Fortune Cookies

Literature Default
a personal story by Chris Fong Chew

Dear Asian Youth,


I used to believe that fortune cookies were magical. Every time my family went to go visit the shabby, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood and left with overflowing bags of lo mein and General Tso’s chicken, I made sure to snag a few extra handfuls of cookies from the little jade dish at the front desk and pocket them discreetly. After we arrived home and had stuffed ourselves full with grease and spices, I would huddle into the corner of my bedroom with a blanket tossed over my head, perch a flashlight nearby and crack open each cookie, one by one. Split one sugary chunk after the other, quickly suck away the crumbs threatening to spill onto my mattress and attract ants in the morning, and, with painstaking diligence, unravel thin slips of blue-marked paper from their tightly-curled positions within each cookie.


The fortunes themselves were nothing special. Each paper contained some variation of the same dozen phrases and idioms which I already knew by heart, looped in an endless cycle of ambiguity and generic wordplay. They spoke of things like virtue and courage, of pursuing my dreams with determination and perseverance but also remembering to be patient and content with what I already had, of creating my own forms of happiness and overcoming the obstacles in my path over time.


After I disassembled each cookie and laid out the fortunes on my bed like a museum display, I proceeded to do something which, years later, drew raucous laughter at family reunions upon retelling and relentless teasing from my older sibling. I took whichever fortune I believed felt most ‘lucky’ at the moment; I folded it in half, then folded it again, and kept folding it into dozens upon dozens of miniature squares which kept folding until the paper could fold no more; lastly, I took this crumpled, almond-sized ball of paper and wax, of inked fortunes and wishful luck, and swallowed it whole.


Why did I do this? Well, I was eight years old and, more importantly, a fool, buoyed by the heady, addictive flavor of ancient Chinese idioms scrawled on slim strips of paper and hidden in heart-shaped folds of stiff sugar. I thought that swallowing my fortunes would somehow make them come alive and imbue me with the magical kind of luck I only saw in television shows and manga series. Sometimes I swallowed fortunes I didn’t even understand the meaning of, fortunes with complex words and lyrical, nuanced meanings which elude me still to this day. With each fortune I swallowed, I grew increasingly optimistic about what life would have to offer me.


Success lies in the hands of those who want it. Bundles of gold ingots will drop from the sky into my hands.

Big journeys begin with a single step. I’ll come in first place on the pacer test tomorrow morning and blow everyone else away with ease.


If you want the rainbow, you have to tolerate the rain. I can be patient. I’ll wait for the storm to subside, wait for my opportunity to shine and prove to those around me how amazing I can really be. I believe it.

At some point, I stopped hoarding my fortunes, stopped hoarding and swallowing them like they were pieces of candy instead of waxy paper. I outgrew my childish fantasies steeped in concepts like serendipity and good fortune, although I never seemed to stop eating fortune cookies entirely. Perhaps it was when the Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood closed down abruptly, replaced with a shiny new hair salon run by ladies with corn-silk hair and no cookies or food to sell within the span of only a few weeks. Maybe I stopped even before that. All I know is that whenever someone mentions my old fortune-swallowing habits, I scowl, feeling thick, hot embarrassment swirl in my throat like invisible balls of white paper.


I’m starting my senior year of high school soon. College season is just around the corner, and the weight of my schedule grows heavier with each passing day. I feel wistful instead of bitter sometimes, nostalgic for those days when I was filled with a hopeful, shivering kind of trepidation instead of perpetual exhaustion and fear for the future has in store for me. I wish I was ten years younger and back in my dimly-lit bedroom, breaking open fortune cookies and applying the little morsels of wisdom they possessed to my life with the same guileless, smooth ease I once had.


Soon, I won’t be able to look back anymore; I won’t have the time to reminisce, the same recollection of the memories I’m clinging onto now. Each time I remember this, I take a stroll through my neighborhood and visit any other Chinese restaurant I can find nearby. I order something small, a drink or pack of fried wonton strips that I don’t even enjoy the taste of, and make sure to grab a generous handful of fortune cookies on my way out.


- Chris


Cover Photo Source: https://www.thespruceeats.com/fortune-cookie-recipe-694545