A Brief Case of Chance

Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”


 Why this quote becomes well remembered is, I believe, not simply because of Tom Hanks, who said so in one of his best movies Forrest Gump (1994), but rather that it may have held a grain of truth.

Had Gump not initiated a conversation with the lady, a complete stranger who was sitting next to him on a bench, by offering her his chocolates, we might not have reached this truism in the first place. However unlikely the odds of picking a particular piece from a multitude of chocolates in a pack may be, the probability still seems manageable given the limited volume the pack can hold. It would, however, become incredibly hard to predict the outcome while the denominator amounts to the population of entire humanity which has reached as much as 7 billion, much less the odds when two specific individuals are picked out at the same time. When it comes down to the moment when such chance event happens, the probability is somehow no more than either 1 or 0. Either that coincidence happens or it doesn’t.

To appreciate the probability as such cognitively is one thing while to marvel at the rarity of such coincidence after experiencing it personally is completely another. That’s what exactly happened at a weekend a couple of weeks ago.  After my shift was over that afternoon, I went down to HKU where my sweetheart, Beibei, was having class supposedly ended by 6 in the evening. It turned out that Beibei was excused earlier and we decided to grab some food in one of the restaurants we often visited in the neighborhood of the campus.

Upon reaching the end of the street that led to the restaurant, we saw a newly opened cooked food stall which immediately captured our attention and stimulated Beibei’s appetite with Beibei’s favorite, steamed rice-rolls. While we were waiting for our turn and ready to call our shot, I was aware of a smart-looking and apparently WEIRD (Western, Educated, industrialized, Rich, Democratic) gentleman who stood nearby and kept looking on as if he was mentally rehearsing how to make his call. Like Gump, it was, of course, so kind of me to enquire if the gentleman needed help (a wink). He did and was anxious to learn the substance of the options that were displayed in front of him. No sooner did he get what we ordered on his behalf, Shao Mai and fish balls (two sets of dim sum that are popular in Hong Kong), than he shared with us his story. He happened to be a law professor at Miami Law School who, together with his colleague, was leading the students he coached to compete in an Arbitration Moot Contest which would last for a week. It was his first day and first time in Hong Kong. Right after checking in his hotel, he couldn’t wait to explore the surroundings and came across us by PURE chance. We ended up having tea and a great time together at the restaurant for nearly TWO hours talking about laws, politics, history, travels, the Umbrella Movement (or Occupy Central Movement) of Hong Kong, and, of course, Donald Trump and his “Trumpland” policies….the further we talked, the more interest that we found we shared in common.

John Rooney, Beibei and Frank

(From Right) Prof. John Rooney, Frank, and Beibei

Beibei and I are certainly thankful and found such unexpected rendezvous with Professor John H. Rooney Jr., the complete stranger who turned out to be, amazing, and we are grateful to learn that such amazement and awe held for the coincidence is mutual. Unlike the lady who was reluctant to reciprocate when Gump tried to engage her for a conversation, John was so kind and generous to allow us to tap into his reservoir of knowledge and research, such as the history behind how slave trades brought Africans to Haiti in the beginning, and from where the Haitians later found their way to the Deep South in the US and settled there eventually; and besides, the nature of his profession and what international arbitration was all about…

What further impressed me about John was his impeccable manners that had somehow cost his dim sums that afternoon since he refrained from enjoying them in the restaurant as it was improper to consume any food other than that served by the restaurant. Despite his loss since the dim sums were no longer palatable while being cooled off after John’s return to his hotel, my respect for John’s character is well secured.

In the following week, we even had the pleasure to meet John’s colleague, Professor Sandra Friedrich, who had an interesting personality and of a vibrant disposition, and quickly befriended.  We also went on an evening excursion to Temple Street after a heartfelt dinner.


(From left) Prof. Sandra Friedrich, Prof. John Rooney, Beibei, and Frank dining at Temple Street

Even as knowledgeable and well educated as Sandra and John have been, I find them sharing one particular trait that is common among nearly all professionals who excel in their respective areas of expertise that I have come across: humility. Despite John’s casual demeanor, I can tell that he had listened attentively and carefully to whatever we were telling him. Not because what we said would be of any worth and value, but because John was so eager to learn and open to new ideas which is an essential component of “growth mindset” which has been featured in many psychology literatures, including Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016).


Checked in on Temple Street, Hong Kong

To put the whole episode in perspective, I was awestruck by how many “If”s must have been orchestrated to culminate in the crossing of our paths. What “if” I didn’t work on A-shift that weekend? What “if” Beibei didn’t leave her class early? What “if” we didn’t bother to stop by the cooked food kiosk? What “if” John never showed up? And what “if”….but among so many contingent elements, I am certain that we are thankful and grateful for the chance encounter with John and getting to know Sandra. It doesn’t take a dice or a lottery to determine how lucky we are, all we need is an open heart to embrace whatever life has to offer and what the future has in store for us. What “if” the lady had taken Forrest Gump’s offer seriously in the beginning? Perhaps the ending would have been drastically different for Gump as well as for the lady.


Farewell to John at HK International Airport

By the time when this post is out, John should be celebrating the birth of a little baby girl to his family on the other shore of the Pacific. Here come our congratulations as well as our warmest wishes to his family.

Once again, thank you, Sandra and John! And here is how I rest my case of chance.


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