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'Fortune Cookie' Offers New Taste of America

Writer Jennifer 8. Lee says she grew up as an ABC — or American-born Chinese.

From prom to pop culture, her parents encouraged the three Lee children to embrace America, even as they stressed Chinese culture in their household.

Her mother's traditional dishes filled the supper table, 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, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, which is due out in March.

Lee, a reporter for The New York Times, says the book is the product of an obsession.

"My interest started when I was about 13, and I found out that fortune cookies weren't Chinese," Lee says.

"It was a disconcerting discovery, like I was adopted and there was no Santa Claus at the same time. In a way, I had bought into the myth of what is really 'Chinese,'" she says.

Lee explains how fortune-cookie lucky numbers connected Powerball winners in 2002, as well as how an overwhelming majority of fortune-cookie "fortunes" originate from one of two sources: Wonton Food in New York City or Steven Yang, who does not speak fluent English and works out of a warehouse in California.

She also describes how fortune writers have to craft bits of wisdom that meet an American audience's expectations — and don't inadvertently offend — and why fortune cookies don't translate well in Asia.

"People think of fortune cookies as being Chinese but in essence, they are fundamentally American," Lee says.

"What the book does and made me think twice about — and what I hope it makes everyone think twice about — is 'What does it mean to be American?'" Lee says.

"We might be shifting away from a Eurocentric view of the United States into something that's much more multicultural, multinational, and Chinese food is just one slice of that," she says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.