China-focused Satire, Social Commentary, Comics and More

Yi! Er! San! GO!


Totally Awesome Picture of the Week 59


It doesn’t matter that this lineup of eager drivers is waiting for the signal in Hanoi, Vietnam. It’s no different than in China, except maybe the fact that these people are wearing helmets and are actually waiting.

All of Asia thinks they’re racing. I’ve known this for a while, but the other day it was confirmed by a class of 43 twelve year olds. I asked, “Who has won a race?” and every single student raised their hand. A class of winners! I thought. “What type of race did you win?” I asked a boy near the front.

He stood and answered proudly, “I win a ping pong race.” Forcing a smile I moved on to another student who had lived for two years in the States, “I have won an English race,” she said. The class erupted into a flow of bragging: “Piano race!” “Dance race!” Math race!” “Basketball race!” I felt my eyes narrowing, and after “Dentist race!” I stopped the train of boastful students, my mind fleeing from the open analogy of the only other place I had ever encountered so many winners – The Special Olympics – where no one loses.

“Has anyone won a running race?” I asked. The whole room was silent. “Okay,” I started, thinking of the simplest way to explain, “Usually when we say we won a race, we are talking about who is the fastest at something.” More silence. I wrote the word fastest on the board and underlined fast.

“Ah! KUAI!” a chorus of excited students shouted.

“Who is the fastest?” I asked, hoping the kids would pick a category. After 30 seconds of whispers a boy stood up; pointing at his friend he shouted, “He fastest at go to WC!” An avalanche of laughter.

Winners, I thought.

The other important qualifier, aside from who is fastest, that turns a competition into a race is the set course. At the grocery store, when we wait at the vegetable sticker line and ten people shove, elbow, claw and reach their way in front until the weighing lady takes pity on the weak foreigners halting progress to bag their produce, we know that we are the losers.

We also recognize this downstairs at the checkout counter when the lady in high-heeled boots pretends to stumble and, as we watch, ready to help, she miraculously lands her basket on the counter in front of us, rights herself and, if our mouths are agape or our products are in the way, inserts an elbow (perhaps also an act of pity) to help us regain our self control.

It’s not just foreigners who are beat. It happens to everyone. Teenagers beat old people to the subway seats. Old people beat teenagers to the taxis. Women beat men to the food carts and men beat women to the ATM. It’s not limited to people either. On the roads it’s bus vs. car vs. motorbike vs. bicycle. Business vs. business, restaurant vs. restaurant, etc. Everything is a competition and, though at times it seems otherwise, most are entirely isolated and incongruous races of a person against their self, their dreams, ideals and expectations: Old person vs. teenager is really old person vs. himself and teenager vs. himself.

As a foreigner who was taught to walk on the right side of the stairs, to hold the door for people behind you, and to wait at crosswalks, it is sometimes difficult not to take the apparent aggression personally. It took a while to understand that any retaliation went unnoticed, not because I was doing it wrong but because it was my own fight and my fight alone. Any guilt or hurt I thought I caused was really only on myself. I guess I should have asked my students, “Who has lost a race?” We both might have learned something.

One Response to “Yi! Er! San! GO!”

  1. MyLaowai says:

    Damn you! Curse you! Damn you again! I’ve just spent an hour writing a piece that is in most respects identical to this one, and now I’m going to have to wait four months before I can post it.

    Mind you, you had a far better picture than me.

    Congratulations on ditching Blogspot, and best wishes to you in your new web-home. Drop by for a martini next time you are in my ‘hood.

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