pile and read the one she picked. She never read all 6 cards I picked, only 3 (some of which were the ones she chose). She seemed to only read out the things she'd assumed I'd wanted to hear.
She also didn’t use Papago which is the standard translator in Korea (another red flag I completely overlooked). As she keeps asking questions I’m trying to analyze the situation I was in. Eventually she asked me, “Do you want another question?” At this point all the red flags came together to slap me in the face and say “you’ve been hustled!” I realized that the 4 questions I’d been asked so far were not apart of a special deal or going to be cheap. Before we walked in the room I saw on the sign outside that a Tarot card reading was 5,000 won. She ended up charging me 10,000 won per card reading/question. In a panic I had to leave my friend and belongings in the room and go outside to find an atm machine. I was severely unprepared since I only had less than 10,000 won in cash on me (all Tarot readers here only take cash). Thankfully I was able to find an atm machine (ironically one was close to her store). When I asked her about the other deal with 5,000 won she said that was unfortunately unavailable for some reason. Safe to say we left right after.The rest of the night I was pissed that I was taken advantage of. I was furious that someone exploited the vulnerable foreigners and did it so shamelessly.
After calming down and reflecting on the situation I realized that I’d internalized all the glamorous and pretty sides of South Korea and its people without stopping to think that people are still people and getting swindled is a big part of studying abroad. Even though it’s not common to happen in Korea, it does happen. Thankfully what happened to me was on a small scale and I didn’t lose my belongings or identification cards but it was a shocking reality check that although some places might be safer than others problems, personal or social, are bound to happen anywhere.

I advise all those studying abroad to immerse themselves in the culture but to not get lost in the fantasy of what it seems to be.

Always be on guard and make careful decisions.

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