PRATIE PLACE

Monday, March 14, 2005

It will all work out

From the "Creole and Pidgin Languages" section of Christopher J. Moore's "In Other Words" comes this excellent word and definition:

KIASU (Singlish)
The word kiasu comes from Hokkien. It means "always wanting the best for oneself and trying hard to get it."

The kiasu student is always the first to get the book out of the library - they may even hide the book in the wrong shelf so that no one else can read it -- and always the first to get the assignments in to the teacher.

At a buffet the kiasu person may be so concerned that the restaurant will run out of oysters that they dish all the oysters onto their plate, to be sure they will get enough. Kiasu-ism is a keenness that might be mildly exploitative. This has been adopted in Singapore, in a spirit of self-mockery, as a national characteristic.

When I was a kid I was afflicted terribly with the spirit of kiasu. My earliest memory of this affliction: running to the front of my kindergarten classroom to be first to get a pair of scissors out of the scissors basket. Even then, I think I knew there were enough scissors in the basket for everybody. I knew my behavior was unseemly but couldn't help myself.

I fought this for years and framed it finally as an issue of control. I could not control the universe: sometimes I would get scissors and sometimes I would not. But that's ok, because sometimes it's other peoples' turn to get the scissors.

My band played for a week at a retreat center and we watched supposedly genteel, extremely well-fed and well-to-do elderly people battle each other over food. They jockeyed for position in line outside the dining room as the hour for each meal approached. Surely they were not so hungry! Why did they have to be first?

They rushed in to get a "good" table, even though every table was the same. They reached in front of each other for the serving bowls, even though there was far more than enough for everybody.

Once we musicians were late to dinner; we found places at a table where peoples' plates were piled high with brisket and the brisket plate was empty. No matter, I cheerfully wandered with our empty plate to an adjoining table, where everyone's plate was piled high, and there was still brisket on the serving plate. I asked if we could have some of the left-over brisket. One diner looked up with some hostility, then passed the plate around his table again. Each diner added more slices to an already-loaded plate; then the (very few) remaining slices were reluctantly released to me.

Don't you marvel when there is a snow warning on the radio and suddenly the stores are stripped of bread and milk. Who can eat so much bread, drink so much milk? What is the thought of the person who takes the last four loaves?

It's natural to abhor the future's uncertainty. I know there are many desperate situations in which finely tuned kiasu skills may mean the difference between life and death. Most of us, though, are far from legitimate desperation. We are, instead, fearful and greedy, for no good reason.

Therefore, when my kids were little I preached the lesson of sufficient resources, telling them: "there WILL be enough scissors in the scissors basket." I calm myself with the same mantra.

To close... A wonderful Mexican cafeteria-style restaurant in our town has an unending flow of customers and a seemingly small number of tables. As you stand in line you fear there will not be a place to sit down. But there is a friendly sign from which to take comfort: "Please do not reserve a table until you have come through the line. It will all work out. We promise." And actually, it does.

UPDATE ALREADY!

How can I be so synchronous with Trade Street Journal, which, just last night after I had written (but not posted) this, quoted such a pertinent passage by Epictetus?

"Think of your life as if it were a banquet where you would behave graciously. When dishes are passed to you, extend your hand and help yourself to a moderate portion. If a dish should pass you by, enjoy what is already on your plate. Or if the dish hasn’t been passed to you yet, patiently wait your turn.

Carry over this same attitude of polite restraint and gratitude to your children, spouse, career, and finances. There is no need to yearn, envy, and grab. You will get your rightful portion when it is your time."

I am somewhat frightened by such a coincidence, but perhaps kiasu (or its antidote) is in in the air.



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11 Comments:

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...

Human nature.

I take it you were playing for a converntion of bloggers.

 
At 10:45 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

I hope that when you got your scissors you didn't run with them. We all know what happens when you run with scissors.

 
At 12:54 PM, Anonymous veronica said...

It can feel other worldly to be in a synchronous space with the universe. I am feeling you're in a good space in life. namaste

 
At 1:24 PM, Blogger Square1 said...

Everybody has to be first. It is everywhere you look. I especially hate it while out driving though. I did not know this attitude had a word. Thank you for sharing.

 
At 4:21 PM, Anonymous colleen said...

Have you ever checked out the enneagram, a 9 personality type system that I think originally came from Sufism? It explained a lot for me. You could be a 5...the observer (lurker), thinker,sage. (It takes one to know one). Their world view is scarcity and yes, the 9 types each add to the whole of what makes humanity go on. Here's a link.
http://www.authenticenneagram.com/

 
At 8:58 PM, Blogger Jude Nagurney Camwell said...

Whoa..this is way too weird!

I came here on this particular day and read this - and I was the person who gave the "Trade Street Journal" author the book that inspired the quote! (Art of Living).

(insert Twilight Zone music here)

Meaningful coincidence?

 
At 9:03 PM, Blogger Jude Nagurney Camwell said...

Whoa! This is way too weird.

I happened to come here to read your blog on this particular day--

and I was the person who recently gave the book which contained the inspired quote to the "Trade Street Journal" author. (The Art of Living).

*insert Twilight Zone music here.

Meaningful coincidence?

 
At 9:06 PM, Blogger Jude Nagurney Camwell said...

Sorry that showed up twice - I had problems posting my comment on the blog - don't know why, but I thought you'd want to know.

 
At 12:04 AM, Blogger kenju said...

Don't be scared at the wonder of synchronicity - be At one with it!

 
At 9:20 PM, Blogger anonyMoses said...

Synchrofreakinicity!

To find someone talking about the enneagram only makes the moment more rich! I found the enneagram through Gurdjieff, who certainly had Sufic instruction and leanings.
Seems I was a 9 a 7 or a 3. I forget now. But would recommend "Meetings with Remarkable Men", the book or the film -- as they both discuss the historical importance of the ancient enneagram.

I love a brainy blog!
Good folks here...

All the best,
Dave

 
At 2:40 PM, Blogger Ron Hudson said...

Thank you for your lovely comment about my poetry translation. As usual, I am moved by your writing once again.

There is a concept that must have a similar root to "kiasu" from Buddhist tradition. I think the term is "dukha" and it refers to the frustration that one feels when one has unmet expectations about a situation. In other words, the expectation that the brisket will be available has the potential for making one miserable if there is no brisket. According to this tradition, one should strive to live life as if any brisket one gets is a blessing and the rest "is gravy". I try and try to remind myself of this when my modem crashes or the traffic is bad and I go to my unhappy place. Twenty years in to HIV infection, ALL of life is gravy for me. And your writing is just the right spice to keep it tasty! Thank you!

 

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