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Top image: Silverkris

I used to hate chope-ing.

I was once that guy who would show up to a Food Junction at 12:30 PM everyday, only to realise tables were already tagged by packets of tissue paper. Left with nowhere to sit, I would just grumble to myself about how society is going to shit and that this is why COE prices keep going up.

Then one day, I arrived at my favourite nasi padang spot with a colleague. There was already a queue, and only a single table for two remained. Quick as lightning, she slammed her 2L water bottle down on it, and we proceeded to join the queue, relieved and victorious.

In that moment, I understood. My eyes opened and I realised, “This is why we do it.”

The thing about chope-ing is, whether we love it or hate it depends entirely on whether we come out as winners or losers. If you’re the one who got the table, it’s great. If not, it sucks.

But that day, as I shovelled rendang into my mouth, I also came to the conclusion that chope-ing exists for a different, more important reason: it teaches us all the life lessons we should have learnt in school but for some reason or other, never did.

1. WE DON’T LIVE IN AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY WORLD.

This is the basic premise of how everything works. Unlike what we’ve been told countless times in school, none of us are special, and none of us are entitled to what we think we deserve.

Remember how our parents would say that we could be anything or anyone we wanted to be? That was a lie.

And this is the lesson that the choped tables in crowded hawker centres teach us everyday—that disappointment and missed opportunities are part of everyday life.

Besides, no matter where you go, there will always be someone smarter, someone more socially adept, or someone more privileged than you. Sometimes, these people beat you to what you want, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

As with chope-ing, other people are often faster, earlier, or they arrive in bigger groups. We can embrace it, or we can be a bitch about it.

2. IN LIFE, YOU CAN ALWAYS WAIT OR TRY AGAIN.

The one thing people don’t seem to get when they see that seats have been choped—and I completely understand, it’s hard to think logically when you’ve had a long morning and you’re hungry and really want your bak chor mee—is that when a seat is “reserved”, you’re not being deprived of it. You just have to wait for it to be vacated again.

With the current “system”, anyone who realises a hawker centre is packed has one of two options. They can wait, or they can eat somewhere else.

Three other important sub-lessons here: patience, waiting your turn, and learning to look out for the right opportunities.

This what we don’t learn in school: the fact that you’re not always going to get what you want when you want it, but if you’re willing to wait, the payoff is usually pretty good.

3. LEARN TO PICK YOUR BATTLES.

Chope-ing isn’t always straightforward. Sometimes, you get one idiot at a table reserving spots for 7 others. Or one packet of tissue paper straddling the crack that separates two tables.

Some have suggested that in such situations, you should just take the table.

But while you might think that others will be afraid to respond to a challenge, what if they are? What if the other guy just found out that his mother has cancer, his girlfriend cheated on him, and his cat ran away? Are you really going to pick a fight with him?

This isn’t about having a defeatist or non-confrontational attitude. It’s about understanding that some things aren’t worth fighting for. It’s a lesson more people could learn. Unfortunately, this too isn’t something our education system has taught us. 

These lessons can be pretty harsh. But it’s not as though our chope culture produces no winners. If you, like me, eventually accept that this is the game we all have to play, then much like how life works, it gets easier. You learn that when it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad, it’s not really that bad.  

In any case, we live in a country where an entire Presidential Election was just reserved for one race. How can we reasonably argue that chope-ing is not in our blood?

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