MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
The New York Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee says she grew up as an ABC, and American-born Chinese. And by the way, the 8 in her middle name is the numeral 8.
From prom to pop culture, her parents encouraged the three Lee children to embrace America, even as they stress Chinese culture in their household.
The supper table was filled with her mother's traditional food. So, Lee was perplexed by the dishes in Chinese restaurants. The food in the little white takeout boxes was so different from the meals her mom prepared.
That curiosity led to a book due out in March, a book called "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food." Jennifer 8. Lee says it's the product of an obsession.
Ms. JENNIFER 8. LEE (Author, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food"): My interested started when I was about 13. And I found out that fortune cookies weren't Chinese. And it was sort of this disconcerting discovery, like, I was adopted and there was no Santa Claus at the same time. In a way, I had bought in to the myth of what is, quote, unquote, really Chinese.
NORRIS: When and how did you discover that fortune cookies were not Chinese?
Ms. LEE: I actually read it in a book called "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan. And in it, there are two women who go work in a fortune cookie factory. And one of them has never seen fortune cookies and thinks that the messages that are in them are completely ridiculous.
And it was really at that moment, I was like - I even asked my mom. I'm like, mom, did you know they weren't Chinese?
NORRIS: Hmm. And then there was, of course, the story about the Powerball lottery, the mega jackpot lottery, where 104 people all came up with the same six numbers.
Ms. LEE: Yes. On March 30, 2005, an inordinate number of people became second place winners. And as the people started to knew - discovery of the reason why. They discovered it have do with fortune cookies across the entire country, across men, women, old, young. And to me, the universality of the fact that all these people had played the same fortune cookie lucky number on the same day, spoke volumes about the institutionality of Chinese food in American life.
NORRIS: You set out to actually go back and try to find some of the restaurants where these people had their dinner and where they got the fortune cookies. You also take us, in reading the book, into the world of fortune cookies, how they're made. And we discover that all of those fortunes inside all of those cookies are all connected to two people.
Ms. LEE: Yes. The large majority of fortunes basically come from two places, one from a factory called Wanton Food, which is in Long Island City. And I would say they're responsible for about half of all fortune cookie messages. Then, there's another guy named Stephen Yang, who doesn't really even speak English, who is out on the West Coast.
And he, in a sort of one or two-room garage-type warehouse furnishes maybe 40 percent of the fortunes in America. He is sort of the outsourced person for all the kind of wisdom. And you can usually recognize his stuff. A lot of it is red, and a lot of it has the sort of smiley faces in it.
NORRIS: Mm-hmm. Wisdom.
Ms. LEE: Mm-hmm.
NORRIS: Interesting word there. He dispenses wisdom through these…
Ms. LEE: Yeah, he is…
NORRIS: …little pieces of paper.
Ms. LEE: …is a fortune cookie sage. And it's funny because he doesn't even really speak English. He hires other people to be sort of outsourced, like, you know, Confuciuses, to write them on his behalf.
NORRIS: And it turns out that writing fortunes is really not just an art but really a science. It takes quite a bit to get it right.
Ms. LEE: Yeah, because you have to basically sort of summarize the essence of something into a sentence that's - or two. That's no more than 12 words long. And you want it to be both punchy and memorable, and also broadly applicable enough to enough people that they don't complain.
And what's really funny is, of course, that a lot of fortune cookie wisdom is not Chinese at all, because a lot of Chinese wisdom doesn't port very well into American society. So, for example, the squeaky wheel gets the oil, which is sort of the American saying. The Chinese version is (Chinese spoken), which means the bird whose head sticks out gets shot. And so that's a very interesting contrast and sort of the Chinese perspective on the world and the American perspective on the world. So, you want the cookies to appeal to Americans.
NORRIS: Hmm. Don't call attention to yourself.
Ms. LEE: Right.
NORRIS: You know, it's interesting. In the book, you note that some of the fortunes actually strike people the wrong way. It may be delight one group of people. They actually, it was the complaints from others.
And, one, you note that you will soon inherit a large sum of money. It seems to be good news, but people thought that it was all bearing the death of a loved one.
Ms. LEE: Indeed. There are a bunch of different ways that fortunes can be differently interpreted. Another common one is, you know, there is a, you know, dark mysterious man in your future. It may be great to sort of a Sex-and-the-City type of woman, but very, very different to, like, a 6-year-old girl who gets it.
NORRIS: Oh, sounds like the boogeyman.
Ms. LEE: Yeah, totally. And so - or, you know, lighten up sounds like, you know, cheer up. But if it's someone who might have - be sensitive about their weight, that might not also go so well. So they kind of, in a way, want fortunes that are bland and the goal is to not get complaints about the fortune. It's not necessary to be as wise and succinct, you know, and pointed as possible as much it is to minimize audience complaints.
NORRIS: How do the complaints make their way back to the company?
Ms. LEE: Well, the way that the complaints make their way up is the patron often complain to the restaurant. Everyone wants everyone to have a happy fortune in the end because that's how they get good tips. And so restaurateurs then complain to the fortune cookie distributor. The fortune cookie distributor then complains to the manufacturer, who then, you know, complains to either Stephen Yang or Wanton Food and says, you know, this fortune got a complaint all the way down the line. And they do a pretty good job to sort of excising them.
NORRIS: Now, you also note in the book that when they actually try to take fortune cookies - it's very popular to America - back to China, and back to Japan, they didn't do very well. They were essentially told we can't market these things. They're too American.
Ms. LEE: Right. Basically, from the Chinese perspective, they have plenty of ways to tell fortunes. I mean, you can get someone who reads you face, who reads your palm, who reads tea leaves. You can go to a temple and might, you know, pull out a stick that gives you a fortune.
So, they don't really need an upstart cookie, does that make sense? And also, the other interesting thing about fortune cookies in America is they are almost historically universally positive, whereas in China and in Japan, if you go get a fortune taken, about half of the time, it's fairly negative.
And not bad if you think that's good, right, because it's only by getting negative feedback can you kind of engage in, like, self-improvement in your life. But, in America, which tends to be a very optimistic society, that doesn't always go off so well.
NORRIS: Hmm. The Lake Wobegon effect in the fortune cookies.
Ms. LEE: Yeah.
NORRIS: You began this book as a quest to understand Chinese food and Chinese culture, but it sounds like it turned into a journey of self-exploration. What did you, in the end, learned about your self and learned about the country, America, the country that your parents had adopted?
Ms. LEE: Well, the thing that really struck me in the end is that China, in a way, is the largest immigrant-producing country in the world, and America is the largest immigrant-accepting country in the world. And what I thought was really interesting is when people talk to me on the phone.
If they didn't know my last name, they would always think I was, quote, "American." But upon seeing me, sometimes people would be like, oh, you're Chinese.
It was really interesting to understand the disconnect in people's minds. That a voice and just a name, Jennifer, is in essence American. But on - in the surface, I look Chinese, and in a way, I'm a lot like dishes that exists only in America but that look Chinese like General Tso's Chicken. Because while they look Chinese, they exists really only in America, or it exists mainly in America.
Fortune cookies, like people think of them as Chinese, but they are fundamentally something that's American. So what the book does and what it made me think twice about, and what I hope it makes everyone think twice about is both, you know, what does it mean to be American? That we're - we might be shifting away from sort of a Eurocentric view of the United States into something that's, you know, much more multicultural, multinational. And Chinese (unintelligible) is one slice of that.
NORRIS: Jennifer 8. Lee, it's been a pleasure talking to you. All the best to you.
Ms. LEE: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: Jennifer 8. Lee. Her book is due out in March. It's called "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food." And you can read an excerpt at our Web site npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.