Stranded in Tiny Malaysian Town, I Learned About 'Yuan Fen,' One of Life's Most Beautiful Lessons

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 the Taj Mahal, or Angkor Wat?  

The "Biotruck" is a 22-year-old school bus my partner Andy salvaged from a scrapyard and converted into an RV that runs on waste cooking oil. Everything in it -- the lights, the sink, the countertop -- is cobbled together from other people's cast-offs. We are driving it around the world, but progress is slow. When you're traveling in a bus made of garbage, things go wrong on a regular basis. Breakdowns become not an unexpected crisis, but a way of life.  

I surveyed the lay of the land around the auto shop: 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 -- during a breakdown in the Malaysian port town of Galang Patah --  we ended up on a Dionysian jag with influential journalists and politicians uncorking champagne in our honor, celebrating our journey and the Biotruck.  

I needed to give Bidor a chance.


What's 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 sorts of strong friendships that get forged under duress. In our case, the truck quit abruptly on the highway and Andy had to guide it onto a narrow stop on the shoulder. While he poked around under the hood, I spread a blanket on the roadside grass, and setting up our laundry hamper as a backrest, resumed reading the literary megalith that is Shantaram. 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.  


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 chat 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 was covered in grease, I was strolling 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.  


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 and 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 began 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 beers, 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. Then 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 never had the verbal tools to articulate. I think "chemistry" might be the closest word we have.  

Simply put, Yuan Fen is the binding force that brings 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 destiny," 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 ones 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 past a "hello" and yet manage to make a heart connection halfway around the world. It explains how we should break down, find Kim Lim's shop, and then intersect with Mr. and Mrs. Fatt, who don't speak my language, who live thousands of miles away, and run a fruit stand in a dusty little "nowhere" town called Bidor.  


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