Thursday, October 20, 2005

Fortune Cookie Surfing (fiction)

“Help, I'm trapped inside a Chinese restaurant and I can’t get out.”

     My father mailed this message, baked inside a fortune cookie, to five hundred prospective customers three weeks before he opened his restaurant.  He had special-ordered the cookies with their message from a bakery/print shop in San Francisco Chinatown.  They came in a big clear plastic bag tied at the top with string and each cookie had that same message.  

     My parents bought a ten foot stack ofunfolded crushproof cardboard boxes and two thick spools of postage stamps and for several days we folded the flattened t-shaped cardboard into three dimensional box form, dropped in a cookie, a message announcing the opening of the restaurant, and then hand addressed and stamped the box.  The cookies looked vaguely like the rearview of an origami crane, so it was strange to lock them into pedestrian 5 inch by 5 inch cardboard cubes.

     At various points, I got bored and used the completed boxes to build a fort on the far side of the dining room table.  In the meantime, various employees of the restaurant to be came by the house to talk about the details of the opening, to share their lists of prospective customers and to fold boxes. For three weeks, I ate a lot of fortune cookies even though I knew exactly what the fortune inside had to say.  My dad had had the foresight to buy more fortune cookies than boxes.  He had figured that fortune cookies break from mishandling.  He, however, didn’t have the foresight to see that the post office was going to complain when we put two hundred of the boxes in the midnight pickup one evening.

     People liked getting the cookies in the mail and a lot of them did come to the restaurant after the grand opening party.  I remember it as the most optimistic I ever saw my father about his own business prospects.  The cookies were actually my mother’s idea, but that made it even better because they liked to think that they were working together on making the business a success as a restaurant that would stand apart from the dozens of Chinese restaurants already in Sacramento.  

     Over the next thirteen years, my father really was trapped inside a Chinese restaurant.  The business survived, but it never grew into something to celebrate or brag about.  As he moved into middle age, my father had trouble imagining alternatives for himself.  He died at age 50 of a heart attack.  The last time I spoke to him, I was home for the summer and getting ready to take care of the restaurant that  afternoon because he was getting over a case of pneumonia.  

     Maybe because of all that, fortune cookies, the single clearest reminder that the “Chinese” restaurant is really an American invention, have always had a special power.  I believe that the fortunes find you in some way and set up some kind of resonance with your life.  In their way, they are a peculiarly American take on the very Chinese I Ching.  My father sent out his own fortune five hundred times and somehow accidentally turned it into his actual fate.  He hated the restaurant and always told me to go to school for something that would give me better choices.  He never wanted to me to spend one more day than I had to taking care of the place.   We didn’t.  My mother and I closed it and sold it as soon as my dad died.

     There was a three week period after the restaurant opened when I was especially fascinated by fortune cookies.  My dad kept them near the tea dispenser inside a white tin container with yellow daisies around the perimeter roughly the size of a breadbox, if anyone remembers breadboxes.  It had a red top that split in half.  The waiters would take the bill from the kitchen cashier on its brown plastic tray then reach in and match the number of fortune cookies to the number of diners at the table. I never saw anyone fill up the box with new fortune cookies, yet somehow it never seemed to be empty.  For some reason too, all the waiters followed the same ritual.  They would never look directly into the box when they fished out the fortune cookies.  They also never showed any interest in eating the fortune cookies themselves.  Perhaps, they already understood the possibility that they carried some sort of curse.

     My cousin was was ten years old like me happened to be with me at the restaurant on a Sunday afternoon when the place was closed at lunchtime.  The restaurant was so new at the time that you could still smell the paint on the walls and there were no grease stains even in the kitchen area yet.  For my cousin, it was a thrill to have access to all the fortune cookies you could want.  We had already hit up the supply of juicy fruit gum at the front counter.

     Somehow, we determined without ever agreeing out loud that we would find out just how many different fortunes there were in a box of fortune cookies.  It didn’t take very long to get to the point where we didn’t care to eat the cookies and we did understand that we couldn’t empty the breadbox of its trove of cookies anyway.  My father wasn’t going to care that we were eating fortune cookies, he just didn’t like waste.  

     With the help of toothpicks from the front, we figured out how to fish the fortunes out of the cookies while leaving their sea-shell shaped outer bodies intact.  There were forty five different fortunes.  None of them said, “You have an incurable disease and will die in the next six months.”  In fact, virtually none of them had anything bad to say, certainly nothing so bad as “I’m trapped inside a Chinese restaurant and can’t get out.”  I think the worse was something like “You should be cautious in finance with people you don’t know.”

     A few of them had quotes from Confucius though even then it occured to us that Confucius probably didn’t really speak pidgin English and make jokes about the bird of happiness dropping things or mother in laws. There were a lot of “long and prosperous life” messages which as it happened my cousin seemed to get far more often those than I did.  For whatever reason, I was getting more of the life observation fortunes like “virtue is its own reward” or “saving money keeps squirrels fed in the winter”.  

     Not all the fortunes were the same color.  Some were printed on pink paper. Other were yellow.  Every now and then, one of the cookies would have more than one fortune in it. The machines the fortune cookie company was using weren’t perfect yet and they’d sometimes drop an extra one in.  It wasn’t quite the same thing as finding an oyster with two pearls in it, but we assumed that the double fortune fortune cookies might have more significance or fate in them than the more usual single variety.

     I’m not sure how long it took us to get tired of our controlled experiment, but by the end of the afternoon my cousin and I were convinced that we knew everything there was to know about the fortunes inside fortune cookies and that we had seen all that fate had to offer.  Given that valuable lesson, we then got distracted and more or less forgot about our invasion of the sanctity of the fortune cookie box. My cousin went home.  I went back to school on Monday.

     A couple days later, my father came to me.  “We’re you playing with the fortune cookies?”

     “Well, sort of? But we didn’t break any of them.”

     “My customers are complaining that they’re getting fortune cookies with no fortunes in them.  One old lady got scared that it meant she was going to die.  The waiters are saying that they’re getting smaller tips because the fortune cookies don’t have fortunes.”

     One of my friends had told me a scary story about some friend of a friend who went to a palm reader only to have the old lady turn white and scream because his palm had no lines whatsover on it.  As my father told me about the woes of the fortune cookies, I began to realize that I’d created all these blank palm readings for all these customers desperate to have their future foretold after ingesting large quantities of MSG and green tea.  

     My dad wasn’t mad at me, but he wanted me to apologize to the waiters which I did reluctantly.  Nobody laughed about it and I don’t know why that was.  At one point, my dad offered to give me a bag of as many fortune cookies as I wanted as long as I didn’t mix in my cookie mutation experiments with anything that might get to a customer.  My mom said very little about it.  She felt guilty for not watching my cousin and me that afternoon.  After that, the white box disappeared from the kitchen and the fortune cookies just sat in the kitchen in the clear plastic bag with the string tie they came in waiting for the waiters to grab a few.  Their mystery was gone and maybe I wonder guiltily if that’s when my father gave up dreaming about his restaurant.

     I hadn’t thought about this much until I realized a few weeks ago that I’m addicted to surfing the web.  Surfing the web is arguably the same thing as surfing fortune cookies.  As I sit in the middle of my life, the same age as my father the year he died, I think to myself that I’m not nearly as successful as I once hoped I might be.  While I never opened a Chinese restaurant, in fact I’ve never risked opening a business of any kind, I never did anything that other people celebrate much.  With this, there are days when I think that life is like those fortune cookies, there are really just a limited number of fates distributed at random to the billions of souls out there.  Most of them can be at least minimally positive, but it really depends on what you read into them.  I also now see that the oddly distinctive shape of the fortune cookie can be seen as a stylized infinity symbol.

     Where my dad dreamed that one summer of building a Chinese restaurant empire and having a business identity separate from my grandfather’s, I’ve spent much of my adult life dreaming that other people would read what I write half as attentively as they read those quarter inch by two inch strips of Chinese restaurant haikus.   Maybe I should never have opened Pandora's fortune cookie box that day.  Maybe I saw too much of my own fate and fate is punishing me back.  

     If I had all those boxes again, I would make a great wall of those fortune cookie bricks, each one loaded with blandly sweet possibility in a world too filled with disappointment,
and I would use the wall to seal my father and mother there, their dreams of self-made success intact, just waiting to be opened.



At 10/20/2005 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Alan Howard said...

If that was fiction, and not actually part of your history, then keep writing fiction like that. It was fantastic. I loved reading it, and especially so since I thought it was actually your past, your life. It wasn't until I actually came to the site (after reading it in my RSS reader) to place a comment that I saw the "(fiction)" part of the title, and was a little disappointed. But an excellent piece of writing nevertheless. Thanks for writing it!

