Mental Health

On TikTok & Instagram, The Mediums Have Lost The Message

This isn’t your grandmother’s era of fortune-telling. Is there tradition to be salvaged?

by Carolyn Huynh
neomudang/TikTok; Primemuse/Etsy; Getty Images

“So, has anything come true?” This is the most common question people ask me when they find out I flew to Honolulu to see the Vietnamese psychic Lan Vo for my 28th birthday five years ago. It’s often tinged with a morbid curiosity, a raised eyebrow, or a small lean-in — as though I’m going to whisper something scandalous.

When I landed in Hawaii in 2017, I had no set appointment nor any real notion of who Vo was. All I had were tall tales about the psychic, who’d achieved luminary status within the Vietnamese mother scene on the mainland — the ultimate “IYKYK” stamp — as an all-powerful woman whose predictions could send chills down your spine. Take the Nguyen family, who own Duc’s Bistro in Honolulu’s Chinatown. According to Duc’s son, Ian, she once stopped by their restaurant, pointed at a series of birthmarks hidden behind Duc’s shirt, and said he’d probably have heart surgery one day. To this day, they’re still wondering when and if it’ll happen.

I walked into her stone white house with marbled columns, put my name on the list, and waited impatiently for almost seven hours, along with about a dozen others — I joined the hapless majority, who’d arrived without an appointment slot. People had come from all over the world, exchanging stories of how they knew Vo, or, as the locals call her, Auntie Lan. When my turn came, Vo looked exactly as I’d expected: heavy makeup, jade jewelry, silk blouse. Within five minutes of meeting me, she was offering comfort as I cried buckets about how I’d hit rock bottom.

Among Vietnamese mothers, consulting a family fortune teller isn’t noteworthy. But why did I, a single, childless, Vietnamese American woman pushing 30, see her?

Everyone assumed I was an unhinged Virgo, licking my wounds over a bad breakup and wondering if my life would ever be stable — the type of stability one dreams about in their 20s. It wasn’t far off, but this was neither any run-of-the-mill psychic nor my first time seeing one. I wanted to see someone new, someone my mother hadn’t forced me to see. I wanted to take agency for my life. I wanted to see someone I’d chosen myself as I went through a mental health crisis. But most of all, I sought comfort.

In the first few months of the pandemic, people around the world struggled with their mental health. Many turned to Google, searching phrases like “therapists near me” and “why do I feel anxious for no reason.” The search engine dubbed 2021 “the year of healing.” At the same time, people began seeking out psychics and spiritual readings at an unprecedented rate. During the week of March 8, 2020, the word “psychics” started trending on Google, ultimately hitting a one-year high.

“People were suddenly faced with their mortality,” says Helané Wahbeh, the director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Since March 2020, she’s seen an uptick in new membership for groups she works with, like the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the Parapsychological Association. The former has had a 29% increase in membership, and the latter’s email list has grown by 70%, she says. “[The pandemic] made people think, what happens after I die? Who am I? What am I doing? Am I happy with my life?”

As life transitioned online into Zoom meetings and Google Hangouts, psychics and fortune tellers followed suit. This shift made them more accessible to more people, but also meant that anyone could masquerade as a spiritual advisor on the other side of a screen. It started to feel like the Wild West, where creators were profiting ad infinitum at the expense of vulnerable folks. Were they filling a real mental health care void, or had fortune-telling become some sort of tourist trap to visit other cultures on a seven-day guided tour?

I’d always thought of psychic readings as a private matter, an alternative to mental health care that was usually more affordable. (A simple tarot card reading might cost $5, running upwards of $150 for a “high-end” reading.) But today, people can tune in to watch live streams of readings with their credit cards embedded into social media apps, tossing coins at content creators, hoping their handle gets picked for a public reading. Often, the reading is no more than 30 seconds. A card is drawn quickly, held up to the camera, a nebulous prediction follows, and then the so-called psychic moves on. There’s a certain voyeuristic filter to this practice, watching others’ fortunes told in real time.

Ji Hae Cho is wary of such creators. The 32-year-old is a mudang — a priestess trained in Korean shamanism — and a graduate student in religious studies at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a focus on autoethnographic research. She offers “eclectic Korean divination” services through social media, primarily TikTok and Instagram.

