Every month or so at school, we do something called an English Carnival. Parents sign up their kids for an afternoon of language based games with foreign teachers. The kids have little cards with a list of the games and they are herded from room to room to play. Each time they finish a game they get a sticker to put on their card. Once they finish all the games, they can exchange their completed cards for “cash”: paper money in denominations of yellow ones, green fives, and pink tens, printed in the United States of Mike English. They then take this cash and go shopping at tables set up chock full of kid goodies: candies, toys, and fun stationery. The idea is for them to practice more English, as in “How much is it?” “I want that one.” “Thank you” and so on. That almost never happens. By the time they get their money and it’s time to shop the scene turns into a frenzy. They all want to buy everything all at once. Hands everywhere, bills flying all over the place, like the Stinky Market in late afternoon minus the stink. Ok sometimes the funk might enter too.
The goodies are usually scotch taped to the “shop” tables but there’s never any need. One thing about Chinese kids: they never shoplift or try to buy something they don’t have enough cash for and sometimes even forget to wait for their change. Sure there are a few ingenious sparks who’ll try to work out some kind of deal if they’re a little short or tell you that you’re very beautiful (in English) if it means they’ll get a discount. For the most part though, they’re near-straight arrows with the minor crook that they have no concept of waiting their turn. Then again, interrupting is a national art form so who can blame them? Amidst this chaos, most of them deplete their funds in a very short time and trot off in glee. Then come the next wave of the new rich fresh from the bank and the cycle starts again. It goes without saying then, that if you’re among the last batch of kids to hit the store, you’re shit out of luck. Even with stocks being replenished after each rush, the good stuff goes fast. You have to settle for boring stuff, like rulers.
Sometimes though, you could be one of the early batch and still be doomed, in which case it’s your own fault. Such was the luck of one sorry kid yesterday. There’s always one of those. You see them with their cash clutched tight in their little hands, hovering up and down the tables. Batch after batch of kids comes, shops, and moves on but they’re still there, looking constipated because they can’t make up their minds about what to buy. They’ll pick up an Angry Birds notebook, or Dora eraser, or pack of bubble gum, turn it over in their hands once or twice, look at it, look at their cash, maybe ask for the price, then put it back down. They’re not up for any chitchat either. They’re dead serious. Eventually they’re forced to get something but they never look quite satisfied.
I didn’t even notice yesterday’s version of such a kid until at the very end, when what remained of the last batch was finishing up their shopping. But I took one look and I knew. He must have been there since “opening”. There was his little fist, clamped around the tens, fives, and singles just as they hand them out at the bank. Face tight, looking at what was left, which was a whole lotta empty table with a few rulers erasers and angry bird pens. His mom suggested the pens, which had whistles dangling from them. Myself and a Chinese teacher seconded her. They were pretty cool, just in. The boy’s face grew tighter still. He looked at the far end of the table. Erasers and colored paper. He started bawling, his entire body a pure, raw expression of bitter disappointment. To him it was a lost, irretrievable opportunity on the level of losing a loved one. He had hesitated too long. What was even sadder was that he continued to linger, looking at the same things over and over again, then going into another fit of misery.
I didn’t wait around to see the final outcome. The lesson is not a new one but I forget sometimes. I had been hemming and hawing over my travel options when I say “see you never” to this place in 8 weeks and 2 days. By h & h-ing I mean I was doing far too much mathematics (never my strong point) of ticket prices to the places I wanted to visit on the way out – Yunnan province, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia. Checking prices and weighing options in and of themselves are not unwise, but with the exchange rate being what it is, what I was doing was the equivalent of clutching paper money at a carnival. Maybe slightly higher quality paper money, maybe card stock, but still I was being a Scrooge in a place where I could afford to be an Oprah. Will I be financially skinned by the time it’s over? Not even close. But dammit I’ve earned it and if I’m going to be holding on to anything I want it to be for my dear life when I’m hanging out the side of some rickety train in a monsoon.