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What Fortune Cookies Might Sound Like if They Were actually Chinese: A New Year's Love Story

Thursday is the start of the Year of the Goat, and Chinatown streets worldwide will fill with dragon dances, red lanterns and firecrackers. Those are all authentic Chinese inventions, though a newer, overseas addition to the party is not: fortune cookies.
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Author of 'In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.'

Michael Meyer worked on IN MANCHURIA as a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in The New York Public Library. He will appear in conversation with Ian Frazier about the book on Tuesday, February 17th, at 7 pm at The New York Public Library. For tickets, click here.

Thursday is the start of the Year of the Goat, and Chinatown streets worldwide will fill with dragon dances, red lanterns and firecrackers. Those are all authentic Chinese inventions, though a newer, overseas addition to the party is not: fortune cookies. The dessert-with-benefits was not Made in China, but was first served in America in the late-nineteenth century by the Japanese family that tended the Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. How fortune cookies ended up on the table after mushu pork rather than after sushi remains as mysterious as the fortunes themselves when read by a Chinese person, such as my wife.

In my new book In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China I describe the dramatic transition of a northeastern rice farm from a family-tended plot to a corporate agribusiness, a trend accelerating across the country, which has now spent more years dismantling a Marxist society than building one. Wasteland looks nothing like its name, but nor do the surrounding hamlets, which include Mud Town, Lonely Outpost and Zhang's Smelly Ditch. Their monikers may have been a ruse to keep brigands, soldiers and migrants away from the fertile floodplain, hugged by foothills on three sides and featuring a soil that feels as rich and saturated as spent coffee grounds. It's a good place to raise rice -- and children, with close-knit families and a new school. My wife Frances spent her early years there, before setting off alone to Beijing to learn English, and then to the University of California-Berkeley, where she graduated from law school.

The first time Frances landed in the United States, she thought, So this is what it feels like to be a foreigner. She wandered around San Francisco International, unsure where to turn. In China you just followed the crowd. But here she had to go through immigration, retrieve her bag and find her connecting flight -- alone. Everything was so quiet and orderly; she couldn't even hear her own footsteps. Carpeting in an airport? She watched a row of fountains sending water into the air. Beijing could use that stuff, she thought.

The people around her spoke in low voices. The customs agent brought over his friendly dog to sniff her. There was a red channel and a green one. She didn't know where to go; she had never been outside of China. A man in the arrow-straight line advised her to answer "No" to any questions.

Instead of "No," when confronted with America's plethora of options, Frances got by for an entire summer by choosing "first ones."

America is a land of decisions. At a restaurant: Eating in or taking out? Booth or table? Black or room for cream? She told the waitress she wanted a chicken burger. Roasted or barbecued? The first one. Whole wheat, sourdough, or French roll? Yes. Those are breads, which one would you like for the bun? The first one. And what would you like on it? Less choices.

The waitress just kept coming at her. "And what would you like to drink? We have--"

"The first one."

At this point, I opened the newspaper to the two pages filled with movie ads. "Let's go see a movie. You choose."

"The first one," she exhaled.

Chinese restaurants brought other vexations. "Seven bucks for garlic-fried broccoli? That's five times what it costs in China. It's just a vegetable!" At meal's end, the waitress presented the check with a mound of plastic-wrapped fortune cookies. Frances had never seen one, and to her ear, the messages inside sounded overly optimistic. We played a game. I read the fortune, and she edited it to sound "authentically Chinese."

I read: You are one of the people who 'goes places' in life.

"Chinese would never say that!" she exclaimed. "In China, it would be: 'You're not so bad. Better than some, worse than others.'"

Your present plans are going to succeed.

"No plan is the best plan."

The current year will bring you much happiness.

"This is as good as it gets."

You will step on the soil of many countries.

"The best thing to do is to stay home and serve your parents."

You have an ambitious nature and may make a name for yourself.

"You're a woman. Be chaste and stop dreaming."

