[Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies

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She works in a dingy pseudo-Chinese restaurant that dons several hats: a bar, a lounge, and a dance hall harkening back to the eighties. The interior is soaked in shades of reddish-brown timber. An earthy scent weighs on the entire ambiance—the glimmer from the gilded Buddhas and the gaudy frescoes gives it the air of a Chinese burlesque. She half-expects people to burst into song, in cheongsams or cone hats, juggling yellow fortune cookies and mechanically mimicking the paw-wave of the fortune cat. “Exotic Chinese Fare!”

It doesn’t take her long after she first got here to find out that restaurants spinning an identical concept sprout out in this New England city like a sea of bamboo shoots after a spring rain—they run the gamut from homely to inauthentic to tacky to tackier. She doesn’t know what to make of it; perhaps, this sensation of her sphincter contracting and her skin aging is a sign of a run-down, worn-out spirit. Not just that. Sometimes, she catches a glimpse of herself: a stooping, indistinct shape in the glass windows with arms as thin as chicken feet. Tòu míng. She is sprinting in the snowy countryside. Slow down, màn diǎn. Down winding dirt paths that converge with the silken moonlit sky, every step is a frame in a receding reel of seasons. Chūn xià qiū dōng. A girl in pigtails tied with glossy red ribbons inhales to puff up her pudgy cheeks, flushed like a freshly picked apple, takes a quick, bold lick of a fistful of snow and giggles like wind-bells in the breeze. The restaurant window lightly quivers with her unadulterated wonder and the interior seems cheerier to the eye for a while.

Děng děng wǒ, she says to the girl. But the grimy windows can’t bear the weight of her gaze. She stares at her history until it stares her out of her own countenance. The bright-eyed girl cannot stay for long because this world of General Gau’s chicken, fortune cookies, tips, foreign tongues, white ghosts, and imposing ivy-covered Georgian collegiate buildings is not for her. Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she is still sprinting, but the dark rolling hills and the moonless terrain no longer look familiar and she doesn’t stop to think of where she is going because she just might not know anymore. After a while, these images lock themselves up in a room. What room? She has misplaced the key. A life before now is—is increasingly like a film that she has watched a long time ago, a familiar mélange of etched lines, lilting duets between red-cheeked girls and hardworking boys, a rotating roster of characters, and blurry details. What stands out is the ending. A cheap triumph.

In this city reside smiling students in woolly red sweaters and bleached collars, ambition penetrating through their eyes and gleaming off their slick silver laptops, so young and yet already exuding the scent of privilege and success—Like that son of whats-his-name with those foreign candies. That must have been thirty years ago!but here it’s doused in an entitled sense of smartness. It drips all over the floor she mops, a stain that she can’t unsee. She cannot help but overhear sometimes, the students rattling off English like a hymn to a partial God whose covenant is so complex that even after thirteen years here she cannot pray to speak. That is how she always tells the students apart from the other diners. She will not bear to tell the rosy-cheeked girl licking snow what it is like here. Tell her what? The floor is never clean.

Sometimes, she will look up as the door chimes and see in the contours of a fresh-faced student the face of her xiǎomèi back home. The affection swells and wells up in her hands and eyes and lips and she cannot keep herself from breaking loose from wobbly English to ask them for their order again in halting Chinese. They will crinkle their brows distantly, or in polite confusion, and then she knows what she already feels in her bones—they are all not xiǎomèi and can never be.

It’s a hazy afternoon when business is a trickle that she decides to eat one of those fortune cookies that the restaurant gives to diners with the bill. The slightly sweet, but almost tasteless cookie pokes against the roof of her mouth. She crunches it hard, then pulls out the half-wet strip of paper from between her chapped lips.

She doesn’t understand the words on it at the first quick glance. As she makes out the aphorism, she feels and sees first the grease on the paper, the curled edge of it slightly soggy with her saliva, and the words in tiny print, an almost cruel shade of blue on white.

L-i-f-e i-s f-a-i-r t-o a-l-l.

She watches the white strip paper float, excruciatingly slow, before soundlessly hitting the ground. At the periphery of her vision, the ceiling overhead seems to close in on her. Méi guānxi, méi guānxi, méi guānxi. A frantic motto. The ceiling seems to collapse but it doesn’t. The ceiling doesn’t collapse but she knows as something strong finally begins to crumble.

[Story] Macau: Casino Lights Dancing

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It felt like the universe had conspired in magnanimity to lay out before me all the stars it had in its pouch.

There’s a boy seated next to me at the roulette. It’s a round-table congregation of tense, weeping or energetic men (some slightly crazy-eyed); this boy who seems unperturbed by it all; and then there’s me, scribbling devoutly. 

We all stare intensely at the spinning wheel at the center and at the blur of white making its rounds. As the ball swerves intently on the circular track, my mind leaps and stumbles, doubts and hopes. It is a scene of magnificent contrasts and soft ironies: the ball’s mechanical steadiness and the wild rocking of our pendular minds; the slowing wheel and our increasingly hitched breaths.

I feel the boy’s gaze boring into my score-keeping card carelessly lying in the space between us. I cast a cursory glance in my card’s direction–it’s just unkempt rows of crosses and numbers I have been scrawling in red and blue ink, in a clumsy attempt to spot a trend.

Hey, he finally speaks after we’ve both been aware of each other’s presence for the last thirty minutes, you’ve got that number wrong. 

I glance back at my sheet at where his finger points. Oh, you’re right, I say, crossing 32 (red) out and writing 22 (black) in its place.

