When I was growing up, we went to Chicago for a long weekend every summer and ate at a Chinese restaurant. It wasn't the only thing we did, but fortune cookies and the improbable video phones at the Museum of Science and Industry are what I remember.
It was the early 1960's and Chinese restaurants and buffets had yet to show up on the main streets of southern Illinois small towns like my own. The only diversity we had was our catholics and protestants. And our food choices were almost exclusively centered around meat and potatoes. The only Chinese cuisine I knew was the very occasional chop suey from a can at home and, later, chop suey from a can at the school cafeteria.
It was an eye opener to walk into a Chinese restaurant with red lanterns and tassles, waiters talking in accents and wearing silk pajamas, Chinese families sitting at tables, and a menu with Chinese characters that I couldn't begin to understand. It was a window into a world I didn't yet know. A glimpse into a future. A step towards being worldly.
I ordered chop suey. So did my sister. And so did our mom. It was all we knew. Dad had grown up in Chicago and was a little more sophisticated, although I use that word loosely. He ordered beef with broccoli, fried rice and egg rolls, and made sure that they brought us hot tea with those little handleless cups that I so wanted to take home.
Almost as much as I wanted to order the fried ice cream for dessert. But dessert was never in our budget. And, after that first visit, I was okay with that. Because they brought us something even better at the end of our meal. They brought us our fortunes.
I think my first one said something like, "Happiness is yours if you enter each room with a smile and a wink." I took it to heart and returned home and started walking into every room with a wink and a smile. I'm pretty sure that people thought I had a tic, but I knew I had a fortune. A road map to happiness. Straightforward and assured. Something that made me feel good and positive about myself. Something that a scrawny nine year old from a small town could hold onto.
Subsequent fortunes just buoyed my growing confidence. "Hard work will bring big rewards." I could do that. "Keep your family close." I've got that covered.
I can think of only one other thing growing up that had an impact as great as my Chinese fortunes. It happened in seventh grade when our home room teacher was leaving to go to another school and gave everyone in class an award at the end of the year. Mine was for the "sexiest voice." I carried that certificate with the same confidence I carried my fortunes. I was 12 and didn't even need a bra yet, and on some level probably knew that this was a stretch. Yet, somehow I've lived for nearly 50 years believing I have a sexy voice--even though not a single other person has ever noticed it or commented on it.
I stopped at a Chinese take-out last week and brought home some dinner. I ate my beef and broccoli and fried rice and dug out the fortune cookie from the bottom of the bag with an innocence a little more jaded than the nine year old me. Still, I looked forward to reading it. "The stock market may be your ticket to success," it said.
"What the hell?" I thought. "My happy future is now tied in with the stock market?"
"And, even then, it's qualified? It's just a 'may be ticket'"
"What happened to rosy futures that made 9 year old girls enter rooms with a smile and a wink?"
"Where's that big reward I've been working hard for."
"What's the stock market got to do with anything anyway? Can't you see I'm wearing a smile."
"Confucious would be ashamed!"
I said this all in a very sexy voice.