I had made the journey in reverse, arriving in China as one of its first Peace Corps volunteers. During training, I had been ordered not to do three things, in order of severity:

  1. engage in politics
  2. ride motorcycles
  3. date a host country national (as locals were called)

As a fluent Spanish speaker, I had hoped to be sent not to China, but to Latin America. The Peace Corps offered Vladivostok, then Turkmenistan, then Malawi, then Kiribati, then Sri Lanka. The choices kept getting further from a ¡Sí! After I refused Mongolia, the recruiter snapped, "This isn't Club Med, it's the Peace Corps." His final take-it-or-leave-us offer: China. At the time I couldn't even use chopsticks, let alone speak a word of Chinese.

A Peace Corps trainer told us why there weren't any fortune cookies served after meals, and - in the same session -- warned us newcomers that a previous volunteer had married his college-age Chinese student. The story was told rapidly, as if it had happened during one farcical afternoon. I pictured Cary Grant as the nonplussed volunteer, doing a "spit take" and barking, "MARRIED? What, in that office? I thought she was helping me buy a TRAIN ticket!"

I spent two extremely chaste years as a volunteer. My Peace Corps-supplied medical kit could have been Hunter S. Thompson's glove box, with only a syringe, powdered Gatorade, and a fat paper bag filled with condoms. I drank the Gatorade, and gave everything else to my college-age students. Post-Peace Corps, I moved to Beijing to teach at an international school. On my first day there I saw Frances, tanned from summer hiking, when she arrived late to a meeting with a lilting apology and self-effacing laugh.

Her given name was Peony, and she hated it as much as I hated the Chinese name a teacher had assigned to me: Heroic Eastern Plumblossom. "That sounds like a girl's name," she said, a common response that always made me feel sorry for that girl, wherever she might be. "I prefer my English name, Frances," she said.

We began hanging out after school, cautiously, walking our students home, and playing basketball. The first time we played, she out-hustled me with such spirit that it broke my heart to tell her she had to dribble. We started eating together--cautiously, again: first a McDonald's milk shake, then Korean pancakes, and finally sitting outside on one of Beijing's perfect clear autumn nights around a steaming brazier, using chopsticks to dunk lamb slices, tofu, and mustard greens in boiling water and washing the cooked food down with big bottles of Yanjing beer that chilled in an ice pail beside the table. This was 1997 B.C. (Before Cars), when Beijing life still thrived in the hutong (alleys) and under tree-canopied sidewalks in comparably fresh air. For the first time in more than two years in China I didn't feel, no matter what our waitress had just called me, like a laowai, a foreigner. I didn't feel like the Other. Perhaps it was because I didn't see Frances that way. To me, she was quick, smart and funny--and unlike anyone I had met before, in or out of China. At her insistence, we split the dinner check. Then we said good night.

When I got home, my apartment felt unusually empty.

Frances told her roommate she had made a new friend.

Neither of us could sleep.

On Frances' first trip to the States, I cracked open a fortune cookie and read: Your love life will be happy and harmonious. Frances laughed and corrected it to: "Keep one eye closed and your partner only looks half bad."

We drove east, camping in Yellowstone. This was the America for Frances: open space whose beauty trumped even her native northeastern China. In Rock Springs, Wyoming the lone waiter at the China King Buffet was surprised to see a Chinese customer, then called me laowai -- foreigner. Even six thousand miles away from Beijing, in my own country, I was the foreigner. "You're the laowai now," I replied in Mandarin. The waiter laughed, but the laugh said I was wrong.

After our meal, I cracked open fortune cookies, pulling out the slips to read aloud: What's vice today may be virtue tomorrow.

"'Morality is for weaklings,'" Frances corrected. "Do what it takes to get ahead."

It is better to have a hen tomorrow than an egg today.

"Eat your eggs now as they may never hatch."

Everything will now come your way.

"The key to happiness is to expect little from life."

You should be able to undertake anything.

"If you never try, you will never fail."

Only one slip of paper stumped her: "The course of life is unpredictable; no one can write his autobiography in advance."

That "fortune," Frances would learn years later, was not Chinese at all, but a quote from a Polish rabbi whose family had been killed in the Holocaust, and who immigrated to the United States. She would eventually do the same thing, building a new life far from home with me and our beautiful son. Neither of us could see that future during her first trip abroad. Instead, at the time, Frances smiled and said that for once in America, the fortune cookie sounded true.

Happy Valentine's Day and New Year!

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