Yuan Fen

In China, a lot of people still hold true to something called “yuan fen” (缘分). Yuan Fen means “serendipity,” or the chance encounters/luck that bring people and events together.

I’ll be honest, sometimes yuan fen can really piss me off. I mean, is it really yuan fen when we exchange words while buying eggs? Is it yuan fen when you see me walking on the street and find out I speak Chinese? Is it yuan fen when you make the decision yourself to come over and talk to me? Sounds more someone making constellations out of chaos.

Or so it seems most of the time, until it isn’t, and my inner superstitious self realizes that we stars are more connected than we care to admit.

Such was the case a few weeks ago on Valentine’s Day, when on my way back from a date, my ebike ran out of battery. Now, I’ll preface this by saying that I knew before I’d even gone that far that I’d run out of battery, but let my louder, more boorish inner voice override common sense. I was only a couple of blocks away from the apartment. So, I began to push it, cursing my decision to wear chunky heels.

An older grandpa on an ebike pulled over. He had a round face, crinkled eyes, and a very deep voice. “Are you out of battery?” he said.

“Yeah…” I said.

“Do you have to go far?”

“No, it’s just a couple blocks away.”

“Let me tow you!” He then proceeded to take out a bungee chord from his bike and lash it to mine. He started his bike, and I scooted on behind. On the way, I found out that his name was Mr. Wei, that he was a classical Chinese singer, and that he actually had many foreign friends that he helped out from time to time. He asked me what Chinese songs I knew, and when I hummed one, he said “好!” in his resonant singer’s voice. When we got to my apartment gate, we exchanged Wechats and parted ways.

Little did I know, this was only the beginning.

A couple nights later, we got dinner at a nice buffet, and during the course of our meal, he invited me to a get-together with some of his artist friends. He said there would be singers, dancers, and a lot of calligraphers. I said I’d go, and he asked me to bring my violin with to play a Chinese song.

When the day came, he picked me up with another Hangzhou friend of his and we drove to “Qianjiang New City” across the river. Once inside of a tall building, we entered a room with calligraphy all over the walls and a stage for his singer friends to perform. I looked at all of the scrolls, amazed at how all of it was done in one go, with each stroke decisive and marked by its feeling in that moment. In a way, it felt connected to singing, which all came down to that performance as well.

“Oh, Hannah, come over here,” Mr. Wei said. I walked over, where he stood by one of his friends, who held a rolled up scroll under his arm. He unfurled it, and I saw my own Chinese name written in beautiful ink.

Me, the calligrapher, and my Chinese name

“I like to do this for my foreign friends, and think it’s a nice way to experience Chinese culture,” Mr. Wei said. “It can be difficult, so you just need someone to introduce you.”

“Thank you!” I said, wishing I had something less mundane to say.

The art gathering was a wash of faces, some of whom told me it was “yuan fen” to meet me and immediately proceeded to ask favors from me. (Ah, such yuan fen to see a white face who can maybe help your daughter study English!), some of whom showed me calligraphy pieces, while explaining what they meant.


All the while, I wondered what the “catch” would be, and when Mr. Wei would ask me for a big favor. Time in China has made me suspicious of people helping me, in that usually there’s some sort of “payback” that comes later.

“Hannah,” Mr. Wei said later that afternoon, “May I ask you something?” I braced myself, already overwhelmed by other attendees who had been pulling me aside to ask favors I had to decline. “Would you ever be interested in traveling around Zhejiang with me?” he said. “I have a car, so we can explore. You can invite your friends, too!”

“Uh…that would be great!”

As it turns out, sometimes yuan fen can be annoying, but then when it actually happens, it can make China feel a lot more interconnected.