INTERVIEW: Jennifer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

Monday, March 17th, 2008

By Elaine Chen

New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee started tracking down a suspiciously high number of lottery winners, and ended up following a trail that led through hundreds of Chinese restaurants on six different continents. The book that resulted from this epic journey (read an excerpt here) ended up being about a lot more than fortune cookies, although you certainly learn some surprising things about them. (They brought luck to 110 Powerball winners, and they actually originated in Japan!) Instead, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is ultimately about how Chinese food and Chinese immigrants have spread throughout the world, encountering failure and success, then ultimately emerging as something new—but still at its core Chinese. jennyninaportrait.jpg

The same could also be said of Jenny herself, who grew up in a Taiwanese immigrant family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan–not far from the “Szechuan Alley” of Chinese restaurants known as Broadway. After graduating from Harvard, she studied at Beijing University and finally became immersed in “real Chinese food” as well as the real China. She was surprised to find that when she told her classmates she was American, they would reply, “No, you’re Chinese. You were just born in America.” But as she discovered while writing this book, they were probably right.

When we spoke with Jenny, she was cooking and eating a late supper of fish balls. We couldn’t have imagined a better time to talk.
-Elaine Chen

In your book, you spend a lot of time eating in Chinese restaurants, but of course when you were growing up, you probably mostly ate at home. What was your favorite dish that your mother cooked?
I really liked beef noodle soup. That’s a very Taiwanese dish. The funny thing is, I didn’t even really like my mom’s food growing up. So she did learn to cook one dish for me, which was beef with broccoli—and only now do I know that there’s no beef with broccoli in China! But when you’re 12, that’s what you like.

I know first-hand that growing up in America eating Chinese food every night can make you feel different from everyone else. Did you ever ask your mother to cook Western food so you could try to fit in?
You know, I never asked her, but she did. She tried to make spaghetti sauce. It was interesting because now that I’m grown up, I realize that the whole thing about spaghetti sauce is simmering it forever and ever and ever, which is not a really Chinese style to cook. So she would end up basically stir-frying tomatoes, and then it didn’t look anything like what came out of the Ragu jar—we were very perplexed.

And then we went through a hot dog stage; we went through a macaroni stage; we had this dish that we liked, which was basically taking (Campbell’s) Chunky soup and putting it over a bowl of macaroni. . . and (my mother) would even do hamburgers in a strange Chinese way. For a while there were experiments with turkey for Thanksgiving, until we found out that no matter what you do, it doesn’t taste good. So we eat Korean for Thanksgiving now.

You spent a lot of time interviewing Chinese restaurant workers who probably came to the U.S. so they could have a child like you—Harvard-educated and successful. In some ways you must symbolize their American dream; did that impact your interactions with them?
When I met the Chinese restaurant workers, who are the purest Fujianese, they didn’t know what Harvard is. To them I’m the person who speaks English and also happens to speak Chinese, and can maybe help them translate a document, or call the dishwasher installer. They’re just so removed it wasn’t even an issue. They may have understood I was a journalist, but that’s not a prestigious thing in their world. Maybe if I were a doctor, that would have gotten them more excited, but I’m a woman talking to them about Chinese restaurants. How, in any way, could that have any social value?

When you go to Chinese restaurants, do you usually order in Chinese or English? And do you feel there’s any truth to the American suspicions that Chinese customers get different, better food?
I usually order in Chinese; it seems better, and with a lot of the dishes, I feel I can’t trust their English names. But one time I went to Flushing with a Latino friend, and we sat down and they gave us these menus—General Tso’s chicken, blah blah blah. And I looked at the menu and thought, “This is very strange, this isn’t the menu I usually get.” Then I looked over at the other side where the Chinese people were eating, and they had a totally different menu. They had the Chinese menu and I had the white people menu—I was totally offended. I thought, I speak Chinese, I read Chinese, I want the real menu!

On the surface your book may be about Chinese restaurants, but on a deeper level, it’s also about race and class. What role did class issues play in telling your story?
There’s a subtlety with the class issue, it depends how much people pick up on it. My first interaction with illegal immigrants was when I was 18, the summer before I went to Harvard. I was walking down the street near Columbia and then this guy, this delivery boy collapsed on the street. There was this crowd surrounding him and they couldn’t speak Chinese, and he couldn’t speak any English. I asked him what happened, and he said, “My stomach hurts.” This very nice man gave us money and we went to St. Vincent’s Hospital.

It was very interesting for me because he was 18 and I was 18; we’re both the same age, we’re both Chinese-American and we both arrived at that sidewalk at the same moment—but were coming at it from a completely (different) place. The fact that he was an illegal immigrant, I was the daughter of this fairly highly educated couple, and yet at that moment our lives intersected. That really struck me—it’s like, I’m 18 and I’m going to Harvard, and he’s traveled around the world to go work at a Chinese restaurant. That moment still resonates with me now, even decades later.

You ate at Chinese restaurants all around the world. Which country’s restaurants seemed the most strange and unusual compared to the ones you knew growing up in New York?
I became agnostic about it. In Scotland, they serve their Chow Mein over French fries, so that gets a little weird. But you know what? If it works for them, they’re giving that indigenous population something it wants. The closest would be Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia—all the countries that are basically spin-offs of China; England is a little weird; they have this dish that’s called crispy shredded beef, which is a lot of crisp and a lot of shred, but not a lot of beef - so that was strange, but not a lot stranger than General Tso’s chicken. In the end, it’s all kind of recognizable as Chinese food.

What has it been like having people read your book and learn about your life?
The shocking thing is that people are reading it and responding. The idea that people you’ve never met have read it is really strange, and they have opinions on it—it’s very odd. It’s almost like someone showed up in your living room and told you they didn’t like your couch. What business is it of yours? And people also show up and they think they know you—but they don’t, they know your book. So that’s a little weird too.

Now that you’ve finished your first book, what are you planning to write about next?
You know, I haven’t a clue. People keep asking me, “What are you going to write about next,” but this was the perfect book for me to write. I don’t know if I could do better, so why try—why have a sucky sophomore effort?

There are some ideas I have floating around, but now that I’ve done a book, I’m more intellectually interested in blogging and how mainstream newspaper and media converge with blogs. That’s my job now at the Times—to think about how the form and function can merge for the Metro section of the Times. It’s really interesting to me because it’s the complete opposite of a book. With a book, it takes three years before your idea hits the public; with blogs, it’s three hours, if that. So that’s my focus right now.

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