Aaron Xuandi Wang

Two years ago, in the scorching summer before college, I went on an excursion to Yunnan to visit the land of Nuosuo, an ethnic minority group in China. The trip took shape with an invitation from Mahai, a 20-year-old Nuosuo youth whom I met through a volunteer program that sent teachers to rural schools. I brought him to several tourist sites during his stay in Shanghai, and he wished to return the favor.

The Nuosuo lived in isolation from the rest of the Chinese for centuries, as they were mostly concentrated in mountainous areas. Mahai’s house, constructed out of soiled brick, resided in the middle of a hill. Rolling farmland lay on the other side, where his parents and four siblings would traverse at sunrise to cultivate crops and buckwheat. Each night after work, we would sit inside around a fire pit with a light bulb dangling above us, chewing baskets of boiled potatoes and dry-cured beef with salt and pepper, until my mouth grew tired of the labor. 

Among many other novel things I witnessed that summer, it was the fortune-telling ability of the Nuosuo that struck me the most. My encounter with the indigenous magic began one day with the news of Mahai’s uncle coughing up blood. After settling him down in a city hospital, before his medical examination results came out, Mahai’s father drilled a small hole in a raw egg and instructed him to blow air towards it. We then brought the egg to the village of Bimo, the Shaman of Nuosuo, who cracked the egg open in a bowl of water, mixed it with a twig, and began to chant. 

The strips of cloth swayed in the air as she screamed and rang a magic bell. I didn’t understand Nuosuo’s language, so Mahai translated her lyrics for me. The Bimo recollected events of Mahai’s uncle’s past, including him working as a migrant laborer, affirmed his lung problem, and predicted that he might die without ever seeing his wife again. I tried to read Mahai’s and his father’s reactions from their raised eyebrows but left perplexed. On our way back, Mahai told me the Bimo’s narration of his uncle’s history was accurate; he and his wife had worked in various cities as construction workers for over a decade until they grew apart. Later that day of fortune-telling, his uncle was diagnosed with lung cancer. 

Years later, it turned out that there is one thing wrong about the Bimo’s oracle. Mahai’s uncle didn’t die; he was hospitalized and could hardly breathe for months, but Western medicine eventually saved him. Mahai now studies at a vocational school and aspires to be an elementary school teacher, and his family, as I learned from the photos he sent me, continues to grow crops and eat potatoes. 

This summer, when I reminisced about the trip and revisited Bimo’s supernatural prophecy, however, the idea that the oracle was based on empirical speculation rather than fortune-telling haunted me. I realized that including Mahai, almost every Nuosuo man I met had worked grueling jobs in modern cities, because the enterprises were much more lucrative than farming. The AIDS pandemic hit their village hard in the early 2000s, as the migrant workers were exposed to heroin in the cities and carried the drug home. I heard many incidents of Nuosuo youths passing away from HIV complications, and lung disease was the most common of them. 

Could people just be living up to a rhetoric on repeat, exhausted by their peers and predecessors? What if Bimo got the life of Mahai’s uncle right, I thought, only because there were so few other possibilities?  

In “Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs,” sociologist Paul Willis analyzes the reproduction of social hierarchy from schools to job markets in England. Following a group of rebellious working-class teenagers, he argues that their opposition to au- thority prepared them for working-class employment, which helps them justify the constraints of subordinate class positions as choices of their own. Willis cites a story told by a mechanic, which gave me unease when I first encountered it.

The mechanic recalled a nostalgic trip to the zoo with his dad, who, captivated by the lively crowd around a gorilla’s cage, dragged him to the front to observe the animal up-close. His dad found the gorilla en- tertaining as it clapped and stamped the ground, until it suddenly ap- proached him and spat on him with a mouthful of water.

His father was shocked. Retreating back into the crowd, he waited for someone else to push forward, and saw the gorilla pull the same trick on another curious spectator, over and over again.

“See, that’s life,” the mechanic said. “We don’t grow up at the same time, and when you’ve learnt it’s too late.”

“It’s the same with these kids coming into the factory, every time, they think it’s great. ‘Oh, what’s this, I wanna be there,’ y’know what I mean. You’ll never change it, it’s the same with everything, coming’ to work, getting married, anything – you name it.” 

I couldn’t help crying every time I thought of the story of the mechanic, whose name is erased in Willis’ book and somehow becomes allegorical. It was so cruel, so devastating to imagine people’s lives as unbreakable chains of repetition, as if all the resilience, all the hard work, could fulfill nothing but a preset oracle. 

The pain never felt so personal until the pandemic hit this year, when I had to confront my mounting fear toward fortune-telling–a predictable way of existence. During my first session of coffee grounds reading over Zoom, the Turkish reader saw the pattern of an embracing arm from the grounds on the saucer, and told me that despite the separation and loneliness at this moment, I would have a lovely reunion with my friends some time next year. 

I was amazed, but gradually I recognized how laughable it was when a universal truth was presented in the form of a mystical prediction. For a Chinese national studying in the U.S., that part of the present and future had been written into my verdict. 

I found my struggle and longing being easily summarized by countless news stories, with narratives centering around Trump, racism, and other geopolitics. Has it always been an illusion to consider myself as a free-spirited wanderer? It unfurls itself  to be a ceaseless fight against the fierce currents of distrust, hatred and isolation. 

Before departing from my sublet in Chicago to catch a flight back to China, my friend S was making an omelet. I was lucky to secure a plane ticket, which cost me a ridiculous amount of money due to the mass cancelations of airlines during the pandemic. A lot of my friends chose to stay on campus, either not able to afford a ticket or not having a home safe and welcoming to go back to, and therefore I felt a little guilty. I watched as she laid out piles of cubed bell peppers and carrots and mushrooms on the cutting board, and was reminded of Nuosuo’s fortune-telling.

Staring at the bowl in S’s hands as she mixed the egg with chopsticks, I wondered what I could learn about my future from the pattern of the turbulence of the yolk. Disappointed at my lack of spirituality, however, I gave up very soon.

“It’s gonna be stormy,” she said, pouring the egg into the pan.

When I confessed my growing fear about fortune-telling to A, who did the coffee grounds reading with the same guy and found it to be accurate, she laughed at its absurdity. 

“I don’t think it shows how our destinies are preset,” she said. “Before the reading, I deliberately moved around the grounds on my saucer, so what he read was the pattern I altered. And that’s how easy it is to change your future, just with your fingers.” 

I thought about the oracle Tiresias the blind prophet gives Odysseus when he suffers from Poseidon’s torture, who relentlessly impedes his desire to go back to Ithaca. Tiresias warns Odysseus of the obstacles and temptations if he contends with his destiny, yet promises one day he would return home. 

Maybe people are devoted to fortune-telling, I thought, so they can be less surprised when misfortune falls upon them. However, I would rather insist that people have some mastery over their fate; like Odysseus would eventually rebel against God’s will and return to Ithaca as a broken man, I indulged myself in the belief that we could be liberated from the oracles and determine our own future.

After Odysseus reunites with his wife, he recounts his journey and the miserable prophecy to her, and somehow he finds peace and poetry in it:

“And at last my own death will steal upon me. . .
a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes
to take me down, borne down with the years in ripe old age with
all my people here in blessed peace around me.”

Memories are malleable, so are our stories. I decide to suspend the rigid narrative about my future, place it somewhere in the dark, and only revisit it when it is outlived by reality. 

Aaron Wang is a journalist and anthropologist from China. He often takes notes about people while lurking back in the corner.