My gung-gung doesn't speak a word of English. Forty-four years in America and he still listens to Chinese opera on the Chinese radio station; still shops in the same grocery stores in Chinatown or Flushing, Queens; still reads his Chinese-language newspapers. But he lives out on Long Island now, in a big white-brick house with my grandmother and an extended family of two daughters, a son, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren, ages 10 and 12. He's got a Sub-Zero fridge and a Viking range with which to work his culinary magic when he wants to. My mother, his eldest child, and my aunt still collect their own grown children every Sunday to visit their father's home and tsaw-ha—"sit a little."
As far as I can tell, most Chinese aren't crazy about fortune cookies. They're not particularly tasty or special. They're not even really Chinese: No one knows for sure, but they were likely created in the United States in the 19th century as makeshift moon cakes to celebrate the lunar festival. But for my mother, fortune cookies remind her of her father. When she eats one, it's almost in an absentminded way. Rather than relishing them, as I do, she chews them mechanically, almost as if she's eating them for sustenance. And in a way she is. Those cookies sent my aunts and uncle to college in New York, buying books and clothes and all the necessities of life. The foundation for my relatives' success, and mine, was laid down with each circle of dough that my grandfather shaped. Fortune cookies helped make us who we are.
Before the cookies were produced by machine, my gung-gung had a hand, literally, in the fortunes of about 35 million people. Today all the factories have moved out of Chinatown. The process is fully automated, churning out millions of cookies a day, in all sizes and flavors: chocolate, lemon, orange, almond; dipped in fudge, encrusted with sprinkles, perched on a martini, filled with personalized fortunes or with flavored mousse. They come in individual wrappers with the ingredients clearly labeled. Once, a boyfriend gave me a giant cookie with a special happy birthday message stowed inside.
I love fortune cookies. I love them precisely because they were created at that unique intersection between China and America. There's a fortune that I carry around in my wallet now. It says, "No need to worry! You will always have everything that you need." Because of my grandfather, I actually believe it.
Bonnie Tsui is the author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods (Globe Pequot Press).
More Ways to Be Globally Connected
We Hear You!