When we were first living together, my now-husband and I played Gin Rummy while listening to podcasts after dinner. We were 20-somethings going on 80. If you’ve played Gin Rummy, you know that it’s a relatively calm game; it’s no Texas Hold’Em, with money or ego at stake. Mostly it’s a game of luck.
It was a nice way to unwind — until one fateful evening, when I discovered that he’d formed a new strategy of holding his matches before setting them down in one fell swoop, calling “Rummy!” before I noticed how many cards were left. I was convinced that this was not the way to play Gin Rummy. To me, this was deceptive. So I did what any normal, well-adjusted human being does. I scattered the cards with a sweep of my arm, upset the table, then stormed out of the house to start the car. Where was I going? I have no idea. To a land where people play card games fairly? I yelled, as I drove off, “I am never playing a game with you again, you cheater.” Make that 20-something going on 8.
We never did play Gin Rummy again. Even now, when I sit down to a board game, his eyes grow wary and he says, “We’re not keeping score, okay?”
I grew up in a household that not only encouraged competition, but demanded it. Like many immigrants, I was taught that there is no “good enough”; it’s “the best” and “everyone else.” I understand where this impulse stems from, of course. There is a scarcity mindset inherent in the American Dream: only the favored few can land at the top. And my family really, really wanted me to land at the top. It was their way of ensuring my future.
But as so many well-intentioned lessons go, this one became one of the more unfortunate demarcations of my identity. From a young age, I’d ask other kids about their grades, always comparing mine to theirs, deflated if someone scored even marginally higher than me. (Once, in high school, I snuck into the vice principal’s office to try to look at my classmates’ grade point averages, so I could secretly gloat. Yeah, I was a real charmer.) No one wanted to play games with me, obviously. Though I eventually learned to better mask my raging competitiveness, it still slumbered inside of me, a bear that growled through even the most innocuous of moments.
Then I had a kid. One of my latent fears was that I’d become that mom. You know the one: the braggart about her kids’ very advanced reading skills; the smug one whose children are always perfectly composed and never, ever forget to say thank you. The Best Mom. But when I saw my baby’s face, I knew there was no comparing her to anyone at all. I saw, for the first time, how very unique a person can be, and how sometimes love can exist in an absolute vacuum. I didn’t need for her — or me — to be the best. I wasn’t going to hold another person against her. We were already the best for each other.
My contentment was short-lived, since, to my unending surprise, my usually sweet and considerate daughter also seemed to have a slumbering bear of competitiveness inside of her. Not so slumbering, actually.
Last month, her school held a contest where the kids would write all the books they read for a week on strips of paper that they’d then glue together, into a long chain. Whoever had the longest chain would win bragging rights and some free Happy Meal toy that the kids coveted like the Holy Grail itself. My daughter likes reading, so I knew she’d be excited about the challenge. What I didn’t predict? The predatory gleam in her brown eyes.
She hissed, “I will beat them all.”
I stopped in my tracks, a little scared and feeling a telltale tingle of deja vu. “Or, you know, we could just have fun and not think about winning!”
She shook her head with the solemnity of Rocky Balboa entering the ring. “What’s the point if I don’t win?”
I promise you I did not instill this competitive streak in my child, at least not consciously. We play cooperative board games; we team up and cheer for each other. I try very hard to avoid comparing anyone in her presence. In this particular contest, too, I was keenly aware of the disadvantages some kids might face with parents who may not have the time to read aloud, or the resources to make books available in the home. Such is the case with so many of the contests of life, especially the invisible ones where the prize is a gleaming future of prosperity. Privilege gives you a head start. I didn’t want my daughter assigning herself value — or assigning value to others — on contests that are at least partially arbitrary.
For the next few days, I tiptoed around, trying to coax her into lightheartedness about the reading chain, with the age-old proclamation, “It’s just for fun!” And every time, she shut me down with a thunderous lowering of the brows. It was a long week, y’all.
Then the day of judgment came. The chains were assembled and hung from the top of the wall. My daughter did not win, though hers was one of the longer chains. Her good friend Hamish won, and I’m told that they played together just fine after the competition. Later, at bedtime, I asked her about the contest and how it felt to take part in the contest. I avoided the words “win” and “lose.”
She was thoughtful. “It’s okay. Hamish read so much.”
All at once, she was back to her usual self, no death-gleam apparent in her eyes. I told her I was proud of her for trying her best. We snuggled down with a book, reading just for the fun of it.
There will be many moments of competition in her life, some subtle and some much heftier in importance. There will be more school contests and sports games. She’ll likely have to fight for entrance into a college or for a job. And her natural urge to try her hardest is not a bad thing, as long as it does not define her self-worth or cripple her relationships. The competitiveness my family instilled in me isn’t inherently a bad thing either. It’s related to determination and ambition, along with an immigrant’s will to thrive in an unfamiliar place. The real challenge? Learning how to sit out of some contests; to gracefully decline to be compared. After all, my daughter is incomparable. So am I. And so are we all.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.