A is a Pre-med biology major at USC, currently a freshman. A is a Vietnamese American who grew up in Vancouver, Washington a short drive from Portland, Oregon.
A: Okay, so I’ve learned this at a very young age, but my family has told me that fortunes come true. Like, the fortune in the fortune cookies. I keep the slip of paper in my pocket like, as a way to make it come true. Keeping it with me helps make sure the fortune will come true, but if I don’t want this fortune to come true, I won’t keep it.
Me: Do you ever lose them?
A: I keep them for as long as I think I need the fortune. Like, if I think it came true, then I’ll throw it away.
The fortune tellers A is talking about are finely printed words, usually in a vague phrase or arrangement, that come from restaurant complementary cookies. As fortune telling is a way of predicting or controlling the future, I think what A experiences reading a fortune teller is something along the lines of superstition and homeopathic magic. Fortune tellers are usually signs, a specific message from the universe or time or fate telling you something important will happen. A believes this sign and wants this future to be his, so fortune tellers encourage some change in behavior to bring about that important thing. To bring fortune into reality, it is important for A to keep evidence of the future (the fortune paper) with him, as if to constantly be summoning it into his reality. Through this “like produces like,” A believes the paper in his possession (representing good fortune) will eventually produce what is predicted on the paper (actual good fortune). For A, he associates the paper with telling the future and keeps the fortune with him to invite the future to happen. He chooses to indulge in a sense of control or a kind of understanding over the world, where there is usually something wholly unpredictable.
J is the interviewer.
K is the interviewed party.
K: “I would like to preface this with the fact that none of these are legitimate rules, I don’t think, as far as they go, and they’re just what I’ve always done. So whenever you go to a restaurant and they give you fortune cookies, right at the beginning, I’ve always heard that it’s bad luck or something to grab one — anyone but the one that’s closest to you. You have to grab the closest one otherwise its either bad luck or your fortune won’t come true or something like that. But then something that my mom would always do, believe it or not, is that whatever you read, whenever you say — it has to — you just add the words, when you read it out loud to other people, you read it and you say your fortune and then you add the words, as uncouth as they are, ‘in bed with a midget.’ So people will read their fortune, and it’ll say, ‘good luck will come to you’ or, ‘good favor’ or ‘you’ll discover something about yourself’ and then you say in bed with a midget at the end.”
Even though they come at the end of Chinese food meals, fortune cookies are actually a known American invention, so they exist as an example of one culture adding to another and being adopted by the new culture. If I ever go to a Chinese restaurant, I feel somewhat cheated if I don’t get a fortune cookie at the end of the meal, knowing full well that fortune cookies have no legitimate claim to Chinese heritage.
Fortune cookies exist for many people as a lighthearted form of the spirituality of another culture. The jovial nature of their existence is a perfect way to incorporate personal traditions of making the experience even funnier. At many of the dinners where fortune cookies are served, I have experienced a similar tradition of reading the fortunes and deciding who had the best one or putting personal spins on the fortunes to make them even better.
The interviewed party is a 21-year-old, male southern-California native. He lived his whole life in Irvine, California until he moved to Los Angeles to study at the University of Southern California. This interview was conducted in person at the interviewer’s house. The audio of the conversation was recorded in order to ensure accuracy when writing the spoken words.