As if “en hommage” to its colonial roots, the English lexicon poaches (pardon me, “borrows”) linguistic labor rather liberally — anything that evades expression in English is imported from foreign tongues.
Amidst the dainty, continental romance of “frisson” and “élan,” it is no surprise that less glamorous lexical immigrants fly under the radar. One in particular, though, is worth keeping an eye on. He has quite the story.
On this balmy autumn afternoon, somewhere near the front of the customs line at JFK (but only because he reserved an aisle seat, preshipped his luggage and cut the line, mumbling a technicality) stands Kiasu, F-1 student visa in one hand, assiduously highlighted Blue Book in the other, wearing a look of unmistakable trepidation. Kiasu starts at “Yale” in the fall. It’s not quite MIT, but his family knows “Yale” — that’s a big thing for him. You know how it is.
Kia. Su. Hokkien for “afraid to lose,” the deeper significance of Kiasu’s name is interpreted variably. To an Oxford classicist, his name projects a “grasping, selfish attitude”; to his friends back home in Singapore, his name epitomizes the sedulous prowl of his own local ‘tiger’ mother as she ferried him from one tutor to the next.
As the formula dictates, his life at 10 was the perfect alchemical intertwining of piano lessons, swimming, chess and playground curfew: the idyllic Singaporean upbringing. Kiasu was about sacrifice but not triumph; the magnitude of his commitment was that of an aspiring grandmaster or a Phelps, but he did the smart thing and spread it across disciplines. Obviously. He didn’t watch TV, listen to Green Day or burden himself with helping out at the Salvation Army (not yet, anyway, not until they needed each other). Few could deny it — the textbook-mandated activities bode well for his transition to MIT. If this wasn’t plenty, his commitment to them was insured by the threat of ignominy, because to waver would mean that he ended up at a “liberal arts” school. His neighbors told him they wouldn’t have math there. Imagine that.
On he went, Kiasu was all about lateral displacement. He did enough not only to upstage his immediate competition but to discourage them from the audacity of taking part again; at 18, he gamed the system and shook it down for every last 50-character title and leadership role it had. He would never think to lie, but as exemplified by the Salvation Army saleschildren he now assisted, there was both art and science in marketing: He had a product to sell and a vicarious audience to satisfy with his profits.
He wasn’t alone. Growing up in Singapore, everyone has either known or been a Kiasu at some point. I was raised knowing how to detect it and sometimes even replicate it, whether on the squash court or in the grocery store; that’s how society operated, and no one wanted to be left behind. This attitude was, and is, unhealthy on its own — extrapolate it in such a way that it becomes entangled with toxic college-related stigmas and complete misinformation, and you have an endemic problem in the communal psyche. The U.S. is our Gatsby-esque green light and is often feared rather than understood: We’re trapped in a vicious feedback loop where we falsely project our own complexes onto a foreign system and perpetuate them in response.
Amidst my struggle to reconcile my starting point with my ulterior hopes, I realized what I sought from my future surroundings was a community where I could progress without worrying about where others stand. I’m still not quite sure I understand the magnitude of the place I now call home, but I can say with pride — “frisson,” if you will — that I’m about to meet droves of people who will turn my way and perception of life upside down while keeping me upright.
Kiasu certainly isn’t alone in that figurative customs line; pretty soon I’m going to line up behind him myself. I’ll be jet-lagged, tired and 20 hours from home, but unlike him, I’ll be smiling. In trying to distill my ideal community into a single word, I found that English worked just fine — I was looking for family, and I think I’ve found one at Yale.
Arinjay Singhai is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .