ZHENG: Your fortune in a cookie


Yes, this is a column about fortune cookies, and why you should order Chinese takeout more often.

You’ve had it a million times. The creamy yellow cracker, balanced on top of the guest check holder, served to you after you’ve finished your General Tso’s chicken or shrimp fried rice. Sometimes it comes with a sliced-up orange, sometimes just a mint.

Xiuyi Zheng_Opinion Portrait

You break apart the cookie along the crevice between its two cone-shaped ends, revealing the piece of paper tucked inside. For fun, you try to read the Chinese word it teaches. “Ping guo.” Apple. “Kan bing.” To see a doctor. The tones are hard to pronounce.

You flip over the slip of paper to reveal your fortune. (By this point, you’ve already forgotten the Chinese word you just learned.) The “fortune” takes the form of a vaguely worded sentence that seems too general or completely unrelated to your life. You stare at it for 25 seconds. Your friend teaches you to add “in bed” to the end of the fortune to great comedic effect, as in “A soft voice may be awfully persuasive. In bed.” You laugh. Its uses exhausted, you proceed to throw away the fortune, and maybe even the unfinished cookie itself.

While I understand why you might think fortune cookies are but a pointless gimmick, I’m afraid you are sorely mistaken. Here are three rules you must follow to properly interpret what a fortune cookie has to teach you:

Ask the fortune cookie a question. No one will ask a friend to just give some general advice. How can anyone help you if they don’t know what you need help with? Present your biggest predicament to the fortune cookie, and it will give you the answer you seek.

Second, interpret the fortune cookie’s answer liberally. This rule has nothing to do with whether you support Obamacare. The fortune cookie, like all sources of wisdom, prioritizes style over clarity, and has a flair for the dramatic. To fully appreciate what it has to offer, you must master the art of reading between the lines.

Third, you must not deliberately seek out the fortune cookie. It must be a fortuitous encounter. If you happen to be at Ivy Noodle or Great Wall, feel free to grab a cookie and ask for advice. However, the cookie’s powers fade if you rely on it too much. Revelation is only the added benefit to a serving of Peking duck, not the other way around.

Some months ago, I half-jokingly asked the fortune cookie if I was really interested in a girl. My fortune read, “Don’t fall into illusions.” The answer made so much sense — I immediately realized that I wasn’t actually into this particular person; I was merely attracted to the thought of being close to someone.

On a more recent occasion, I asked for advice on how to approach a coffee date. The fortune cookie told me, “Your candid approach is refreshing.” I was happy to comply.

The questions you can ask fortune cookies are not limited to those about relationships. Feel free to inquire about that paper you’re stressed about, or the results of your grad school application. You will find that although the fortune cookie is not always reliable, the process of interpreting its message can prove to be surprisingly therapeutic.

Of course, the fortune cookie has no magical powers. It is not the embodiment of a helpful fairy, or a 200-year-old Chinese sage with long whiskers and 10-inch fingernails. (Cultural stereotypes. Eww.) Instead, the act of rationalizing and constructing reasonable interpretations for a vague piece of advice is much more important than the actual advice itself. Too often, we know what we should do, but our judgment can be clouded by extraneous debris that is difficult to filter out. The fortune cookie merely acts as a stethoscope through which you can hear what your heart is telling you.

If you ask the fortune cookie about your upcoming midterms and it says “Long life is in store for you,” perhaps you will think that it is telling you to look at the big picture. Life is a long process, in the context of which these midterms can’t even count as a speed bump. Why have you decided on that interpretation? It’s because you have subconsciously decided that it’s what you need the most.

So the next time you find yourself at Ivy Noodle, grab a fortune cookie. Just remember not to abuse it too much — we Yalies have a tendency to overthink.

Xiuyi Zheng is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at xuiyi.zheng@yale.edu .