I was moved to write this essay because of an odd circumstance that occurred to me on Friday (Sept. 10).
Part 1: In downtown Shanghai, there is a magnificent Buddhist temple (Jing’An Temple) separated from a shopping mall by a pedestrian walkway. Across the street is a large park with a small lake (a pond, actually) hidden in its center, and on the shore of the pond is a Thailand restaurant. About two years ago, a friend invited me to this restaurant for lunch. The setting was pretty, but the restaurant wasn’t exceptional and I wasn’t fond of the food and so had no intention of returning.
Part 2: I keep an office near the Temple, and on Friday I was at my desk working on some research when the thought of this restaurant popped into my mind, but I couldn’t remember its name. I thought about it for a moment, but had no particular interest and so dismissed it. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the thought returned. I considered the topic again, and confirmed my first conclusion that I didn’t much like either the restaurant or the food, had no intention of returning and thus didn’t care to remember the name. I returned to my work, but ten minutes later the thought returned again. I dismissed it again but it returned yet again. The damned thing refused to leave me alone. I finally surrendered, did a brief search on the internet and found the name of the restaurant. No result, but no further interruptions.
Part 3: A few hours later, I left my office and was walking through the pedestrian walkway near the Temple, as I regularly did, when I noticed a group of four foreign women (American, I think) standing at the side. When I came near, one of them turned and saw me and came running over. She said, “Please can you help us? We’re trying to find a restaurant. Everyone tells us it’s very near, but no one can tell us how to get there.” I replied, “I don’t know. What’s the name of the restaurant?” And of course, it was the same restaurant I’d just looked up on the internet.
The ladies’ version of the story would have been that they were lucky to find someone who could direct them to the restaurant, but it wasn’t quite so simple as they might have imagined. Of course, one trivial event is proof of nothing at all, but when I lived in Italy I kept for seven or eight years a daily diary in which I recorded anything of interest and, leafing through that diary later, I discovered I had recorded literally hundreds of such incidents. They were all different, but in some sense were all the same. Each required a bit of uncommon ‘luck’ or perhaps magic, for its fulfillment. Some were brief and quickly executed, while some were protracted and more complicated. Here is a more complicated example, from my time in Rome:
The Lost Boy
In Rome I lived in a primarily residential area facing on a small piazza with a fountain in its center and ringed with coffee shops, a hotel, a basilica and other buildings. One evening at a small outdoors table at a sidewalk coffee shop I saw a young Chinese boy, perhaps 15 years old, sitting all alone after the coffee shop had closed. He was still there the next morning, with his head resting on the table and I wondered if he had spent the night there. I tried to speak to him, but he knew no English nor Italian and conversation was impossible.
He was still there late that evening and also again the next morning, and it now seemed evident he had spent the night there. I knew something was wrong, though I had no idea what that might be, but I couldn’t leave him there. Conveniently, my favorite Chinese restaurant was only a few hundred meters from my home, so I gestured with him to come with me and took him there in the hope they might help him.
But the people in the restaurant couldn’t understand him. China has many hundreds of local dialects, many being similar but some being very different languages existing only in remote mountain valleys and intelligible only to residents of that valley. This lad apparently spoke only one of these local dialects, the manager telling me he could understand only a few words. But he said a girl who worked in his kitchen was from a different part of China and that perhaps she might understand him. The girl would arrive for work in perhaps half an hour, so he brought me a coffee and we waited for the kitchen girl to arrive.
She understood the boy perfectly. The boy had come from China to visit his uncle in Bologna but had missed his station stop and gotten off the train in Roma instead. Of course, his uncle wasn’t there to meet him and he had no idea what to do. He stayed at the little hotel in my piazza until his money ran out, then he spent two nights sleeping outdoors at the sidewalk cafe until I rescued him. They called his uncle, arranged for his trip to Bologna, took him to the train station, bought him a ticket, and all ended well. But there are some interesting questions here.
The railway station in Roma was a very long way from my piazza. How did the boy get there? He couldn’t possibly have navigated the subway system and he couldn’t have taken a taxi because he spoke no common language and had no knowledge of the city. He might have taken various trams and buses, alighting and dismounting and eventually ending up at my piazza, but that seems desperately far-fetched.
Moreover, WHY would he have come to my piazza? The most sensible thing would have been to remain at the train station where there were many thousands of people and a good chance to find someone Chinese who could help him. What possible reason would he have to travel all that distance to my piazza? There were a million places in Roma where he could have gone. Why that one, and how could he possibly have gotten there?
But the real point of the story is this: The boy was from a remote mountain valley in Gansu province, with a dialect that was in fact spoken and intelligible only in that small valley. The reason the kitchen girl could understand the boy perfectly was because she was from the same valley.
So, we have a young Chinese boy who travels to Italy, gets off his train in the wrong city, speaks no useful language, then (by means and motivation unknowable) finds his way to my piazza and sits patiently outdoors at my favorite sidewalk coffee shop until I take notice of him and lead him to what was almost certainly the only person in Rome who could understand him.
I would like to share one more story with you, this one prior to my departure to Italy.
A Boy Named Richard
This was an experience many years ago when I was moving to Italy. I had disposed of my assets and encumbrances and for the final few months had lived in a rented apartment – which I had now relinquished – planning to stay in a hotel until my departure two days hence. Then something unusual suddenly occurred that forced me to delay my departure for one month. Not serious in itself, but I was now homeless. The building fortunately had an empty apartment which the owner was happy to lend to me for a month provided I could wait a few days for painting to be completed. He even had some surplus furniture for me.
