On the whole, people living in Asia are very superstitious. Go anywhere-from the narrow alleyways in India to the night markets of Taipei or Malaysia-and you are bound to come across hundreds of locals sticking out their hands or thumbs in the hope that the fortune teller will deliver them some good news regarding money, health or love. It really does seem as if almost everyone is seeking some kind of miracle from these saints, whose role in society is deeply rooted in local religious beliefs, compelling people to set aside the doubts of modernity to abide by their proclamations. As you're about to find out, even I fell for the tricks of these wandering hermits.
In all the years I have been in China, I have had my fair share of stories regarding random conversations with certain fortune tellers. Try walking anywhere in China without bumping into one of them. Unless you are in the cushy surroundings of your own vehicle, chances are that you won't be able to avoid someone resembling a Buddhist Monk in your travels around the city. They are usually casually dressed in brown or orange-colored overalls and sporting a crew cut or a fully-shaved head covered with a plain clay-colored hat resembling one that a surgeon wears in the operating theater (this applies to the women too). The first thing that strikes you about these fortune tellers is that they will stop you before you even blink at them. It's almost as if they have the power to read your mind;even if you have not noticed them, somehow they end up noticing you.
In 2004, I fondly remember a sudden encounter with a Cantonese fortune eller on a muggy August evening in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. I happened to be walking back to my home after a long and tiring day at work. The weather was one of the reasons I was exhausted; I felt as if I had been to the gym in my business suit. All I wanted to do was retreat to the air conditioned surroundings of my home and drop dead on my bed.
Just as I was about to turn right into the side road that led to my apartment, I stumbled across an elderly monk dressed in yellow pajamas, clutching a saggy-looking rucksack over his shoulder. What happened next was just too strange to believe. The monk pointed his finger straight at my face and said in clear Mandarin: "ni....ni shi ying guo ren ma?" "You.... you are a British man, right?". Dumbstruck, I could not resist the curiosity to find out how on earth he knew my nationality. Maybe he was guessing, but if he was, his guess was too good-I actually look like I am from South Asia or perhaps the Middle East.
The man could hardly communicate in English. Our conversation consisted of me trying to communicate with the elder monk in as much Chinese as I could muster. While I am not a huge fan of self-admiration I must say that I was able to understand almost everything he said. Both of us used a lot of hand gestures too. When it got to the point of showing him the palm of my hand, his eyes opened wide. It's almost as if he was surprised. Surely it can't be that bad!? I thought to myself. Thoughts and questions gathered in my mind at the same time. My fears were allayed, however, when all he said was that I have a bright future and that I would live a healthy life. He then went onto to mention that the energy levels of my body were low. "Energy levels of my body are low? What's that supposed to mean? I asked him to clarify, but he could not explain this point clearly, even in Chinese.
From some of my other experiences with clairvoyants, I have found myself used like a money machine, where I had to fork out the required amount of notes each time I wanted to find out more about my future. Oddly, this elder asked for no money whatsoever. With a smile on his face and gesturing with two thumbs in the air, he handed me a small gold-colored "lucky charm," and walked casually away-quickly disappearing into the chaotic sea of Guangzhou's nightly traffic scene.
From this, and other experiences, all I can say is that I am still in search of my future. Have any one of these predictions actually come true? It's a tricky question and I am not really sure of the answer. So next time you are in China... enjoy your fortune being told. Irrespective of whether it's good or bad news, don't bother losing your sleep over it.