When Life Makes You Cry Uncle

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, June 9, 2006

I am Bus Uncle, potentially, and so are you. Each of us has a tiny, raging Bus Uncle buried deep within, just waiting to burst free. One tap on the shoulder is all it takes.

For knowledgeable habitues of the Internet, this is old news. But for weeks "Bus Uncle" has been a must-see attraction on YouTube.com, one of the Web sites where users can post their homemade short videos. "Bus Uncle" is cinéma vérité, captured surreptitiously with a cellphone camera, and it consists wholly of a six-minute encounter between two passengers who shared a bus in Hong Kong on the evening of April 29.

Here's the back story: A middle-aged man has been barking into his cellphone loudly enough to disturb the young man sitting directly behind him. The young man has just tapped the older man on the shoulder to ask him to lower his voice, and the older man has turned to lean over the back of his seat and confront the young guy. That's the point at which the grainy video begins. The young man uses a Cantonese word that can mean "uncle" to address his elder, hence the video's title.

Bus Uncle goes off.

For five minutes and 59 seconds, Bus Uncle rants, rages, berates, upbraids, taunts, curses and threatens. "Why did you pat on my shoulder?" he demands. "Why should you do that? Hey, everybody has pressure. Did I touch you?"

(By now there are dozens of versions of the video on various Web sites, with subtitles in English; some translations have the young man calling his tormentor "boss," but all are titled "Bus Uncle.") The young man quickly decides forbearance is the way to play this scene, but his patience does him no good. When Bus Uncle demands he apologize, the young man says, "Sorry." But Bus Uncle is unmollified: "Why? I didn't disturb you, am I correct?"

The younger guy apologizes again, shakes hands, does everything he can think of to get Bus Uncle to chill, but to no avail. The older man's harangue becomes more and more profane, escalating into "yo' mama" territory. Throughout, Bus Uncle keeps circling back to two main themes -- "This is not solved!" and "I face pressure. You face pressure. Why do you provoke me?" According to the South China Morning Post, both have become catchphrases in Hong Kong, where "Bus Uncle" became an immediate sensation.

Like all great films, this one has a perfect conclusion. Just when you start to think there's no way the encounter can end without an actual fight, Bus Uncle's cellphone rings. "Damn," he mutters, as he abruptly turns away to answer it.

Soon after the video was posted, reporters tracked down the two stars: Elvis Ho, a 23-year-old real estate agent, and, in the title role, 51-year-old Chan Yuet-tung, also known as Roger Chan, a gadfly who ran for the office of Hong Kong chief executive three times despite lacking a discernible political constituency. Chan is now basking in his new celebrity. Ho just wishes the whole "Bus Uncle" thing would go away.

And of course it will. Internet sensations have a brief shelf life, and "Bus Uncle" doesn't stand up to repeated viewings. It does make a couple of extremely valuable observations about modern urban life, though.

For one thing, Bus Uncle speaks an unassailable truth: "I face pressure. You face pressure." We all face pressures at work and at home. We all have deadlines to meet and bills to pay. We handle our pressures because that's what being an adult is largely about, managing pressures so they don't end up managing us. But we all have those days, don't we, when it feels like a losing battle.

And then all it takes is an innocent tap on the shoulder at just the wrong moment. I'm not talking about "intermittent explosive disorder," which is the clinical term that encompasses road rage. That's an actual condition that can be treated with therapy and medication. I'm talking about that rare instant when someone inadvertently touches your very last nerve, and Bus Uncle escapes his restraints.

The other lesson from "Bus Uncle" is taught by its very existence. A student sitting across the aisle happened to see the confrontation and decided to record it with the camera in his cellphone, which was able to take still pictures or video. It's amazing that in nanoseconds, a slice of Hong Kong life can be experienced in Washington, Johannesburg or Moscow.

The ubiquity of feature-packed mobile phones and stationary security cameras means that everybody's always potentially on Candid Camera. So don't forget to smile.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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