The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Jeff Yang: on books and babies.

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 12, 2008

    Jeff Yang, the founder of A. Magazine and a columist for, has a piece interweaving The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and raising his sons.

    We had an hour-long interview before I ran out for a TV shoot on Saturday where he told me he liked my book. I was like, if there is one person on this planet that should like my book, that would be Jeff Yang. If Jeff Yang did not like my book, I would have failed. Full text after the jump


    Food is love

    Tuesday, March 11, 2008


    Fill 'Im Up: Skyler Jordan Yang--eat, sleep, poop, and ba... Takeout Tome: Jennifer 8. Lee's absorbing book will have ... Miss Fortune: The author herself, with her second most im... From Jenny's More…

    New dad Jeff Yang, thinking about food, identity, and culture, talks with Jennifer 8. Lee, author of the just-published “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”

    Prologue: Made with love

    Our second son, Skyler Jordan Yang, was born two weeks ago — a candy-pink bundle of softness and occasional wetness whose early appearance has both thrilled and upended our household.

    Skyler is a highly efficient engine for converting breast milk into cuteness and poop. He snaps his lips like a piranha at anything vaguely spherical, and I’ve woken Heather up in the living room from gentle dozes in the early morning hours several times, with him still latched on and Hoovering like mad. (By contrast, No. 1 son Hudson wouldn’t take the boob, and even now is such a picky eater that he seems more like some exotic breed of orchid than a rambunctious little 4-year-old boy — he thrives on water, light, air and the occasional Go-Gurt stick.)

    The process has been grueling for Heather, but she says she wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a special, instant bond she feels with this one, based on that most basic of parent-child transactions: the giving of food. It took longer to get that closeness with Hudson, because he wouldn’t eat, and kind of still doesn’t. And for Heather, who came to the United States from Taiwan at age 7 and spent her formative years working in her parents’ Chinese restaurant (the late, lamented House of Ying), food is the foundation of all things, the building block of family and society, the universal medium for communicating emotion, teaching lessons, preserving history.

    I’ve mused before about the critical role that food plays in Asian cultures. But the coming of Skyler has put that truth back in focus for me once more: The relatively conventional context of his birth (in contrast, Hudson was over six weeks early and spent the first 10 days or so of his life in the bittersweet clinical environs of the neonatal ICU) means that he and my wife are getting the full, traditional Chinese postpartum treatment, a ritual called zuo yue zi, or “doing the month.”

    Part of the process is about staying at home: No travel, no visitors, no going outside for a brisk walk. You’re also not allowed to bathe, and you’re officially not allowed to read or watch television, though the last provoked such rebellion that my mother-in-law finally backed down under Heather’s suggestion that the remote could only be pried from her cold, dead hands.

    But the biggest part of zuo ye is eating and drinking the right things, culturally approved things — a dietary plan that predates Atkins by a few millennia and is designed to help the maternal body recover and most importantly, generate maximum amounts of precious life essence for the little one. The smells and tastes of these foods range from bland to foul, and they linger Chernobyl-like in our kitchen. In the interests of solidarity early on, I tried eating a bowl of the soup Heather has been sentenced to eat three times a day, brewed from some combination of fresh chicken, rice wine and herbal tonics, and had to suppress my gag reflex. “What is this made with?” I choked to my mother-in-law in my broken Mandarin.

    She looked at me with flat eyes, and said in an equally flat voice, “It’s made with love.”

    Belly, head and heart

    One of the things that Skyler’s early arrival derailed was the column I’d hoped to write about a new book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” by reporter, blogger, friend and all-around menschette (womensch?) Jennifer 8. Lee. The book hit the bricks on March 3, a week after Skyler did, so I find myself now writing about it after the media’s madding crowd has already chimed in — mostly with effusively glowing reviews. Deserved ones: I consumed the book in a single, rapt late-night stint, with bread loaf-sized Skyler lounging in a Boppy on my lap, breaking only to address the calls of nature (his and mine).

    The book’s subtitle is “Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” but I don’t think it does the work justice. It may look like a book about food from the outside, but crack open its sweet cookie shell, and you’ll find a more profound and provocative set of insights within.

