Who doesn’t know bingo? But this word is known to Chinese as an English idiom—an exclamation of sudden realization about something right. Few English learners in China would know bingo was originated from a game of chance.

A few weeks ago I participated in a local bingo game for the first time. It was held in a firehouse canteen that could take up a hundred or so people. There—surrounded by dozens of participants, mostly women—not only did I get a gist of the game, but I had also tried my patience to sit in the intense vibes for a good three hours. Two women in their mid-fifties sitting next to my table were kind enough to give me prompts before every game.

An emcee sat in the center of the room, manipulating a lottery-like machine which picks a ball marked with a number from an air-swirling pool. He then placed the selected ball in front of the camera and announced the number twice. On four sides of the room were electronic boards and TV screens keeping pace with the announcer.

It turns out bingo is more complicated than I thought, simply because there are a number of winning patterns for each game—aside from the traditional patterns that five matched numbers in a row horizontally, vertically or diagonally, some games require a pattern of “No Free Space,” or “Inside Picture Frame,” or “Crazy Kite” and more. The names of the pattern were as bizarre as the patterns to me. I had to refer to a chart for every game. I felt like a first-grader reacquainting with numbers in a five-by-five box. The tension grew after a series of numbers were announced and nobody yelled “bingo!”

Some veteran players bought at least half a dozen cards. They deftly crossed the selected numbers on all of them. Simultaneously, they checked the electronic bingo in front of them. The key to success is the more you bet, the more likely you will win. I might have been the youngest participant but I was far from the most adventurous or the most multi-tasking. Embarrassingly, after half of the game, I had already grown too tired to follow the numbers. A few times I missed the called numbers. No way could I get the hang of it, I said to myself.

At hearing people shouting “bingo” at the top of their lungs, I finally witnessed how the word “bingo” originally, unmistakenly, and musically conveys the very excitement of sudden realization and surprise. Just the sound of it had made me amp up more anticipation for my next game.


Filed under: Prose, Songyi Zhang's America