For some people, fortune cookies satisfy the thirst for knowledge of the future, but others need more concrete answers. The desire to know the future is nothing new – from palm reading to playing cards, divination rituals have been around for centuries. Today, it continues to gain popularity among young people through astrology apps and social media fortune tellers.
Some ethnic groups associate divination with prayer sessions at the beginning of the year to ward off bad luck. Every Lunar New Year, Asian communities gather in temples to pray for themselves and their loved ones.
An important ritual is to shuffle the magic card that predicts one’s fate for the coming year. Most of the time, the mother and grandmother represent the family to communicate their wishes to Buddha and heaven and raise their questions about the fate of the family in the year. Kneeling before the Buddha, visitors to Bao Quang Temple shuffle a wooden basket of bamboo sticks, each marked with a number between 1 and 25.
Those who offer the prayer believe that Buddha will provide an answer on the stick that falls from the basket. The stick number matches one of the numbered pieces of paper, which contains personalized poems (with a general translation) predicting what will happen that year. The results of the readings arouse anxiety in some but smiles of contentment in others.
Portia Ousch is a junior double major in real estate and business administration at USC. She says the tradition of fortune telling runs deep in her family.
“My first reader was my uncle,” she says. At age 7, Ousch dreamed of being a surgeon, so she decided to ask her uncle, a Feng Shui master and astrology reader, for a career reading session based on her horoscope signs. The moment her uncle claimed she had all the qualities to be a surgeon, she immediately remembered rebelling against her “fate” to leave the dream.
“You know, when a goal suddenly becomes achievable, you don’t want to work towards it anymore,” she says.
Ousch’s story with fortune telling didn’t end there. When she was in high school, her grandmother went to Taiwan, where she met a fortune teller who predicted her granddaughter’s entire life. According to Ousch, the reading has been “accurate so far.”
Other forms of clairvoyance have grown in popularity among young Asian adults in recent years. One is tarot reading. Tarot was invented in Italy in the 1430s during an ‘experimental period’ when queen figures were added to court decks that previously only included the king and male figures. Italian cultural symbols such as coins (Denari in Italy), swords (Spade), and cups (Coppe) were heavily integrated into these card series.
Despite its European origins, the tarot was also picked up by teenagers in Asian countries who began to form learning groups and communities to discuss the meanings of the cards.
“There were a lot of these clubs in my hometown, and they had weekly meetings,” says Huong Tra Nguyen, who grew up in Vietnam and is currently studying economics and creative writing at Dartmouth College.
Having been both a tarot reader and listener herself, Nguyen views the practice as psychological and therapeutic treatment. She takes a hands-on approach to reading tarot results and thinks most people already know the answer to themselves.
“I believe that 40% of the success of tarot readings comes from the reader being experienced enough to ask really deep questions that guide the listener’s self-reflection process,” says Nguyen. “They have this inner inclination towards what they should be doing, so my advice just steers them more towards what they want to do.”
Ousch describes tarot card reading as a push to work on something she’s been avoiding and that lingers in the back of her mind. For example, she went from constant dating to working on herself, after a tarot reading from her friend. Ousch resonates with card readings done by those who know her well, unlike Nguyen who thinks it can lead to an inherent bias that could alter the reading.
For many, fortune reading also serves as a community activity. Ceylin Sener, a junior biology student at USC, loves ‘kahve fali’, the Turkish practice of reading ground coffee into the bottom of a coffee cup, often done by the family’s mother or grandmother . It’s a group activity to spark conversation whenever her family invites people who provide therapeutic relief.
Some have managed to make divination a business. Kieu Vi, born and raised in Vietnam, runs an Instagram account with over 31,000 followers. His feed features articles on tarot and tea leaf readings as well as screenshots of testimonials from his clients. She also uses her account to communicate with clients about questions or scheduling. Vi started tarot in 2015 before gaining the confidence to market her readings in 2018.
“If you book a reading session with me in 2020 and another in 2021, you’ll probably be surprised at how in-depth I manage to read certain events, even though they’re from the same cards,” says Vi.
Like Vi, many members of the modern card reader community are recognized through social media. Tanaya Apshankar, a creative writing junior, recently started doing weekly play videos on YouTube and Instagram Reels. Viewers simply need to choose a card seen on screen and click on the corresponding time for each card’s explanation.
On the other hand, Ella Dao, a final year student at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Vietnam, expresses her skepticism towards social media as a means of reading tarot cards. For her, readers can potentially gain insight into listeners’ personalities and struggles through their social media accounts and presence, which could color the results.
Dao gravitates more towards the study of astrology and how the planets and stars affect human behavior and life. She is particularly interested in how astrology is embraced differently across cultures, from Vietnamese to Chinese to Indian psychology.
The popularity of astrology apps among young men and women has grown exponentially. Apps like Co-Star and The Pattern have 5.3 million and 3.5 million users respectively. They have also attracted significant investment, with Co-star raising 5 million in 2019. Daily personalized messages from these apps inform their users about their general mood on a certain day or for a week. The conversational tone of the daily messages resonates with young adults, connecting them to a community that the traditional medium of offline divination does not.
“People are afraid to go to the big readings in case of bad news. Everyday things are a bit lighter,” says Sener.
Although fortune telling lacks solid scientific validation, many readers and listeners have used these practices for introspection. Vi believes that if card reading inspires a deeper connection with oneself and healthier actions, the manifestation of good fortune can be achieved.
Vi says, “Fortune telling merely serves as a form of guidance and therapy, but it is the listeners who should take charge of their lives.”