Chinese Whisper Beyond the Panorama December 21, 2021

Chinese Whisper

Written by Nandini Sethi

Sitting in the storeroom, right at the back of the restaurant, hunched over a broken-down printer, I vigorously tapped its tray, hoping that for once it does its job well. The scent wafting in from the kitchen illicit an involuntary gurgle from my stomach, my mouth slightly salivating. I knew there was an hour left before lunchtime for us waitresses, but my mind wandered anyway, to the thought of the luscious curries and crispy wontons, the brothy soups, and the sweet teas. Here at Xi Wung’s Restaurant, all the staff believed in the food we served. 

Apart from waitressing, I was entrusted with the task of writing and printing out the little messages that we send out as ‘Fortune Cookies’. I don’t know when or how this happened, but soon it was a part of my job description. 

Today, as the sinful scent of shitake and chestnuts filled the little storeroom, I wrote out a vague script – “if you wish for something with all your heart, don’t let it affect you for long if it doesn’t work out.” I typed this because I knew that by the time the restaurant closes in the afternoon hours, the chestnuts would have been sold out, leaving none for me. Yesterday, after having a fight with my boyfriend, I typed out the fortune – “what you think is true love, isn’t really.” I don’t know how many people got that message, and how many people took it seriously, all I know is that as soon as he apologized and we made up, I wrote another little fortune – “this is a sign: don’t take love for granted.” 

Mrs. Ping, the owner of the little restaurant always made sure to feed us well before sending us our way. Our tiny staff soon became a little family, and whenever we had family and friends come visit us, she never presented a bill – something about Chinese tradition and learning to pay family back in little ways. 

That’s why when my cousin Darla came to town, all way from Europe, Mrs. Ping insisted I bring her over to the restaurant and treat her to a delicious meal, handmade by her. 

Come Thursday evening, Darla walked into the restaurant, wearing black leather boots in summer, and smudged red lipstick on her pale and gaunt face; the whole staff stopped mid-step, wondering who this foreign woman was. It’s true Darla was a bit ditzy and silly, and we never really got along that well, but I knew she was one of the smarter ones in the family, and probably the only one who got into a college. 

So when she walked in, I ensured everyone welcomed her warmly and gave us the best table the little space could offer. After ordering our virgin iced teas and shrimp appetizers, I cleared my throat awkwardly and racked my brain for conversation starters. 

“So, Darla, how are uncle and aunty?” I asked. 

“They are so well, what about your parents? Did they go on the family trip to Beijing, or are they still stuck in that tiny house in California?” She responded. 

I smiled sweetly, but she knew it was all just a façade. “They decided last minute not to go, you know, the weather and stuff,” I explained.

She nodded, smiling as if to tell me whatever I just said was complete nonsense. 

“When are you off to college?” I inquired.

She got into the details of her admission and visa process, how her parents were proud that she was the first in the family to have got in, and how she wasn’t doing petty jobs just to remain afloat. I don’t know if she was taking a dig at me, but I pretended not to be fazed by it. 

“And you know Harvard is no joke, I feel like I’m on top of the world!” I smiled at her. No matter how much she hated me, and how much she tried to bring me down, I didn’t want to take away her achievements from her. Just for today. Tomorrow I would go back to complaining to my mom about how stuck up and obnoxious she really was. 

As the main course rolled in, I saw her face light up at the sight of the wontons and stir-fries, licking her lips after every bite and smiling contentedly after everything was finished. 

Once it was time for dessert, she squealed like a child at the fortune cookies presented before her and bragged proudly, “You know, Chinese fortune always reads something positive for me, and what’s better is that it always comes true!” She had that smug smile on her face again, and I wanted nothing more than to wipe it off myself. 

As she bit into the crunchy skin of the cookie, I was eager to see what the little piece of paper would read. Pulling it out, she clapped her hands and read silently. But then I watched her expression turn from excited to worried to anxious. “What does it say?” I inquired. 

Her lip trembled and I could see the conflicting emotions colour her face, hesitance, whether by revealing it to me meant that whatever was written in those words would come true. 

I grabbed it from her hands and read out loud, “you are moving too fast. New beginnings will not be in your favour right now. Go back and reflect on your roots.” 

Now while I typed that out, I had just finished watching Mulan and I was in a bit of a patriotic mood. I didn’t realize just how relatable my little meaningless messages could be. If I were not a waitress at Xi Wung’s, I would have told Darla immediately to not believe in these cookies, that whoever was writing them probably did so randomly, especially at a place like this where credibility meant nothing. For a Harvard student, I thought she would figure as much. 

I could see her nervously wringing her hands, mentally berating herself for bragging about her achievements. I was so conflicted: on the one hand, as family, I wanted to tell her that I was the one writing these fortunes and that they meant nothing, but on the other, I was loyal to Mrs. Ping, and by revealing to outsiders our dirty little secret, I would be betraying her trust. 

A cold shiver ran down my spine and I spoke in a whisper, “Darla, you should go with your gut. Fortunes don’t always come true!” I tried. 

She nodded, albeit reluctantly. She was a smart girl, I had faith that she wouldn’t think too much into it. I prayed a silent prayer – she would not do anything impulsive and make the right choice. 

I bade her an awkward goodbye, watching as she ran out of the restaurant, her mind running a thousand miles. 

When I got back to work the next day, I made sure to be extra careful with my fortune cookies. I kept things very vague and put in extra effort to ensure it wouldn’t relate to anyone. “Keep going!” “Your future promises value!” “Green beans are important for you.” I had no idea how my messages were impacting people and I was left guilt-ridden. 

I made myself feel better by reminding myself that Darla would be off to Harvard in no time, acing her exams, and doing our country proud. 

Soon enough I forgot about the dreaded incident and moved on with my life. I was taking a break from the kitchen, munching on some raw mangoes on a slow Wednesday afternoon when I decided to call Ma. It was our little ritual to exchange irrelevant formalities first, ask about the weather, what we ate, and then immediately jump into family gossip. 

I demanded all the details from Cousin Nina’s wedding and about drunk uncle Chu’s latest trip to Malaysia. 

“Ma, the restaurant is doing so well,” I said through gritted teeth, watching my co-workers taking a nap in the middle of the ‘lunch rush’, “you should visit soon.” 

“I will, don’t you worry”, she said. “I will be coming soon with Aunty Tina and her husband, they have been devastated lately, and we are planning a trip to help lift their mood”, she said. 

“Devastated? Why?” I asked. 

“Well, you remember Darla? Their only daughter? Turns out she never ended up going to Harvard! Something about bad luck and dying if she decided to go.”

Well, then. An extreme case of Chinese Whisper. And I expected no less from my Chinese family. 

Nandini Sethi
Nandini Sethi

Sometimes dolefully insightful, sometimes plain distressed state of mind, but always love. I think there’s a bit of love in everything we write.

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