Growing up, I was fascinated by divination. I was drawn to psychics and fortunetellers and their promise of being able to reveal information and remedy problems with otherworldly counsel. As a Korean adoptee, this was especially true as I knew very little about my family background.
In high school, I visited a botánica where I had a spiritual reading by a Latinx woman. I had passed by the storefront on many occasions, but never worked up the courage to go inside the spiritual items store. There was a strong desire to know anything about my story that remained hidden and withheld by the adoption agency.
I timidly entered the botánica and was met with the rich and earthy smells of camphor, sage and frankincense thickly clinging to the air. Jars of herbs, candles, powders and oils were neatly arranged on shelves. Colorful statues of saints were spread throughout the small shop with candles, money, sweets and other offerings laid at their feet.
A woman appeared from behind a nearby partition. “Are you my 3 o’clock?” she asked while sewing up a red cloth pouch. She cut the thread with her teeth and expertly tied the bag with a finger.
“Yes. We spoke on the phone. I called about a reading.”
With a free hand the woman motioned me over with a smile. “You’re right on time. Follow me into the back.”
I was led to a room with a card table and two chairs. A work bench was pressed against the wall stockpiled with various items. The foreign environment left me uncertain of what to expect, making me wonder if the trip had been worth it.
“Make yourself comfortable.”
I sat across from the woman and watched as she produced a slab of cascarilla ― a kind of chalk made from powdered eggshells ― and scrawled a cross on each side of a worn tarot deck.
“Hold out your hands,” she instructed. I watched with fascination as she gently scrawled white crosses on both of my palms with the chalk. “This is to purify your hands,” she explained.
During the session, the spiritual reader abruptly announced another presence had joined us.
“You have a guardian spirit here,” she shared.
Curious, I asked for more information.
“She’s old and petite,” the woman shared slowly, squinting over my shoulder. “Wearing white clothing. Her hair is tightly wrapped into a bun. Is this your grandmother?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m adopted.”
“It seems like she’s been your guardian spirit for a while.” The woman smiled. “She seems to care a lot about you. You might want to pour her a cup of water and light her a white candle.”
“During the session, the spiritual reader abruptly announced another presence had joined us. “You have a guardian spirit here,” she shared.”
I politely smiled at the woman’s suggestion, unsure of what to make of it, and she continued with the rest of the reading. I would eventually forget about the experience and this unknown ghostly figure.
But seeking answers to try to piece together my identity did not end with the botánica. In addition to making sense of what it meant to be adopted, I was trying to understand my identity as a trans person. At a time when dial-up was still the primary way to connect to the internet, few points of reference existed about gender identity.
It was during a free period in my high school’s library that I stumbled upon an article about the history of Asian trans identities co-authored by Pauline Park, a trans Korean-American activist living in New York City. It was because of her painstaking research that I was first introduced to the mudang or Korean shaman, a spiritual and cultural role predominantly held by women.
Shamanism has existed for thousands of years on the Korean peninsula, where shamans serve as an intermediary between the living and a rich pantheon of gods and ancestors. But what specifically resonated with me about Park’s research was the baksu mudang, a type of shaman where men took on the role of women and performed the rituals for those seeking answers from the many spirits.
She asserted the baksu to be an early trans identity in Korea not unlike the hijra of India and Pakistan, the māhū of Hawai’i, the muxe of the Zapotecs and the two-spirit found among many Native American nations.
Park’s words tugged at my heart. In that moment, I started to grasp that my existence as a trans woman of Korean descent was not an anomaly. I found evidence that me being trans was in fact steeped in culture and tradition. As I read and re-read the article, I longed to know more about this history at a time when I felt like I didn’t fully belong.
Almost a decade later, on my first trip back to Korea, I unexpectedly and dramatically reunited with my family on the front steps of a police station. I was introduced to siblings, grandparents and relatives the adoption agency never described in my file. In a matter of days, my idea of family had tripled in size, and I began to learn about my roots in Korea.
One morning, a family member asked me what I wanted to see and do during my first time back.
“Oh, that’s easy,” I replied. I shared three things: visit Namdaemun, a historical landmark in Seoul. Travel to the DMZ and pay witness to the militarized border. Meet with a mudang.
“How do you know about mudang?” they asked carefully. “Not many people outside of Korea know about them.”
“Oh, I’ve known about mudang since I was young,” I responded.
My answer raised eyebrows.
After some gentle prying over beer and Korean snacks, I was later told with some reluctance and in a hushed voice that some of our ancestors included mudang. It was described to me as nothing but “crazy superstition.” And there was the fact that some in my family were church-goers.
But unlike those who disapproved, I could not dismiss the genealogical anecdote. It had the profoundly opposite effect, instilling a stronger and affirming connection to my heritage. Thanks to Park’s research from all those years ago, I could begin to see my full authentic self as part of a larger story.
Toward the end of my time in Korea, I had the opportunity to meet with a mudang. Late one night, I found myself speaking to a young woman who claimed she could speak to those from the beyond. With my interpreter, the session began as the shaman closed her eyes and began quickly mumbling words under her breath.