She hypothesizes that people who turn to fortune tellers have a distrust of doctors and are looking for answers a therapist might not have, ones that are deeply rooted in tradition.

Ji Hae’s services do just that: She offers rice readings, Korean tarot decks, hwatu — a reading of cards traditionally used between laywomen at Lunar New Year — blessings, and her true specialty, exorcisms, all of which are steeped in tradition and folk divination. She sees her work as an investment in her communities, a focus she feels that many other content creators lack.

“Being a fortune teller or psychic is just one small part of what we do,” she says. “Like how ministers do hospital visits, weddings, pastoral care, a mudang will do fortune-telling for a family.” She equates her work to village-wide rituals and doesn’t offer services to friends, much like doctors don’t operate on their families.

Her work intersects with mental health care; a few of her clients deal with significant trauma. Most are feminine, a mix of cis women, queer, trans, and nonbinary folks, she says. Occasionally a Korean person who’s disconnected from their roots seeks her out first as a safe space to reconnect with their culture, like someone estranged from family or an adoptee trying to reconnect. She finds these sessions the most meaningful. In tandem with her services, Ji Hae makes sure clients also have a therapist or plan on seeking therapy.

“Were they filling a real mental health care void, or had fortune-telling become some sort of tourist trap to visit other cultures on a seven-day guided tour?”

I grew up believing that a good fortune teller was like a good tax guy. My mother, for instance, avoided people listed in the yellow pages or perched between stalls at the Asian Garden Mall, instead finding psychics through word-of-mouth referrals.

She turned to them to ask questions she couldn’t ask me directly, or anxieties she refused to verbalize in our home. Even when she went through her own mental health crises, she waited to do anything about them until a stranger told her what to do.

To my mother, it was always important for her fortune tellers to have training — like a tax guy or, say, a health care professional. But on social media, it’s hard to verify anyone’s background.

“It really is the fortune teller’s responsibility to be ethical. They are only harming themselves otherwise,” says Wahbeh, who, like Ji Hae, is skeptical of many online psychics. “Modern fortune tellers are missing the altruistic, intentful attitude of service. Is it just a show, or is it really an act of love, and to support people?”

That’s not to say old-school psychics are losing clients due to social media — for some, the demand is higher than pre-pandemic times. When Hà Thị Mão moved to the United States in 2009, the numerologist, who had done thousands of readings in her native Vietnam, intended to retire. But much to her surprise, Vietnamese Americans quickly began seeking her out. Word-of-mouth spread, and referrals grew. Just as quickly as she’d gone into retirement, she reentered the workforce.

Hà’s school of numerology focuses on clients’ day, time, month, and year of birth to determine luck, compatibility, and probability. “That level of understanding isn’t like adding one and two,” Hà, who’s 71 and lives in Long Beach, California, tells me in Vietnamese. “You have to understand how people will respond to something, what will happen to them if they choose a different road, and then map out those outcomes as well.”

Hà has about 500 clients, she says. When English-speakers ask her to crunch their numbers, she usually turns them down because her English isn’t great. She doesn’t take people’s money if the translation cannot be accurate.

The same can’t be said of all the TikTok tarot card readers or self-proclaimed psychics. Many creators ask viewers to save, like, or share videos, telling them to check back on this day, with this video, and if they do, the love of their lives will come back. It’s akin to the flashing psychic sign at 2 a.m. on the corner behind your favorite bar, promising to solve your problems if you buy their candles.

Hà isn’t concerned about the influx of online psychics, though — bad ones have always been around. “A bad numerologist is like a bad doctor,” she says. “You’ll get a bad diagnosis and treatment. A good numerologist is like a good doctor.”

“So, has anything come true?”

I give the same answer to everyone who asks about my 2017 visit to Lan Vo: Ask me again in 10 years. Yes, she predicted when I’d become an author and when I’d meet the love of my life. But she didn’t predict the times when I’d experience grief, for example, or when I’d go through severe anxiety and depression — and, in hindsight, I wasn’t visiting her solely for those answers. I sought her out as a form of mental health care, in keeping with the tradition my mother taught me. Vo’s comfort and reassurance of my own forward motion was what I needed back then.

I hope I never need to see her again, but if I have another mental health crisis, I’ll first ask for help from the people around me, my mother included.