    Or, to use a more apt culinary metaphor: If, to the Chinese, food is culture, food is family, food is history, well, this book is about all of those things, tumbled together, brightened and bound with spice and sauce — a hearty stir-fry indeed, juxtaposing the epic and intimate, the mundane, the absurd and the sublime, in a recipe made with love.

    The surface conceit of “Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is lightweight: At one level, it’s the story about the takeover of takeout, the peculiarly bastardized U.S. variant of Chinese cuisine that has captivated the American appetite since the 19th century with innovations like chop suey, General Tso’s Chicken, and yes, fortune cookies — all dishes assembled in America from flexibly adapted Chinese parts. “Most people who eat Chinese takeout don’t realize how fundamentally American it is,” laughs Lee. “It’s like, well, you think it’s Chinese, but it’s not — it’s an ‘indigenous foreign’ food that only exists here. Like burritos and spaghetti with meatballs.”

    But the deeper you dig into the book’s richly varied ingredients — clusters of lottery winners who bet the “lucky numbers” printed on fortune cookie slips; bayou chefs who serve up Szechuan-style gator; menu-slinging deliverymen and Taiwanese mafiosi; philosophers and ambassadors, hustlers and strivers, ancient warlords and modern-day entrepreneurs — the more you taste the agenda behind Lee’s tale: By tracing the outlines of the unique phenomenon of “American Chinese” cuisine, Lee is telling the tale of Chinese in America, in a way that would be toothsome even to those who flee the History Channel. It’s social studies in a batter-crisp coating, if you will. And the lessons to be learned are both sweet and sour.

    “The book really began in 2003, when I wrote a story about this immigrant couple, John and Jenny,” says Lee. Like many of their friends and neighbors from Fuzhou — a province that has been the source of so much outward migration that some of its villages have become virtually depleted of working-age residents — John and Jenny sought to come to the United States, and pursued that goal in stages: First Jenny, then John, then their children, one by one, came to New York, becoming a family again by accretion. And then, after toiling as a waiter in Manhattan Chinatown for years, John decided to invest the family’s savings in a restaurant of their own, in the tiny town of Hiawassee, Ga.

    “I followed them from New York to Georgia, and I realized, sitting there in that little seven-seat restaurant, that this was something interesting: They knew nothing about running a Chinese takeout restaurant. They had a binder of recipes that they never would eat themselves, and they had one another, and that was it,” she says. “And as I researched, I found out that there are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald’s, Burger Kings and Wendy’s put together. And at that point I said, ‘Wow, I’m onto a bigger idea.'”

    Across the nation, hundreds of thousands of immigrant Jennies and Johns have journeyed across the ocean and fanned out into the American wilderness known as waizhou, “outside territory” — deep suburbs in the Midwest and South, rural townships in the plains and mountains, inner-city jungles in decaying metropolises and industrial centers.

    To get there, they’ve suffered and sacrificed. Suffice it to say that Jenny and John’s story is not a happy one, and the chapters in which Lee explores the underground pipeline that funnels undocumented Chinese restaurant workers to the United States are heart-stopping, particularly the one that narrates the death-defying journey of one survivor of the Golden Venture disaster, the shipwreck that spilled hundreds of Chinese immigrants onto the shores of New York’s Rockaway Beach.

    But in the process of planting these beachheads in places that may have never seen an Asian even on TV, these intrepid colonists have spread the gospel of a China that is foreign enough to be attractive, but familiar enough to be appetizing; a taste of China that has been designed for mittelamerika‘s quick-serve culinary preferences. Sweet and greasy and chunky and alien to anyone who’s grown up with the authentic cuisine, takeout Chinese is nevertheless an entry point for understanding — a gateway drug for people to at least engage with a culture and a people that loom large in the history that will be written of the century to come.

    “Just about everyone who’s reviewed this book has stuck to the superficial, top-level aspects of the book — like ‘Oh my God, there’s no beef with broccoli in China!’ — but the chapters I felt were my best work were the ones that dealt with the experiences of the people making the food,” says Lee. “And the other things in the book were like a wrapper that let me tell those stories. Like the history of the fortune cookie, for instance: I realized that if I told the story of fortune cookies backwards through history, I’d ultimately hit every aspect of the Chinese American experience.”

