Yuan Fen


This time the Biotruck broke down near Bidor–a small, dusty Malaysian settlement lined with unremarkable storefronts. As I kicked around the parking lot of the mechanic shop, I asked myself: why can’t the truck spring an oil leak at places like the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat?

I surveyed the lay of the land: a fruit stand, a hardware store, a hair salon. For the next few days I’d be exiled from the truck as it filled with mechanics, oily rags, and expletives. There was really only one helpful thing I could do: keep out of the way.

Bidor appeared to be the Middle of Nowhere. Of course, the last time I thought that—in Galang Patah– we ended up on a Dionysian jag with influential politicians uncorking champagne in our honor, celebrating our journey and the Biotruck.

I needed to give Bidor a chance.

I am fairly useless in breakdown situations. It’s not that I lack the brainpower to figure it out, or that I’m too girly to get my hands dirty. That isn’t it. It’s just that I’m so completely uninterested. Car parts to me are so boring. Thankfully, Andy feels otherwise. It’s like having a conversation with the engine, he explained.

Days passed while he carried on heated conversation with the fuel filter and the injector pump. I filled the blank hours drinking tea and submitting myself to inane things like having my hair flat-ironed just so I could wait out the brutal Malaysian heat in the air-conditioned salon.

No doubt, it felt wrong that while poor Andy should be covered in grease, I strolled around the parking lot all day with great hair.  So I went over to a fruit shop, deciding that I would bring refreshment to the oily crew. I selected a few mangos, bananas, and a watermelon. I knew the counter space in the Biotruck would be covered in wrenches, so in a clumsy mix of English and charades, I asked the owner for a knife and a cutting board. I sat and chopped the fruit on a mat near the register, balancing a plate on my knees while runnels of watermelon juice ran down my arm. Her son set a box down by my feet to catch the peels, her husband came over to watch and soon, cutting up the fruit became a family effort.

What is interesting about breakdowns isn’t what went wrong, but the question of how to get rolling again. A disintegrated fuel filter can throw you at the mercy of strangers. Who will help you? You invariably meet people you would have never met, and in some places walk away with the strong sorts of friendships that sometimes get forged under duress. In our case, the truck quit on the highway and Andy had to guide it onto a narrow stop on the shoulder. While he poked around under the hood, I laid a blanket on the grass near the highway and, setting up our laundry hamper as a backrest, resumed reading the literary megalith that is Shantharam. The day dimmed, the mosquitoes bit and it started to worry me that maybe we would have to spend the night right there on the shoulder. Thankfully two laughing Chinese mechanics from Kim Lim’s towing happened to drive by with a tow truck and stopped to give us a hitch. That’s how we got to Bidor.

Mr. and Mrs. Fatt owned the fruit shop. The morning after our collective fruit slicing session, they idled their car up to the bus and asked us to breakfast. We sat at an open-air Chinese market,  poked breakfast dumplings with chopsticks, and did our best to make conversation. We must have done well enough because they took us out to dinner again that night.  We got on with them well. They were fun loving– Mr. Fatt liked to tease and in return his wife delivered him regular impish punches to the arm. Over the next couple of days while the Biotruck was in surgery at Kim Lim’s shop, we started hanging out at their house, watching their TV, using their shower, and internet. They showed us a nearby waterfall where we waited out a long hot afternoon in the mist. Before long, Mr. and Mrs. Fatt begin to feel like family, and that dusty block of Bidor storefronts started to feel like home.

On our last night, they took us out to dinner. While we sipped from our beer bottles, Mr. Fatt pulled out a pen and a napkin. He scribbled out a Chinese character and drew a big circle.

Yuan Fen he said, pointing to the Chinese symbol. The he retraced the circle. Big world, opposite sides, but still we meet. This friendship is a special privilege.

