- Where Asian writers get unpeeled -
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y formative years in Singapore have injected me with the deadly Kiasu virus.
Aged six, I was whisked from the UK to a sunny island that introduced Kiasu-ism to the world. There was a national figure called Mr Kiasu who had his own comic book, cartoon and billboard advertisements. Also, McDonald’s had created a culinary classic called “The Kiasu Burger,” (it was a chicken burger with extra mayonnaise and “Kiasu” spices). Eating the burger made it cool to be Kiasu because being Kiasu meant you were a true Singaporean.
I was the British Chinese girl with the bad haircut who wanted to desperately fit in. So, I devoured Kiasu burger after Kiasu burger while witnessing the nation bow it’s knees to a kingdom of Kisau-ism. During rush hour, I saw bus queues transform into mobs where only the sharpest elbows would succeed. In supermarkets, I had front row tickets to Aunties fighting over the largest mango or seventy year olds snatching the last pair of pink, one dollar socks. Teenagers who struggled to rise for school would be found queuing at 4am to get free limited edition Hello Kitty toys from food chains. My two years in Singapore taught me that snatching was acceptable and using packets of tissue to save the best seats at concerts for friends was a great idea. As for the story, “The Hare and the Tortoise,” my teacher said in real life it was actually better to be the hare because he was quicker and would never miss out. She should have retitled the story, “The Kiasu Hare.”
Being back in the West, it has been years since I have used the word Kiasu (in public). However, the Kiasu-ism lives on in my blood. For one, I cannot walk away from bargains. Anything with a red sticker or a half price sign makes my heart beat quicker. If something is on sale and the only one left in the entire store, I am a goner; I have to buy it. Sometimes when I walk to the till with the “only one left” of the discounted dress / pencil case / nodding monkey, I suddenly spot a shelf with ten more of the offending item. All of a sudden, my heart rate becomes normal and I don’t want to buy the item anymore. The magic is gone, I’m not “Missing Out,” and the item is no longer special.
I’ve noticed that many of my Western born Asian friends have Kiasu-ism in their blood too, but they just don’t know it. How do you explain why Chinese people do so well in school? Yes, their parents cane them if they don’t get A’s, but there is also something in their genetic makeup that eggs them on to beat everyone else in class. Good
grades push students to the front of the queue for good universities and later profitable jobs.
It’s Kiasu-ism at full force.
My English friend asked me, “Why are all the outlet malls across the world filled with Chinese people?” I told her it’s because bargains attract Chinese people in the way chocolate attracts dieters or rubbish attracts flies.
Anglo-Saxon ancestors were hunter-gatherers while our Chinese ancestors were Bargain Hunter Gatherers. As a result, our noses automatically twitch at the aroma of bargain basements and buy one get one free offers. One cannot deny that Chinese people are the best at getting those obscure discount vouchers for restaurants. Almost every Chinese person I’ve eaten dinner with has picked the venue because they have either a discount voucher, 50% off deal from their Taste Card or heard the food was at a “reasonable,” price. As for the McDonalds £1.99 vouchers you get in the free Metro newspaper, well they have made my Monday mornings more toreable because:
Cheap food + Discount = Chinese Person’s Dream
My fashion savvy friend noted that Chinese people are almost always at the front of the queue for any “Limited Edition,” items – whether it’s mobile phones, clothes or nail polish. Just look at the front of the queue for the designer collaborations with the popular high street chains.
Yet, why is Kiasu-ism something that is rampant amongst Chinese people? Is it a cultural norm that has been passed down the generations or is it something deeper?
An older Singaporean relative told me that Kiasu-ism stems from deep suffering. After years of colonial rule, followed by suppression from the Japanese, Singaporeans needed to become “Kiasu” in order to survive. If you did not push yourself to the front of the queue, your family would not eat. By missing out on the latest news, food rations or social norms towards your rulers - you could lose your life. Not being Kiasu meant missing out or even worse - missing your head.
Later, when Singapore became its own country Kiasu-ism was encouraged to put the tiny island on the map. They had the threat of being overtaken by surrounding countries like Malaysia or Indonesia. To be at the front of the queue in Asia, Singaporeans had to strive to be the best. Sharp elbows, quick feet, eagle eyes – attributes all developed to shove Singaporean society further.
In a similar way, early Chinese immigrants in the UK had to channel their inner Kiasu-ism to survive. To them, the fear of losing meant that you would be left behind in society or even worse deported. Over the years, Kiasu-ism transformed into something less about survival and more about “Me, me, me.” Grabbing the last discounted item that we don’t need is for self-gratification rather than a matter of life or death. Getting up early to be first in the queue is usually for a concert ticket or sample sale, not for milk to stop your starving baby from crying. Missing out on the party of the year is not as life changing as missing the last boat to freedom. Kiasu-ism has evolved over the years from something beautiful to something ugly and selfish.
As a result of Kiasu-ism, I’ve been known to eat the last prawn at the buffet, elbow other passengers for space on the tube and make up fake email addresses so I can get more than one free gift. It is an ugly side of me that I find hard to amputate because giving up Kiasu-ism also means giving up part of my identity.
I am Kiasu and I’m not proud of it (sometimes).
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