A bit later that day, while walking down the street I passed what we would call a youth hostel, a kind of hotel for young people who are traveling, very nice building, gardens, huge kitchen and so on. I knew the fellow who managed it, so as I passed by I stopped in to say hello and the subject of my present circumstance arose. More good luck. My friend said if it were for only a few days I could stay there in one of the private rooms, and we could drink beer and watch hockey games. Perfect plan.
I moved my luggage into the hostel, and the first person I met was a young man named Richard. He was only 18 or 19 years old and had come from a small town to the big city to begin his life. Richard seemed smart, sensible, honest, with high standards and good values, and a big heart. He told me of men on the street begging him for $1 to buy a cup of coffee, but Richard wouldn’t give them the money. He would take the man into a coffee shop, buy him a coffee and some cigarettes and talk to him for half an hour, asking about the man’s life, the difficulties of survival, the possibilities of a job, and offering encouragement. I loved this kid.
Richard told me that upon completion of high school, there were few or no jobs in his small town, but he was lucky to find two jobs, one painting houses and the other I cannot recall, but he worked at those two jobs 15 hours a day and saved enough money to come to the city and begin his life. He said he had no idea where he would stay when he arrived in the city, so he asked the person sitting next to him on the bus, and the fellow told him of the youth hostel, so that was where he came. And the first person he met was me. He had no idea what he wanted to do, but he was firm that he would never take a job washing dishes in a restaurant. That was his entire plan.
Then I returned to the apartment building where the owner was collecting furniture for me. His first offering was a beautiful, very new and very expensive sofa that folded out into a huge double bed, so now I wouldn’t sleep on the floor. Later that day he had a small table and a few chairs and this continued with dishes, bed sheets and pillows. I resisted almost immediately, insisting I didn’t want all those things because I was leaving the country and their disposal would be a burden. I can still recall the man saying to me, “Take it. You will need it.” So I took it. But then the next day he had a TV set and some other things, and I tried to refuse, telling him again I didn’t want any more things, and he again said to me, “Take it. You will need it.” I have to say that by this time I was becoming unsettled. The delay in my departure was sufficiently unwelcome, but now things were happening to me that should not have been happening, things beyond my power to resist, and suddenly all the signs were indicating that Providence had decided I wasn’t going to Italy and that my delay would become permanent.
In the meantime, I was trying my best to look after Richard. He’d had no luck finding a job, and the reality of being alone in a big city was starting to frighten him, to say nothing of his meager finances. He said (realistically), “Even if I get a job, I won’t be paid for a month, and I will have to pay a deposit plus the current month’s rent and, even if I can find an apartment, I have no furniture, and I would be sleeping and eating on the floor.” So now Richard was scared. I was sure in my own mind that something had been planned for Richard so I did my best to cheer him up and maintain his faith, but this was looking increasingly shaky.
Back to the apartment building, with the owner apparently determined to furnish my entire apartment, leaving me more worried than Richard. I was unable to explain anything that was happening to me, my planned future in Italy beginning to look bleak.
Back to the youth hostel, with Richard rapidly losing his courage, increasingly expressing fear, doubt and uncertainty, and seeing no hope. It was becoming clear he wasn’t going to last much longer.
Back to the apartment building. I told the owner about Richard, and asked if I could bring the boy to stay with me for the one month, that perhaps in that time he could find a job and things would be better. The owner asked what kind of work Richard did. He was too young to have done much of anything but he mentioned painting houses so I said, “He’s a painter”. And the owner said, “That’s great. I need a painter. There are people coming and going each month from the rented apartments and they all have to be painted. Bring him with you and I’ll give him a job. And he can keep the apartment as part of his pay. He won’t have to give me a deposit or pay rent.” And suddenly the whole world made sense again. Richard not only had a good job with a good boss, but he had a free apartment that was by now fully furnished with very nice things, and it would all be his as a gift when I left. In that conversation of two minutes, all of Richard’s problems evaporated. He was out of danger and in good hands. As was I, apparently.
I ran back to the youth hostel to tell Richard, but he was gone, having checked out and leaving no information. I returned several times, finding him a week later in the company of some not very nice people. He said he realised how stupid he had been, that he could never have succeeded, and so took a job washing dishes in a restaurant – the one thing he said he would never do, and was living with these other men. I reminded Richard of the advice I had given him so many times about believing in himself and not succumbing to fear. I told him what was waiting for him but that it couldn’t be forced onto him, that now he had to choose. I gave him my phone number and address, and told him to call me. I never heard from him again.
My assessment of the situation was that my move to Italy was delayed a month in order to serve as a tool to give a young man a wonderful start in life, but I wasn’t the only actor in this stage play. It seemed that Richard’s entire immediate future was planned for him as a gift, but there was a price: he needed the courage to stand firm and be brave for one moment longer. But, as so often occurs with many of us, at the very last moment, when success is within our grasp, we let ourselves be overcome by fear and doubt and we throw everything away.
I have great respect for William Shakespeare, in part because the man seemed to have knowledge that men should not have. In ‘As you like it’, he wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.” But our life on earth isn’t only a stage play; it’s also a puppet show, and someone is pulling the strings.
I will leave you with a quotation normally attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I am not certain Goethe is the original source of these words, but it is the content that is important:
“. . . the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
My stories will not convince you of anything. You need to experience these in your own life. If you are so inclined, begin to pay attention to the things happening around you, make notes and keep a diary. If you do, you will soon realise that if Providence can pull the strings to make a circumstance or a meeting happen, Providence can also pull the strings to ensure that such a circumstance or meeting will never happen. There is another element to this, which may be of interest. The words are not mine, and I have never been able to locate the original source of this quotation: “Relations are not contained in the real world of existence. They are extraneous, and super-induced.” If you think, you will understand.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 32 languages and his articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English language platforms. Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China Sneezes’. (Chapt. 2 — Dealing with Demons).
His full archive can be seen at
He can be contacted at: [email protected]