One of the most memorable experiences of my life was the year I spent teaching English at a university in Shanghai, China. Some of the Chinese, such as my students, became dear friends over the course of the year I was there. Others, total strangers, briefly crossed my path, but I was fortunate enough to capture their beautiful faces on my camera, and they now hang in the art gallery of my mind.
One photo was such a treasure, that I made a charcoal drawing of this beautiful face, and it has hung on the walls of my office for years, with the original photo tucked in the corner. For the Chinese New Year break, (back in the day), my friend and colleague, Helen, and I made plans for a trip to Hong Kong. On one of our stops, rather late at night and still quite a distance from Hong Kong, we stopped at a little corner dive for a bowl of noodles. We were pleasantly surprised when an elderly gentleman (with the look of a classic Chinese scholar) struck up a conversation with us in fluent English. More often than not, when we were approached by strangers, it was usually someone wanting to practice their English, and the subsequent experience became burdensome and tiring.
However, this gentleman shared fascinating stories with us of his time in America when he worked on the railroads. It was such a pleasant visit, we totally lost track of time, and didn’t even notice anyone else around us. Realizing the lateness of the hour, Helen and I shared our farewells and gathered our belongings. As an afterthought, I grabbed my camera and asked the gentleman if I could take his picture. This made him happy and he broke out in a big, toothless smile. As luck would have it, I was completely out of film. (That was back in the day when you had to place film in your camera and wait to have it developed.)
I apologized to the sweet man and expressed my disappointment. At that moment, a young lady walked up that had been a silent listener to our conversation. She introduced herself and told us she was from France. She, too, spoke fluent English. She very kindly offered to take the man’s picture for me, and told me if I gave her an address, she would be happy to mail the photo to me. I was surprised by her kindness, and gave her an address but couldn’t help wondering if she would actually follow through on such a generous offer to a stranger.
Several days later, Helen and I were walking the streets of downtown Hong Kong (at that time, a city of 6 to 7 million people) bustling with New Year’s fervor and throngs of people. We were on a mission to find a good “western” restaurant and were in the middle of a difficult decision: steak, hamburgers, pizza, or spaghetti? At this point, anything but rice and cabbage sounded pretty good. This would be followed up with a hunt for a good dessert: chocolate cake or maybe apple pie, if we were so lucky. (We were craving western food and wanted to take good advantage of our stay!) We were enjoying the shopping and the hustle and bustle of the street when, out of nowhere, up walked our friend from France! Helen and I were so stunned, we were totally speechless. The young French lady didn’t seem the least bit surprised. “Oh, Hi!” she said, as she casually opened up her bag and pulled out a photograph. “I have your picture for you,” she shared, as she handed me the photo and walked off. We barely had the time to thank her and say good-bye before she disappeared into the crowd.
Helen and I looked at each other in total disbelief. The odds were about 7 million to 1 that we could possibly have run into our friend from France on this busy street in Hong Kong; how close we could have come to missing her had we walked into any number of restaurants. What were the chances she would have had the film developed so quickly? That made the odds even greater. We had no idea she even had plans to visit Hong Kong.
The whole experience was so amazing to me that I decided to memorialize it with a charcoal drawing of my Chinese scholar. Such encounters just make you pause, wonder in awe, and cherish the memory for the rest of your life.