31 May 2011

Special Ks

Imagine it’s a Sunday afternoon in Singapore and you are with friends in a crowded dim sum restaurant. Servers in uniform walk about with steaming carts of food, round trays stacked with plates, and pitchers full of hot tea. It is a bright and busy place full of tempting smells, clanking dishes, and chatty diners.

Across the room you spy a cart girl exit the kitchen. Immediately, a table of 8 has her open the cart. Steam billows out as she places plates of succulent ear-shaped dumplings onto the table. Eyes are wide and smiles are broad at the 8-top. It’s as if the entire dining room has made note, because as she makes her way to you she stops at every table dolling out the plates. The cart of dumplings is sure to be empty by the time she arrives at your table, so one of your dining companions walks over to the cart girl and requests the dumplings before she has a chance to get to the table that is next up for service. Words of mild outrage are exchanged with the people at the table, but your friend doesn’t care. He walks back with a triumphant smile. He just took the last 3 plates from the cart.

Now, your table is piled high with empty plates, bowls, saucers and tea cups. You all are on the verge of a tryptophan coma when the head waiter presents the bill to your friend. He begins to tally the colored plates (each color represents a dollar amount), the glasses of tea and the specialty items made to order with the amount on the tab. He tries to remember who ate what and how many. It’s an unwritten rule to split the bill by the number of guests, but he doesn’t want to pay for food he didn’t consume. Before he can finish the calculations, another diner at the table takes the check from him and announces an even portion for all to pay.

Outside the restaurant, you say your goodbyes. Kissing friends’ cheeks and wishing them well, you wave them on their way. You are standing in the middle of the block and the parking lot is directly across the street. The road is empty and you cross. Not your friend; he only crosses at crosswalks. You watch as he strolls along the sidewalk until he reaches the zebra stripes. The little lighted man on the sign is red so he stands there. He looks both ways and sees that the road is empty, yet he remains standing on the corner. The signal turns from red to green. He crosses the street and walks to his car.

Is your friend being obstinate or ordinary? In the city-state it is a common social behavior and it has three names: kiasu, kiamsap and kiasi. The words are from an ancient Chinese dialect, Hokkien. Collectively, they can be loosely compared to the Western idiom, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Rather than staying in step with the neighbors, though, the 3Ks up the ante to “Getting your share of the Joneses.”

Kiasu, kiamsap, and kiasi are a state of mind. I learned about the 3Ks from a taxi driver. He told me that together they mean: a fear of death and losing out; the one with the most survives; impoverish others to prosper oneself. The Sunday dim sum with friends illustrates the definition of each K word. When your friend took the last plates of dumplings by nudging out the other table, that’s kiasu (afraid to lose out; overly competitive). By trying to tally the tab according to who ate what, your friend was exercising kiamsap (stingy; spend reluctantly). After you said your goodbyes and your friend crossed at the crosswalk rather than directly cross the street showed he was kiasi (afraid of dying; overly careful).

For the record, I do not believe that all the island-nation citizens live by the 3Ks. Far from it. However, I do have a better understanding when I see examples of it everyday. I no longer get angry when an old Singaporean elbows her way to the front of the queue only to discover that once I’m at the head, the ATM is suddenly out of order.

Ancient Chinese Secret!


  1. Nicely done! Very interesting and entertaining post.

  2. Love that!

    We are American expats. I'm ashamed ot say I've never eaten at the type of restaurant you described. YIKES!

    I better find one. I really do want to try out all the local cuisine before I leave.

    Anyway, just wanted to say hello.