Thanks.

No problem.

He looks like he’s about to say something else but the ball rolls into place and falls at–

It’s hard to tell by pure sight so we all, in synchronized mesmerization, look up at the screen.

It’s a 0 (zero), in garish green. There’s a chorus of groans, expected not simply because the odds are 37 to 1 but also since 0 is eternally the outlier to any semblance of a pattern. Just when I think that no one has escaped unscathed, the boy taps my card again and grins disarmingly at me when I turn to look at him.

Look at that, he says good-naturedly.

I’m about to say, “Zero is always the hardest to guess; it’s how casinos reap the cash, no?” when I see that the top right of his screen displays in clean-cut font: 

PREVIOUS BET: +3360 credits 

My jaw slacks a little. Subconsciously, it occurs to me then that I only have a woeful 120 credits left (since I just lost). 

Wow, I tell him, you’ve got some crazy luck.

It all seems so unlikely–in my month of wandering nothing has astonished me much, and to now come across, in the twilight of my travels, a moment that is at once abruptly natural and magical in its implausibility–that Littlewood’s Law comes to mind. I think of its theory that one can experience a miracle (odds of one in a million) once a month, and a voice whispers in my head, maybe today’s when something wonderfully absurd happens.

Hmm, it suddenly seems possible.

The 120 credits last me for three more rounds before I realize that I have neither the reason nor the money to stay around. 

I turn my chair to try to spot my father somewhere in this cavernous hall, but he is nowhere to be found amidst the thronging casino masses. 

Are you going to stay? His voice comes up on my right.

I want to say, yes I am because I want to see how much more you can win and what’s your name and hi I am Selina. But I just shake my head and say,

I’ve run out of money. And either ways I feel like trying the slot machines.

I’m here for kicks, he tells me, his eyes shining, I’ve already tripled my credits when I was expecting myself to leave empty-handed.

I’m not quite sure what to reply to that, so I offer him a genuine, buoyant “congrats”.

He lets out a laugh, and continues, Take 500 credits. It seriously doesn’t matter to me.

He sees that I am wavering and passes me a ticket that neatly prints 200 credits, his tone forcefully kind, If you can’t take 500, at least accept the 200 I have as a leftover. Just so.

I feel weird, I tell him truthfully, when I take money from others for free. And I don’t even know you.

Oh, now I can finally ask. What’s your name?

As we march away from the roulette towards the carousel of slot machines, the ticket bunched in my left fist, I am dimly aware of the fact that I have just broken a personal principle this easily under the allure of sustained game of chance–not for algorithmic luck, but maybe, just maybe for Eros & Psyche’s roll of the dice.

I declare boldly, I’m going to at least return you 250 credits.

He snorts. That’s a promise you can’t keep.

Conversation rolls amidst an easy rhythm of button pressing, the animated sound of shuffling reels and unguarded laughs. We don’t ask each other anything that seems too dangerous so we talk about Macau and traveling, pork chop bun and airplane reads, Jay Chou and Joe Hisaishi, winning and losing, and how, for us both, casinos made no sense at all. 

Who’s most like Wes Anderson? 

Hayao Miyazaki. Fitzgerald. Tom Wolfe. I can think of loads.

Why do they all sound like meshed Spotify Discover Weekly playlists?

As my credits dwindle close to nothing yet again, my father appears in a happy halo softly glowing with the delirium of capitalist success. There’re no awkward introductions because he is too pleased with himself to care. I get 250 credits from him and return it to the boy.

And it’s all over in a matter of seconds.

I’ve got to go, I tell him.

My father, who is counting his tickets and ready to leave, looks up, sees me dawdling, and tilts his head to consider whether he should ask about who this person is but wisely decides not to when he sees the expression on my face.

I’ve got to go, I say again.

Somehow, I just can’t get goodbye out of my mouth. It would do no justice as an ending–it’s too weak, too pale, too irrevocable.

Wait, the boy stares at me and says slowly, you know, a lot of life’s promises aren’t kept–

I look at him and in that heartbeat, feel an impossible urge to tell him that the chandelier lights in the casino happen to be dancing in his eyes there and then, like leaping, crackling, shooting stars, but I seem to have lost the ability to do anything else other than nod. So I just nod.

–But I hope I’ll keep this promise. See you again.

I think about this sentence in my luggage-strewn hotel room, on the zipping cab leaving Cotai in the misty morning as the windows fogged with condensation, in the empty bleak landscape of the departure hall as I drink bland porridge, in the three waking hours on TR2903 across the Java Sea surrounded by the lingering imprint of a short-lived encounter, and as I step through the Changi gates finally back home after 1 month and tasted sea salt in the dust.

I think about it sometimes when I’m in colorful train carriages on a collision course towards some known future. Then, on one rainy and slightly warm morning, on a cab that had fogged windows, it comes to mind, that monochromatic morning when I left Macau on a cab that could not, would not, and did not turn back. My fingertips touch the cold glass and feel again this fierce impulse to draw something, anything, to just remember. But, after a drawn-out moment of indecision and broken vignettes flashing by in a tunneling mind, I can only draw a star. It’s the only effervescence that can be put into strokes.

And I never saw him again. But it has only been 25 days, so who knows? 

In our village, folks say God crumbles up the old moon into stars.

And the rest is rust and stardust.

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月亮忘记了 When the Moon Forgot / 几米 Jimmy Liao

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The quotes, in order of appearance, can be attributed to: me & my brain, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Nabokov’s Lolita.