This is the story about a very stupid choice I almost made when I was alone and vulnerable in a foreign country — and about how the universe delivered some very literal (and, dare I say, poetic) intervention to save me from myself:
A long time ago, shortly after I moved to China, I decided I wanted to freelance so that I could live on just part-time teaching work while using the rest of my (hopefully-ample) hours to build a career as a writer or a healer. The problem? Visas for freelancing didn’t exist in China at the time.
So you can imagine my gratitude when a close friend informed me that her family knew someone willing to sponsor one.
My inner mystic — the part of me that moved there in the first place partly because “the signs” had pointed East — felt like this was fate, perhaps my cosmic reward for taking such bold chances on fulfillment. Wow, I followed my heart all the way to China, and things are falling right into place. This is exactly what happens when your desires are “aligned!”
Thus went my New Age logic.
But life and destiny aren’t so simple. Sometimes you are “meant to be” in a given situation, and yet that situation isn’t AT ALL “meant to be” easy, nor to lead where you thought it would.
I was naïve.
I was, furthermore, deeply impoverished, visibly foreign, socially isolated, single, young, and female.
A dangerous combination.
Here was the deal: this guy would offer me a nominal position at his company to justify sponsoring a visa, while — apart from some infrequent clerical work — I’d be free to spend my time as I pleased: taking language classes, writing, studying TCM, and so on. My skills weren’t a fit for his company, but he didn’t care.
This was an enormous favor. I felt blessed.
Yet when I received an email from him one morning asking me to come to sign a contract pronto… I had a bad feeling.
Normally, I’d prefer to ponder a big decision for a while, list the pros and cons, pray for signs. I didn’t like the idea of signing an untranslated contract, in a foreign country, for an unorthodox offer, from a guy I barely knew. But there was no time for strategy. He wanted me there soon, and we both knew that my unemployed status (i.e., wide-open schedule) meant I had no reason to make him wait. Worse, I was afraid that stalling with too many questions would signal distrust or ingratitude and thereby offend Chinese notions of “face.” I didn’t want to create hard feelings with my friend or problems between her family and this man.
Why look a gift horse in the mouth?
In any case, hadn’t I felt baseless anxiety before about stuff that turned out great— after which I was thankful to have ignored my “gut feelings”?
So I decided I didn’t have time for my own bullshit. I didn’t want to throw away a golden opportunity on account of my anxiety. Thus, for all these reasons — that I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt uneasy; that I’d just packed up my life and moved halfway around the world to a city where I knew practically no one and couldn’t read, write, or speak; that I was poor, from a blue-collar family in a blue-collar town, having spent my pre-China year on food stamps and government-sponsored health insurance; that I needed what this man was offering; and that I didn’t want to be “paranoid” — I decided to take the plunge.
But not before I said a prayer. It went like this:
Look… I’m stubborn. I intend to sign this contract. If you have anything to say on the matter, a sign won’t do it. I usually need lots of those, because I never know if it’s just confirmation bias. There’s no time for a breadcrumb trail. I need to be out the door in less than an hour. More importantly, this opportunity is too huge for something so prone to “user error” as superstition.
So I’m telling you right now: I will ignore all signs.
What you can do is stop me. Traffic jam? Guy cancels meeting? Doesn’t matter how. Nothing catastrophic, please — just make sure it’s definitive.
Those are my terms. If this is a bad idea, don’t tell me. STOP me.
How do you imagine the universe, in its infinite wisdom and with its infinite resources, chose to answer my prayer?
In a fashion so simple and absurd that I still laugh nearly a decade later.
An hour or so later, I was in this man’s CEO suite. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. I sat down. On his desk between us, the contract. The time came.
He slid the contract towards me, with a pen. Everything was in Mandarin (as expected) so I had no clue what the terms were, but… well… what was there to do? I would take this risk.
I picked up the pen.
I guess I’m really signing this now...
I set pen to paper.
Okay, it’s happening.
I began to sign my name.
And the pen broke.
Partway through my name.
The. Pen. Broke.
Stopped writing, just like that. At the 11.999999th hour.
Internally — and all around me in the invisible — every possible alarm bell was ringing.
HOLY SHIT. HOLY SHIT. This is what I asked for. Oh. my. God.
And here’s the curious thing: all my anxiety from earlier melted away. Instead, I felt instantaneously possessed of a decisive self-assurance. Play this cool, something told me.
So I did.
“Oh, the pen’s broken…” I remarked casually, laying it down on the desk and folding my hands on top of the contract. Then I just seamlessly transitioned back to chatting. If I chat with him, he’ll forget about the contract — and he won’t sense that I’m having second thoughts.
And that’s exactly what happened. He and his assistant both tried the pen. They confirmed that it wasn’t working. He couldn’t find another in his desk. Naturally, I was carrying my own pen or six (writer here, hi!), but I wasn’t going to volunteer that information. This was my cosmic out.
I was in AWE at what the fuck just happened.
We talked a little longer and simply agreed that I’d sign the contract next time.
But I already suspected I would not.
The incident bought me time to think of a solid, “face”-friendly excuse for hesitating to sign his offer, and when I eventually had to articulate my (manufactured) rationale some days later, he concurred and eased off the pressure.
Instead, over the next few weeks, I began to piece together why the universe practically body-blocked me from submitting, on paper, to this man. His behavior began to indicate that his intentions might be, let’s say, beyond professional. I started to feel like I was being groomed.
He always found reasons why we needed to meet outside the office, such as over a late-night Friday meal after he’d put his kids to bed (whereafter he insisted on walking me to my door), or at a downtown massage parlor. Our discussions for the visa became drawn out in a way that felt unnecessary, as he gradually revealed that he expected more and more (unpaid) work in exchange — plus my daily presence in his private office. Most alarmingly, after I began to back away from his increasingly-suspect intentions, he “jokingly” reminded me that he knew my address and could always just show up there if I made myself too scarce.
I decided to stop having contact with him.
(A decision that my friend and her family wholeheartedly supported, once they heard how he was acting.)
What happened to me in China thereafter is a whole other story, but suffice it to say, I was better off without whatever he was offering. I don’t need to know what the contract said. I count myself very lucky that I never ended up beholden to him in any way.
Maybe you think I was stupid to so much as consider signing it, and I’ll give you that — but I’ll also remind you that new migrants all over the world get lured into underhanded shit every day because people with power can smell the vulnerability in their desperate good intentions and in the fact that economically marginalized strangers in a strange land don’t tend to have much option but to take risks and to trust.
And maybe, if my destiny required that I not get tangled up with that man, you could argue that the universe would’ve thwarted him even without my prayer.
Still, the fact remains that I asked for an anti-sign… and I got EXACTLY that. Literally: I was about to sign something — and the universe decommissioned the fucking pen.
There are several lessons here.
Maybe — maaayyybeee? — for starters, don’t sign contracts you can’t read, in foreign countries (or, hell, anywhere), with people you don’t know. (Advice that takes a real sage, I know.)
Also: if a stranger offers a huge favor for absolutely no reason, sometimes it’s genuine (as was certainly true with other people I met in China)… but it’s wise to be mindful of your vulnerability and wary of anyone who rushes you.
But my favorite lesson is the woo-woo nugget:
The universe is happy to help us. I’d even dare say it has fun doing this. Go ahead and ask for signs; it is BRILLIANT at creating those. But if signs are hard for you to trust or easy for you to miss… just know that you can always pray for roadblocks instead.
For more on my China misadventures, check out these stories!
My Misguided New Age Quest to “Find My Tribe”
I went looking for healers and teachers — and found the greatest ones in the “normal people.”