At 10/20/2005 01:19:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

many thanks for taking the last couple paragraphs so literally :}/ I should mention that your blog item about your flirting with the hostess at the Malaysian restaurant served as one of the seeds for this.

fwiw fiction always has some basis in reality, it's between the writer and the reader to determine how much without ever quite giving away the recipe.

At 10/20/2005 01:33:00 PM, Blogger Alan Howard said...

Everything in my Malaysian adventure was completely and absolutely true, but I'm very happy it inspired you to write something of your own. If you're thanking me for taking the last couple of paragraphs literally, should I take that as being the fiction? You've confused me now.

At 10/20/2005 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Alan,'re the one who believes literally in demons and angels....and you're trying to get me to say what's real and not real? :}

okay okay,,,,yes both the narrator and I share a frustration in being people who write and yet not getting read a lot. I don't know if that's literal or literary, but it definitely felt good to have someone say he read it and liked it from half way around the world.

At 10/20/2005 03:34:00 PM, Blogger Alan Howard said...

You might want to insert a statistics tracker, if you haven't already, to see how many people you get coming to your site. And you might also want to join some blog directories and search engines, again if you haven't already, to increase the exposure of your site. If you want readers, you'll need to go find them.

My site has just exploded in the past few days. Where I was averaging 20 people a day, I'm now well over 100 people a day - and it exploded this week. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it's because I followed the rule of posting often, and being listed in lots of places. If you do this, the result is that there's more opportunity for people to find what they're looking for on your site, instead of someone else's. I also said to myself that when I get over 100 people a day visiting the site, I'll introduce Google AdSense, just as an experiment to see if anything comes of it in regards to income. That happened much sooner than I expected, and you'll see ads on the site now. (I hope you don't think it's inconvenient or anything...) But the point I'm making is that if you want more readers, you need to make more effort.

You've got me as a regular at least. I think you're doing a great job, and you're keeping me entertained, so keep it up! :-)

At 10/21/2005 08:04:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terrific piece, cl.

My favorite tidbits were the shape of a fortune cookie being an stylized infinity sign in motion. And the surfing the web like surfing the fortune cookies. Indeed.

I am obsessively checking google fortune cookie, I mean news to see if there are or are not indictments yet.

Tho true, the origami cranes without heads was a tad grueling, imagewise....

I hate it that our culture has trapped all of us inside a no-exit Chinese restaurant idea of sucess such that people always judge themselves by some external & usually commercial thermometer.

At 10/21/2005 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I've had a site counter for some time and made sure that I got yahooed and googled early on. I've thought about adding tags, but haven't made the time to learn how to do it.
btw I'm glad to hear that your hit count is up, your site deserves the attention.

I've struggled with the post everyday thing. I know it's good for the hit count, but I also have to be clear to myself about why I do this. I blog so that I write more and better. Conventional publication gave me horrible writer's block as I would send stuff out and then wait until I could start on something new. Now I publish quickly, fix and edit afterwards often, but don't get caught up in what was an unhealthy cycle for me.
I've written a whole lot more than I would have and am happy with a lot of what I've written (I know we're never supposed to say that publicly). I like the hits, but I take care not to write in order to get more hits.

I am, however, always looking for ways to expand readership consistent with that. I appreciate the helpful and specific suggestions you did have and welcome any others, though it takes me a while to implement any "visual" suggestions. My mind doesn't work that way easily and it's not necessarily fun to me to work on formats, fonts, columns, graphics, etc.

Mr. Pogblog,
thanks for the comments. I wasn't sure about the headless cranes thing either. I meant for it to be a metaphor of imprisonment, but yeah it is kind of ghoulish.

I agree. I see enormous pressures on the characters in that story to "succeed" in conventional terms when the father, for instance, is clearly a gentle man and someone who appreciates and channels the kid's curiousity, yet he can't see himself as a success unless he has the other as well.

At 10/21/2005 09:21:00 PM, Blogger Alan Howard said...

If you would like to change the appearance of your blog, I'd be happy to help. I've had lots of experience with editing the format and appearance of my own blog, so I offer that to you if you want. Just contact me privately if you want.


At 10/23/2005 09:31:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

many thanks for the offer. I'll e-mail you at some point soon.


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