By Qin Sun Stubis
(originally published in The Santa Monica Star)
What is supposed to be Chinese and sounds Chinese, but can only be found in America? The answer is simple. It’s a fortune cookie.
Born and raised in China, I had never seen a fortune cookie nor heard about its existence until after I arrived in America. I had spent seven years as a Chinese cultural guide to Americans in the ‘80s and toured extensively in my native country, so I considered myself to be well-travelled and knowledgeable about China and Chinese customs.
So it came as a surprise when I was given a strangely shaped object at the end of a meal in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan.
“What’s that?” I asked, looking up at my waiter. It almost looked like a dumpling, but it wasn’t. “A fortune cookie, of course,” the waiter answered matter of factly as he tucked the bill under my teapot. I felt my face burning as I sensed all eyes in the restaurant focusing on me: What kind of Chinese person am I not knowing what this is?
But, I didn’t know what it was. After hesitating for a moment, I picked it up and snapped it open. A slip of paper magically appeared. Wow, how fun! I forgot all about my embarrassment. “You can climb high on a ladder, but you’ll feel very lonely,” it warned. I slowly chewed on these words as I tasted my first fortune cookie.
I learned later that fortune cookies were a marketing gimmick created by some smart Chinese immigrants, enticing patrons with the unique experience of getting a meal and a glimpse of the future, as well. Obviously, their strategy worked very well, judging by the number of Chinese restaurants in America.
Admittedly, I’ve had a lot of fun with fortune cookies since my first embarrassment. I especially enjoy the moment of anticipation every time I’m about to open a fortune cookie. And, I love to read what’s inside, whether an idiom, a philosophical statement, or a nonsensical prediction.
I’ve also learned through this package of sweet surprise that it is fun to make a positive prediction about our lives, whether or not they come true. When we really like a prophecy, we can always work hard toward it. So, this holiday season, don’t forget to give yourself some good Chinese fortune. Whether words on a slip of paper, secret wishes, or optimistic proclamations, they can bring you luck and happiness during the coming New Year.
You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A longtime columnist of ours, Qin lives in Bethesda, MD.