“When you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensible factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So who composed that plot? … Just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself of which your consciousness is unaware, so, too, your whole life is composed by the will within you. And just as people whom you will have met apparently by mere chance have become leading agents in the structuring of your life, so, too, will you have served unknowingly as an agent, giving meaning to the lives of others …
“It is even as though there were a single intention behind it all, which always makes some kind of sense, though none of us knows what the sense might be, or has lived the life that he quite intended.”
Everywhere in Asia fortune tellers are willing, but not necessarily able, to give meaning to your life. They offer you all sorts of prescient methods from which to choose. One can take the results from any method with a grain of salt or put faith in them and live accordingly. I was a pragmatic naysayer, until fortune telling came home to roost one afternoon in a small restaurant in Shanghai.
In fact, what happened in Shanghai was the culmination of a much longer story that began in Taipei, nine years before I touched down in Shanghai. I had just wrapped up a required Chinese language course and was due to head back to Beijing. My language teacher wanted to wish me well by hosting me to a visit with her favorite palm reader. Although I would have more happily settled for a good dinner, I grudgingly agreed, but insisted first that we finish the shopping I had to complete in order to pack for my departure.
By 4 p.m., we were only an hour late for our appointment, but the fortune teller, who was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of fortune tellers agreed to see me. My teacher was a good customer and the fortune teller was a good businessman. As a skeptic, I held out my hand and refused to divulge as much as my name. The fortune teller, clearly amused by my reticence, held and stroked my hand, turning it over more than once to get a “feel” for my life. While he told me in detail many things that, in fact, had occurred in my past, I refused to be impressed by his “sight”. At the end of the reading, he gave me my future: “You can see here in these lines that no matter where you are or in what situation, when you need help there will always be someone there to help you. Please remember that and live accordingly with faith in your future safety. Nothing bad can or will happen to you.”
I thanked him, paid him, and promptly forgot him.
Upon reaching my hotel after dinner, I realized that I had purchased so much on the shopping excursion that, in addition to my clothing, I now had three large suitcases, a back pack, and a laptop to lug from the Hong Kong Airport to a hotel, then onward the next day via train, across a bridge at Shenzhen, and to the airport for a flight to Beijing. There was no way I was going to make it alone with that much luggage and there was no one to help me. At 10 p.m., I was about to start dismantling the suitcases and hand out all the oolong tea I had purchased to the hotel clerks in Taipei in the hope I could “downsize” enough to make my trip possible.
Then, the phone rang.
“Hello. Tracy? You don’t know me, but I’m a friend of your friend Ping. She’s asked me to meet you tomorrow in Hong Kong at the airport.”
Forget that I hadn’t seen my friend Ping in five years and was unaware of how to contact her. Forget that it was impossible that she could know where I was or how to find me. Forget that I didn’t know anyone in Hong Kong because, indeed, the next day from the minute the hotel staff loaded my bags into a taxi to go to the Taipei airport until I reached Beijing two days later, I never once touched any of my luggage. This unknown friend of a long-lost friend collected my luggage in Hong Kong, took me to stay at his beautiful family home, drove me to the border with Shenzhen, carried my luggage across the bridge, accompanied me to the airport, and checked my luggage for the flight to Beijing.
Safely back at work in Beijing, I did a double take when I realized the Taipei fortune teller may have had a point. I scoured memories of my past and identified instances of unusual “help” that had arrived during tough times. Through the next couple of years of my work, I watched sporadically the moments I was in particular difficulty, and, it seemed that someone always appeared from somewhere to help me. Sometimes I knew them and sometimes I didn’t.
However, eventually I forgot about the fortune teller and about my fortune. That is until one day I entered a small Middle Eastern restaurant in Shanghai with three colleagues. We had walked all over that neighborhood looking for a place to eat, and suddenly just decided this one had to do as we were all tired and hungry. We had not gone looking for this type of food, nor was anyone particularly eager to eat there as opposed to any other place we had seen.
One colleague, who was familiar with Middle Eastern food ordered and, as we ate, he called over the owner of the restaurant to praise the food. No one could have imagined that such delicious Middle Eastern food would be available, he noted, in Shanghai of all places. The requisitely humble Chinese owner gave credit to his excellent Turkish cook, who, although his English was limited, came out to join in a round of ouzo and bask in the praise of my colleague.
The cook told us as best he could that it was his tradition to tell the fortune of those who crossed his path and made themselves acceptable to him. To do so, however, we all had to order Turkish coffee, as his method to see the future was to read coffee grounds. He gave us to understand that he could tell only one fortune and left us with our coffee and instructions to call him from the kitchen when we where through. All of us laughed at the cook’s good business sense when we saw the high price of each cup of coffee and assumed he would tell the fortune of our colleague who had plied him with ouzo and praised his cooking to the hilt.
When the cook re-emerged from the kitchen to answer my colleagues’ call for the fortune telling, he looked at each of us thoughtfully, his eyes falling on me at the end. He said, “I will read her,” pointing at me, “because she looks like trouble.” My colleagues, disappointed though they were, expressed uproarious agreement that, indeed, I was an extremely troublesome person and they hoped he could tell me something to change my personality. His meaning, of course, was that he believed I needed help and, thus, he would help me. With enough intrigue in my life to sink a ship, I prayed this guy wasn’t for real.
Following his instructions, I swirled the grounds in my cup and turned it upside down. As we let it settle, I swallowed hard as he pushed on to the pillows beside me. The reading took only a few minutes and the cook studied my face carefully as he spoke each word. In all he said there was truth. I denied it all to his face. I denied it because my colleagues were not privileged to this information and it could have created an untenable situation for all. The fortune teller watched my denials closely, but with humor in his eyes. It was the same amusement I had seen in the eyes of the palm reader in Taipei. This Turkish cook turned fortune teller par excellence knew I was lying and I knew I was lying, but lie I must and did. Still, in his words, he provided an answer that had been evading me in my work. The cook’s information proved of invaluable assistance in the days ahead.
Then at the end of the reading, his mastery became clear to me when he showed me a small, oddly detailed, picture in the coffee grounds and said in his broken English: “Here, you see, a small pearl is you. Here two hands hold you. No fear. You always, always protected.”
Although the restaurant is still there, I never venture in. For me, that small restaurant in Shanghai is almost hallowed ground because it was there on that fateful day that I came to accept the kind of unanticipated and eye-opening help that can only come from fortune tellers in the most unexpected places.
The author: Tracy Zhang recently retired and now spends her time with friends and family in China and around the U.S. Visit her shop at http://www.charliebear.etsy.com to check out her knitting patterns, e-books, and vintage items. Or check out her other Escape from America articles: Thoughtful Shopping for Expats and Preparing for Retirement – Downsizing and Marketing.