When living in Hong Kong in 1997-1998, I discovered that Chinese fortune cookies do not exist in China, but rather are an American innovation. In my early days eating American Chinese food, I got used to the idea that the fortune cookies supplied with the check at the end of the meal actually did contain a fortune — that is, a prediction of what would happen to you sometime in the future.


These fortunes always had a positive, or optimistic, character, since it would clearly be counter-productive for a restaurant to deliberately give its customers bad news.

At some point, however, the fortunes in fortune cookies seemed to change their character; in fact, they were no longer fortunes at all, but merely trite pronouncements about life.


Not having an actual fortune in a fortune cookie was discouraging to me, since there are already enough trite pronouncements about life available through mass media and news programming; it seemed hardly necessary to work my way through the plastic packaging of the cookie, and crack open the hard shell of cookie material, in order to get yet another annoying message about love, life, and work.

Yet I continued to pry open these strange clams of brittle dough, perhaps hoping that an actual fortune would emerge — something I could ridicule freely and with pleasure. Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently opened a fortune cookie at Ling Ling Garden restaurant in Ithaca, NY, and received neither an optimistic message about my future nor a facile observation about life, but a shocking rebuke and warning: “Your problem just got bigger. Think, what have you done.”

from Ling Ling Garden, Ithaca, NY

I was literally stunned. Was there a rogue employee somewhere in the fortune cookie production line planting dystopic messages in these cookies? And if so, why? And was this message/warning unique, or were there others like it? My mind raced feverishly thinking of the possibilities: “The man behind you has a gun. Your life is in danger.” “Hundreds of large rats have entered your home. Extermination is impossible.” “Your computer just crashed, and none of your important work was backed up. You will lose your job.”

In the end, we paid the bill and left the restaurant. I haven’t dared return.

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