Have you ever heard of a Chinese fire drill? If not, maybe you’ve seen one take place and not even known it. A Chinese fire drill is when a car stops (like at a red light or stop sign) and everyone in the car gets out, runs around the car, gets back in, and continues on their way. Now that you know what a Chinese fire drill is, you’re probably wondering: why on earth would anyone do that, and why is it called a Chinese fire drill?
The first part of the term “Chinese fire drill” comes from the derogatory practice of labeling a disorienting, confusing, or poorly organized event or happening as “Chinese.” The use of the term “Chinese” in this way may date as far back as early meetings between Westerners and Easterners, but the first well-known usage comes from World War I. During this period, British fighting men would label anything inept or confusing as “Chinese”: “Chinese aces” were bad pilots, “Chinese landings” could mean a crash or a bumpy landing, and a “Chinese fire drill” was a way to describe any situation that didn’t make sense.
While it’s not very clear how the phrase “Chinese fire drill” actually came into existence, it may be linked to a fire drill that failed epically in the 20th century on a British battleship. According to legend, the ship was manned mostly by Chinese crewmen acting under British officials. When the British officers attempted to go over the protocol for dealing with a fire in the engine room. One crew was delegated to gathering water from the side of the ship, bringing it to the site of the fire and dumping it. Another crew was supposed to gather up the dumped water and toss it back over the opposite side of the ship. However, this system fell apart at some point during the routine as communication broke down, and the crew eventually just began drawing water and immediately dumping it off the other side without ever making it to the engine room, where the imaginary fire was.
The phrase made its way to America when American soldiers and British soldiers fought beside each other, and at some point it became synonymous with the wacky car game sometime in the 1970’s. As to why people engage in Chinese fire drills, why not try it out yourself and see what all the fuss is about?