Silence filled the room. I studied the mudang’s face. Then a smile slowly formed.
“What is it?” I curiously asked. The interpreter translated my question.
“They are here,” the mudang replied.
“Your ancestors,” she reported. “They are filling the room.”
I looked around the somewhat ordinary surroundings, seeing nothing but the four walls and the three people sitting cross-legged in the room.
“You have returned to Korea. They have come to see you for the first time.”
Her translated words made me sit up straight.
The mudang leaned to her side as if she were straining to hear someone talk. She finally turned to me and said, “Someone wants to speak to you. They have been waiting a long while.”
“Who?” I had no idea what dead ancestor wanted to speak with me ― except maybe my father, a person whom I had never met but passed away years before my return. Maybe it would be him. “Is it my abeoji?”
The shaman shook her head. “Your father is here. But he must wait his turn.” She paused and then specified, “A grandmother wants to speak with you.”
“All of my grandparents are alive,” I answered confidently, knowing more about my Korean family since finding them. I had even met a couple of my grandparents.
“This grandmother is very old. She’s not from this era. She is small, but I wouldn’t want to get in a fight with her. She wants to speak with you.”
I grimaced, unsure of how to act. I started to quibble over how a Korean adoptee raised in the United States should greet an ancestor spirit. But my internal debate on appropriate ghost etiquette was cut short by the shaman.
I watched the mudang’s body twitch. Her composure changed. She lazily reached for a cigarette and took a long drag, holding it strangely. It was almost as if she were holding an antique smoking pipe.
In that moment I almost laughed out of sheer nervousness. The experience reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg’s performance as a spiritual medium in the movie “Ghost.” But then my shin halmoni, or spirit grandmother, spoke.
“This feels good,” she said through the mudang, stretching her arms. The shaman no longer spoke in the Seoul dialect. Her accent had changed. And the shaman now sounded deceptively frail despite her youth.
“I watched the mudang’s body twitch. Her composure changed... The experience reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg’s performance as a spiritual medium in the movie 'Ghost.' But then my shin halmoni spoke.”
My ancestor cocked her head. “Do you remember me?”
I shook my head no. She frowned.
“I have always been with you,” shin halmoni replied. “You were a baby and I followed you across the ocean. I was at your bed when you almost died.”
The mudang ― or this spirit speaking through the shaman ― knew nothing of my childhood. Yet she described a childhood event when I was in the hospital. And then I remembered the spiritual reading at the botánica. I could feel excitement and uncertainty flutter inside my stomach.
I now wanted to believe the shaman and the ancestral spirit speaking through her. But a nagging skepticism persuaded me to try to test her supposed knowledge of my earlier years.
“Me?” I pointed at myself feigning ignorance. “I almost died? What makes you think that?”
The ancestor that spoke through the shaman looked at the interpreter who repeated my words in Korean and then at me. Her expression suggested that she was perturbed at my obvious test. With annoyance, she sucked her teeth and replied. “Yes, you almost died. At the hospital across the ocean. When you were young. I was at your bedside when you were in the coma. I have always been with you.”
At 3 years old, I had contracted the flu and ended up in a coma. I suffered from end organ failure, and doctors warned my parents that I would never recover. For 16 days, I lay unconscious and intubated in the intensive care unit. But on the 16th day, I scared the nurse and my mother at my bedside when I regained consciousness and struggled to speak through the flexible tubing.
I stared across the low table separating me from the shaman who was channeling this elder. I didn’t say a word because I couldn’t. I was both afraid and in awe of the possibility that somehow, I was truly talking to an ancestor of mine.
Shin halmoni took another drag of the cigarette while appraising me. She slapped a hand on her knee and began to chuckle.
I looked at my interpreter confused. “What’s so funny?” I asked, searching for the context. The interpreter gently asked for the missing punchline.
The grandmother motioned at my body, shaking her head in amusement. “Those spirits are mischievous.”
I looked down at myself. At that time, I had yet to medically transition, and presented as an androgynous person. I simply wore a pair of jeans and a plain T-shirt. My long hair was pulled back into a ponytail and I wore no makeup or accessories that would reveal my gender identity.
“What about my body?” I asked. Was I being clocked as trans by a dead ancestor from a bygone era?
My grandmother smiled, ignoring the growing discomfort on my face. “I see who you truly are. The spirits may have given you this body. But you are yeoja.”
I understood her last words perfectly without any need for interpretation: You are a woman.
I sat frozen on the floor, uncertain of how to respond. How does one come out as trans to the spirit of an ancestor? Suddenly overwhelmed by the experience, my cheeks burned red and my vision was blurred by hot tears.
Shin halmoni in the body of the mudang came over and held my quivering body. Through the interpreter, my ancestor gently spoke. “I will always watch over you.”
It would be eight years later that I would discover she had kept her promise.
This year, I was surprised to discover a mudang located here in New York. I excitedly exchanged messages with the shaman, a Korean-American woman close to my age and based in Queens.
