Just about everyone has experienced a miraculous coincidence at least once in their lifetime, a chance encounter with a friend at a place and time where neither side would ever have expected to meet. I’ve had a few in my life. The most memorable was running into Giovanna, an old girlfriend of mine from when I was a graduate student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I literally bumped into her, eight years after losing touch (this was in the pre-email era) one morning at the bustlingly gorgeous Campo de’ Fiori vegetable market in the center of Rome.
We quickly got reacquainted, and she juggled me and her then-current boyfriend for awhile. I was a foreign correspondent for Forbes based in London. She was living in Rome, close to the market, one of my favorite spots in one of my favorite and most-visited cities in the world.
There was a high degree of improbability about that meeting in Rome. But, it wasn’t completely unfathomable, since she was an Italian, and even when I knew her, interested in film-making. Rome is the center of that industry in Italy. Giovanna had studied in China, spoke good Chinese and had landed a small job helping Bernardo Bertolucci shoot scenes in China for “The Last Emperor”. She parlayed that into a friendship with the director and the producer of Last Emperor, and then found other work in the film business.
In Chengdu recently, I had an even more remarkable coincidental meeting than that one in Campo de’ Fiori. At a large and fancy restaurant there, a friend of mine from work, Nick Shao, who is a Managing Director of PE firm Carlyle in Shanghai, came up and greeted me as I sat down at a table with two people I only just met.
My brain circuitry is not what it used to be. It probably took me two to three seconds to actually figure out who Nick was and how I knew him. Then it clicked, of course, and I started burbling in my bad Chinese about how remarkable the whole thing was – why was he there? Doing what? Was the food any good?
Running into Nick was remarkable for a lot of reasons, including the fact I know a comparatively small number of people in China, had not been in Chengdu in 28 years, and was in a restaurant that seats at least 800 people. To end up at a table nearby to someone I knew, in a city of 11 million that neither of us have any connection to, in a country with the largest population in the world, that’s a level of unlikelihood that I can’t even begin to quantify. I’d be hard-pressed to find one of my own family members in that restaurant, it’s that large and crowded.
As I found out, Nick was in Chengdu for an EMBA course he’s taking. This also left me a little nonplussed, since I knew Nick already had an MBA from Columbia. Why would anyone need two? Why was his Shanghai university convening its class at a not-especially famous restaurant in Chengdu? I still don’t have solid answers to either of these questions, even after exchanging emails with Nick later that day.
For my part, I was in Chengdu to participate in a PE conference organized by the Sichuan government. I skipped the official lunch to meet some friends-of-friends. It would not be stretching things to say the last place I’d expect to meet someone I know would be that restaurant, in that city, in that country, at that date and time.
I had a great three days in Chengdu, eating, chatting and walking around China’s most relaxed, pleasant and livable major city. Meeting Nick made it very much more memorable, just as I continue to remember, when I think of Rome, that meeting, over 20 years ago, in Campo de’ Fiori.
For me, at least, this coincidental meeting spurred a lot of what little I can muster in terms of philosophical reflection. It’s all hackneyed stuff, of course, but our lives really are created by the miracle of birth, and punctuated thereafter by occasional miracles, large and small. The world is, in its most benign state, the motive force for the coming true of every sort of wonderful, unexpected but thoroughly delightful possibility. Dreams come true. Happy coincidences occur.