    And not just Chinese American: One of the things that emerged out of Lee’s investigation of the fortune cookie’s origins is that not only are they not Chinese, they’re not even American: The fortune cookie evolved from a traditional Japanese confection called tsujiura senbei, sweet, fortune-laden crackers originally sold outside of Shinto shrines. Brought to the United States by Japanese immigrants before World War I, they nevertheless became indelibly identified with the Chinese community. The Japanese American bakers had to abandon their equipment when they were forced into internment during World War II — equipment that was then picked up by Chinese entrepreneurs and used to fuel the demands of a growing, organic network of American Chinese restaurants that by the 1950s were already in wide proliferation. But the universal embrace of the fortune cookie could never have been possible without the innovation of an immigrant whose roots came from neither Japan nor China. The inventor of the fully automated baking, folding and fortune stuffing machine is a Korean immigrant named Yong Sik Lee.

    In fact, one of the wonders of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” is the way it reveals the vibrant, pan-ethnic and international roots of American Chinese cuisine — how its tastes and conventions have been shaped and retooled by a borderless network of individuals and communities. America’s broken translation of Chinese cuisine has been embraced by Brazilians and Indians, British and French and Germans; it’s eaten in the United Arab Emirates and on the island of Mauritius. Indeed, China’s culinary stepchild has by most measures far outstripped its parent in popularity.

    “You have people all over the world who long for authentic Chinese food, and they really mean authentic Chinese American food, not things with the head and feet still on,” says Lee. “And I think this shows how authenticity is a function of time and place: Who’s to say this isn’t an authentic Chinese cuisine?”

    After all, the definition of Chinese has always been one that has stretched to cover a surpassingly large terrain — in fact, Chineseness is big enough to encompass the world. “If you compare the notion of Japaneseness to Chineseness, in Japan, to be Japanese you need to have three things: blood, culture, and nationality. If you leave Japan and give up your citizenship, you get kicked off the team,” says Lee. “But Chinese have a much more elastic definition of identity. You have this notion of huaren — this idea that you are Chinese no matter how far you go, no matter how many generations away you’ve descended.”

    It’s that adaptability of identity that has made the Chinese diaspora so globally influential, preserving that sense of network among huaren regardless of culture, latitude or, for that matter, attitude.

    “I’d like to think that this book forces people to think twice about what it means to be American,” says Lee. “And, for that matter, about what it means to be Chinese. The interplay of authenticity and change, and how it’s impacted not just Chinese Americans, but all of the immigrants of the post-1965 generation — the children of the ‘Open Door’ Act.”

    Epilogue: Children of the open door

    After speaking to Lee, I had to pick up Hudson from his Chinese language school — which we decided to enroll him in despite my own painful childhood memories of Saturday tedium. Through the efforts of Heather and her mother, Hudson has been bilingual since he first began to speak, and we want to preserve that double-tongue as long as we’re able. Most of the boys and girls streaming from the school in the heart of Brooklyn’s Chinatown were Chinese — but many had more diverse roots: Adoptive parents; multiracial and multiethnic families; there was even a healthy number of black, white and Latino children whose parents have decided that the ability to speak and read Chinese is an advantage for anyone seeking global citizenship.

    And as I picked up dim sum from an authentic Chinese restaurant nearby, the kind with roasted meat in the window and Chinese-only entrees on the walls, I noticed many of Hudson’s classmates within. Not eating duck feet or tripe, perhaps, but maybe someday in the future they’d explore beyond dumplings and expand their horizons — make them, like the idea of America and China, big enough to encompass the world.

    All of a sudden, the recipe for cultural understanding seemed similar to a saying my mother-in-law had shared with me about the responsibilities of a parent: Feed the belly. Feed the mind. And don’t forget to feed the heart.

    Jeff Yang forecasts new Asian and Asian American consumer trends for the market research company Iconoculture ( He is the author of “Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China” (Atria Books) and co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” (Ballantine) and “Eastern Standard Time” (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New York City. Go to to join Jeff Yang’s biweekly mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other breaking Asian and Asian American pop culture news.

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