My fiancé and I made the trek out to Flushing, driving passed our favorite Korean BBQ restaurant, where Google Maps guided us to a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Arriving exactly on time, we were face to face with the mudang, who warmly invited us into her home. The shaman ― a married mother of two children ― gestured us into a room designated as her temple where she counseled those seeking advice from the beyond.
Timidly, I walked into her temple, a small, clean room with a polished wooden altar that lined one side of the room. A lineup of polished ceremonial cups and bowls with various offerings were placed neatly in front of a massive mural of her spirits and gods. I studied the host of fearsome warriors, kind-looking maidens and sagely officials that silently stared back.
The mudang returned from her kitchen with a couple bottles of water. After I took a few sips, she asked for my Korean name, birthdate and time of birth. Then the reading began.
With five plain-colored flags in hand, the shaman pulled out two at a time. She would briefly study the color combinations and begin to rattle off ― with frightening accuracy ― a variety of facts about my life, identify problems that I was currently facing, and make predictions. But her attention soon turned to spirits.
“There’s a grandmother,” the mudang shared across from her low table. “This grandmother ― she’s wearing a hanbok, but these robes are white and look old-fashioned. She has a hunched back too. Does she wear her hair in a bun?”
I glanced over at my fiancé who sat next to me. He looked just as overwhelmed by the description, having heard about my experience in Korea.
“I know this grandmother,” I acknowledged in a strained voice, trying to hold back the wave of emotions crashing against my chest. “I call her shin halmoni.”
“She has been with you for so long,” the mudang acknowledged. She paused to glance over my shoulder and then back at me. “Your grandmother said you saw her. In fact, she says you saw her quite recently.”
At first, I didn’t understand, and we moved on.
“You have trouble sleeping, don’t you?” the mudang asked. “Restless at night? Tossing and turning?”
The description prompted my fiancé to smirk. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”
“That’s your grandmother touching you and speaking to you at night.” The mudang paused and her voice softened. “She refers to you as nae aegi.”
My eyes welled up at the loving phrase in Korean. My baby.
“My grandmother smiled... 'I see who you truly are. The spirits may have given you this body. But you are yeoja.' I understood her last words perfectly without any need for interpretation: You are a woman.”
After two hours, I left the mudang’s home moved by the experience. But her earlier question about recently seeing my grandmother kept bugging me. It wasn’t until I returned home that her words would finally click.
Earlier in the year I was at the hospital for a transition-related surgery. In the bright and sterile operating room, I lay on the cushioned table surrounded by nurses preparing for the procedure. I felt the sharp prick of a foreign object inserted into my vein. I said a silent prayer, asking to be kept safe. Then the coldness of the medication began to fill my body and I slipped into a deep sleep.
Hours later, I woke from surgery and the anesthesia began to wear off. My fiancé and a close friend were already in the recovery room patiently waiting for me to regain consciousness.
“Hey there,” my fiancé gently said while approaching my bed. “How are you feeling?”
To the shock of my fiancé and friend, my body shuddered, and I began to cry uncontrollably.
“I wasn’t ready to go,” I sobbed. “I wasn’t ready to leave her yet.”
“Leave who?” my fiancé asked. He turned to our friend who seemed just as confused by the sudden anguish. “What are you talking about?”
Without thinking, the words instantly fell out of my mouth. “Shin halmoni. She was with me in the darkness.”
I had written off the emotional outburst as nothing but lingering effects of the anesthesia. But the shaman’s words had reminded me of my ancestor’s vow. This grandmother of a bygone time promised to watch over me. Shin halmoni had been at my side like she had always been throughout my life.
Perhaps I wasn’t alone on those endless nights as a child spent awake and attempting to try to piece together my identity. Or in the darker moments of my life when I questioned if I even had a place in the story of what it means to be Korean. It’s a comforting thought, despite how some simply write it off as “crazy superstition.”
Since I have transitioned, the world finally gets to see the kind of woman my shin halmoni had always seen and known. And there’s a great deal of peace knowing this spirit has been a part of my journey to discover who I am and where I’ve come from. Now I just can’t help but wonder when I will see her next.
Andy Marra has 15 years of communications experience working with LGBTQI organizations worldwide. Prior to coming to the Arcus Foundation, she was the public relations manager at GLSEN. Previously, she was co‐director of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development and a senior media strategist at GLAAD. Andy currently serves as board chair of Freedom for All Americans Education Fund and on the board of Just Detention International. She is a past recipient of the National Center for Transgender Equality Julie Johnson’s Founders Award; GLSEN Pathfinder Award, the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Award, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance’s Community Catalyst Award and the Colin Higgins Foundation Courage Award.
Alex Myung is a NYC-based animator and illustrator whose most recent short film,“Arrival,” has showed at over 30 international film festivals worldwide and been viewed over 2.5 million times on Youtube. The 22-minute short tells the tale of a young man in the city struggling to come out to his mother back home. For more from him, visit his Instagram page.