It's a small world after all – Part 2

by Steve Brock on November 18, 2011

 Last time I wrote of how my friend Bruce and I met an elderly man in Taiwan who had attended our grad school long before it was a school. Nice, interesting coincidence.

It is a small world, after all, so chance encounters like that happen. In fact, they probably occur more than we realize. On a trip, however, we take better note of them. We see connections we might otherwise miss at home. We do so in part because we pay better attention. We notice more.

But trips also create greater opportunities for these chance encounters because we’re out and about more, mixing it up with a wider variety of people. Thus, a chance encounter with someone you have a connection to is likely just a matter of statistical odds, mathematical probability, six degrees of separation and all that.

Uh huh.


I’m on a trip with my family this summer to Boston. We’ve just visited King’s Chapel on The Freedom Trail. As we’re walking out, guess who comes walking in?

The elderly gentleman from Taiwan? Nooooooo. Nice guess.

It’s Bruce.


Bruce, Eric and Xu outside King's Chapel, Boston

He, his wife Xu and their son Eric are in town for a football camp for Eric. They are taking one day to see the sights. Bruce and family live in Chicago. I’ve seen him once in the last fifteen years and now, here he is.

In Boston.

In a place where I would have missed him had I arrived or departed just two minutes earlier.

I’m not all wigged out in a Twilight Zone doo doo doo doo way, but I am struck by the extreme curiosity of it all. What, exactly, are the mathematical odds of this occurring? I’ve wondered about that since then, trying to figure out not the probability of the event, but the meaning behind this coincidence. I regularly quip that my theology does not include the word coincidence, so there has to be a reason for this chance encounter, right?

So after pondering it for quite some time, here’s my conclusion:

I have no idea.

It was later that day that I met Tony and helped him get a train ticket to Portland, Maine. So maybe it was God’s little joke about meeting an old friend and a new one all within a handful of hours. Maybe.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter why. It was just good to see an old friend in an unexpected place and thus add meaning to both the location and the relationship.

Also, in many ways, I don’t really want to know why. I know why planes fly and how microwave ovens cook but that doesn’t enhance my experience of flight or of defrosting food rapidly. Instead, coincidences like this one remind me that there’s still mystery and wonder in the world.

In our sophisticated culture where answers to practically anything are a Google search away, I find that wonder and mystery take a hit. I simply don’t acknowledge or value them much.

But running into Bruce in a place miles from each of our homes helps me appreciate that mystery and wonder still abound.

In Boston.

In Taiwan.

And in friendships that transcend both time and distance.

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It's a small world after all – Part 1

by Steve Brock on November 15, 2011

We know it's a small world (after all), but just how small?

You know you want to sing it. You’re already humming it in your head…

Anyone who’s ever been to Disneyland or dipped a toe in popular culture knows the initially-charming-yet-ultimately-irritating-but-impossible-to-forget tune from that happiest of overly-happy Disney attractions, It’s a Small World.

I loved the ride as a child. Only later did it begin to make my eye twitch. Yet now, I can approach it as a theme, one that weaves its way through many of our trips and in fact, our lives.

Let me give you an example.

While studying Mandarin Chinese in Taipei, Taiwan during the summer semester of grad school, my friend Bruce and I decided to visit central Taiwan one weekend. His teacher’s parents lived in Taizhong, the first stop on our trip, so we agreed to look them up and meet them.

We quickly found that as in many cultures, you don’t just say hi and leave.

Upon arrival at their house, the parents quickly invited us not just for dinner, but to stay the evening. The teacher’s elderly father was one of those people who display that stately kind of presence where we practically expected him to say something like, “Well my young Paduans (or Grasshoppers), sit here and I will reveal to you the wisdom of my years.”

Instead, since our conversation was all in Chinese and we had no clue as to what the word for “grasshopper” was in Chinese, much less anything from the Star Wars lexicon, we hunted for topics within our range of vocabulary.

We worked through the usual Q&A routine: How long have you been in Taiwan? How long have you been studying Chinese? My, isn’t your Chinese good (which is a polite way of saying, “We’re amazed any of you Westerners can even mumble a word or two of our civilized language”).

At some point, we broached the topic of travel. The father told us that he once visited America, way back during WWII. He went there to train as a fighter pilot against the Japanese. Then, as he explained this in Chinese, he off-handedly threw out what we thought was an English word: “Dundabud.”

“Dundabud?” we asked.

“Dundabud,” he repeated. He told us that was the name of the airbase where he trained. Out in the desert. In a state called Arizona.

“Do you mean Thunderbird?” Bruce asked, dumbfounded. “Yes. Dundabud” he responded with a look like, “I will be kind to you slow foreigners and repeat what I have already clearly told you.”

Bruce and I grinned, looked at each other, looked at the old man, looked at each other, looked back at the old man, then began pelting our new friend with more questions than he could answer.

You see, the reason for our sudden giddy enthusiasm was because that same airbase would, after WWII, become a graduate school to train recent GI’s in how to navigate the opportunities in international business that exploded after the war. That graduate school would retain the airbase’s original name, Thunderbird, and expand it to become The Thunderbird School of Global Management.

All semi-interesting points of history except for one small detail: That was our school, the place we proudly point out to this day as being the top-rated learning institution of its kind in the whole world. That’s the grad school Bruce and I were attending back home, the place from which we left to come to Taiwan and the school to which we would eventually return.

None of the scholastic value of the place mattered at that point, however. Instead, the wonder of that evening was that we had met someone who just moments before was a virtual stranger. But now, through a common point of connection, he was someone with whom we shared an unlikely bond.

It may seem like a small thing to anyone who wasn’t there. Yet those small moments are often what make travel so meaningful. They remind us in powerful, surprising ways of this hummable truth:

It is a small world, after all.

To be continued…

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