99% Invisible | Podcast Review | September 25, 2015 | By

99% Invisible #182: “A Sweet Surprise Awaits You”

Optimism, Xenophobia, and the Fortune Cookie.



Ostensibly, my job here at Audiologue is to review podcasts and radio shows. But, increasingly, it seems what I actually do is reflect on the American identity. So, I guess, just get ready for that.

Today’s episode, “A Sweet Surprise Awaits You,” focuses on the fortune cookie. These add-ons to orders of takeout Chinese food are, much like takeout-style Chinese food more broadly, actually American creations. Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries faced widespread xenophobia and were subject to discriminatory laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Gradually, as American fears about job loss crescendoed, newly-arrived Chinese immigrants were pushed from farm and railroad work into laundries and restaurants. Producer Avery Trufelman bluntly calls it, “women’s work.” She argues shoving Chinese immigrants into subordinate roles made them less threatening. Here, the immigrants found some economic stability, and their restaurants gave rise to American-style Chinese food.

As Japanese immigrants arrived in the early twentieth century, they, too, found steady work in the restaurant industry. It was through the Japanese that fortune cookies make their entrée (sorry, I couldn’t resist) into the United States’s culinary landscape. Up until World War II, these cookies were more of a snack, like popcorn, than a takeout treat. And, because of the cookies’ origins, the fortunes were in Japanese. Only during World War II, when the more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in the United States were forcibly relocated into internment camps, did the cookies become associated with Chinese restaurants.

Fortune cookies and their history tie together so many interesting aspects of the American identity. The first is, unsurprisingly, the prominent role of hope and destiny. Mars and Trufelman open the show with a story about the lottery; from the episode’s page:

On the night of March 30, 2005, the Powerball jackpot was 25 million dollars. The grand prize winner was in Tennessee, but all over the United States, one hundred and ten second-place winners came forward. Normally just three or four players guess all but the last digit and claim a secondary prize, but this time something was clearly different.

What was different was that the lottery numbers drawn were a near match to the set of lucky numbers printed on a fortune cookie insert. The distinctly American belief that luck, prosperity, and economic fortune are just around the corner might help to make sense of the enduring popularity of the fortune cookie (and the lottery) in the United States. Of course, the data on economic mobility show our faith in fortune is unfounded. But nonetheless, the belief informs all aspects of American life, from our optimism to our unwillingness to increase taxes of the ultra-rich (because one day, we’ll be rich too). 1 This belief fuels our fears too. When wrong-headed ideas—like the enduring myth 2 that immigrants “take the jobs” of American workers—assault the so-called chance at the good life, Americans, historically speaking, overreact. It is this fear of the other that pushed Chinese immigrants into the restaurant industry and the Japanese immigrants and their children into interment camp—which, as I learned, led to the modern incarnation of the fortune cookie. So, that’s what I’m thinking about.

Some stray thoughts:

  • I’m glad Lullatone is back this week; I think their work suits the tone of the show well.
  • And, maybe it is just because I have been listening to a lot of subject-heavy audio this week, 3 but would have loved to hear more of the story told through the interviewees. Not that this episode was a deviation from their regular style, nor was it bad—just something to think about while you listen.

  1. Stephen Colbert talks to Elizabeth Warren about this on his new show ^
  2. This is a great read: a New York Times article by Planet Money co-founder Adam Davidson. ^
  3. Like the excellent first act of this week’s This American Life ^

About the Author

Eric McDaniel is the founder of Audiologue, where he covers 99% Invisible. Right now, his favorite shows are Mystery Show and Cortex. Find him on Twitter @ericmmcd, or by email at eric@audiologue.xyz.

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