Later I would look up the meaning of Yuan Fen and begin to love the word for the way it filled a gap in the English language for a phenomenon that I had experienced, but had never had the verbal tools to articulate.  I think ”chemistry” might be the closest word we have.

Simply put, Yean Fen is the “binding force” that links two people together in a relationship. The amount of Yuan Fen you share with someone determines the level of closeness you will achieve. It’s not just about proximity; you can live next door to someone all your life and never get to know them. This just means you have thin Yuan Fen. On the other hand, you can fall madly in love with someone, but just can’t stay together. “Have Fate without Desinty” is  a Chinese proverb used to describe this tragic condition.

The meaning can get more complicated. Some believe the phenomenon is tied to past lives and karma. As another Chinese proverb goes: It takes hundreds of reincarnations to bring two persons to ride in the same boat; it takes a thousand to bring two persons to share the same pillow.

But for me, it is enough that Yuan Fen explains how sometimes people who meet get along, or don’t get along, why friends become friends, lovers become lovers, and also why sometimes relationships break apart. It puts a word to the phenomenon of why there are people I’ve lived near for so long, yet consistently fail to maneuver the conversation passed a “hello” and yet at the same time manage to make a heart connection halfway around the world. It explains how we should find Kim Lim’s shop, and then intersect with Mr. and Mrs. Fatt, who don’t speak our language, who live thousands of miles away, and run a fruit stand in a dusty little “nowhere” town called Bidor.

10 thoughts on “Yuan Fen

  1. I want to wrap this story up with a bow on top and leave it under a Christmas tree as a gift to make someone else happy the way it’s made me happy. You’ve captured a great travel adventure-made friendship.

  2. The glory of adventure written succinctly into an essay! It’s like throwing yourself toward your fate. I’m grateful to have yuan fen with you, my friend.

  3. bravo Chris! as always, beautifully written. thanks for sharing your heart, experiences and talent. reading your words is like getting on a really fun ride at an amusement park: the flow, the twists and turns, the surprises, and it all comes around in the end and leaves me with a sense of thrill, and a smile. thanks friend, and keep peeking around every corner you can find, living, loving, and learning. hats off to you. proud to be your friend, and always a fan, trey

  4. Excellent essay, Yuan Fen, beautiful. It’s fascinating how through conversation with newly met people from another culture you can come across a nugget of truth like “have fate without destiny”, so succinct, so real.

  5. I happened on your essay by chance. Because I have suffered my own “fate without destiny”, yuan fen fascinates me. I am American, and I met and married a beautiful Chongqing girl. It took us over two grueling years to navigate the U.S. immigration morass, and we finally got her visa. Six weeks before she was to fly to me, she suffered sudden cardiac arrest, and she never regained consciousness. We were married two and a half years, and we only got to physically be together (before her cardiac arrest) for nine glorious weeks. I spent two months with her (as she lay comatose) at hospitals in Chongqing. She has been gone for a year and a half now, and I still grieve. I wanted to expat to China, but Hongmei insisted she experience living in America. It was yuan fen that brought us together to love each other. It was fate without destiny that ended our love (and Hongmei’s life) prematurely.

    Your essay touched me.

    You are gifted.

    Sincerely yours,

    Glenn A. Whittington

  6. I really love this concept, too, Chris… I had never heard of it before, and indeed it does fill a grammatical gap…. It’s a beautiful essay. And as has become quite common now that I’m reading through all of your biotruck blog posts, you’ve moved me, yet again. It usually catches me off guard. I sense you going one way, suddenly you turn around and are standing right behind me. And I feel my eyes flooding. It’s no easy feat, bringing this kind of emotional reaction upon your readers…. it’s a privilege for us. Thank you again.

  7. This concept exists in Japan too. You have an ‘en’ with certain people. This is what kept me in japan for so long–the people I connected deeply with and the culture that embraces this concept. Great writing.

    • It takes all the angst out of trying to figure out what went wrong with a relationship … simply “thin yuan fen.” Love it.

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