After Kristyna Ng immigrated to Canada as an eight-year-old from China, her drive to learn English had her poring over dictionaries and encyclopedias.
She also watched hours of Jeopardy!
Now, three decades later, she’s come face to face with her unwitting tutor. Not Merriam-Webster, but Alex Trebek.
“It really is coming full circle,” Ng says. “To be able to compete and represent Calgary, Alberta and Canada as a citizen — and to be on the same stage as Alex Trebek, a great Canadian — that is just something I could never imagine.”
Ng will join millions of viewers this week in watching her appearance on the famous game show. She can’t say how she did. The show’s producers are notoriously careful about leaks.
But what a journey.
Ng grew up in Victoria, B.C., after arriving from southern China in the late 1980s.
She knew little more than her A, B, Cs at first, but with the help of her elementary school teacher, Ng devoted herself to learning a new language and did so quickly. Television became a tool that helped sharpen her skills.
“Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! were the soundtrack of my life,” Ng says. “There was no YouTube. We had 13 channels. So every night I would practice. It’s almost like hangman for Wheel of Fortune. And then Jeopardy!, in terms of understanding what the clue was asking, and my ability to interpret and understand and … answer it correctly.”
The tough questions didn’t put her off.
“They were really hard at the beginning — probably getting zero correct,” she said. “As I watched it more and more every day, it became easier.”
She later earned a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Victoria. Today, Ng, who speaks three languages, is a corporate strategist in Calgary.
She met her husband, Ritchie, on a cruise in 2005 and it was he who first encouraged her to participate on cruise trivia teams.
Cruise trivia can be serious business but the couple have embraced the competition. They log their misses and study to shore up potential gaps. Their teams rarely lose.
It was on another cruise three years ago that Ng’s bid to appear on Jeopardy! began to percolate. A fellow trivia player had taken the show’s online test and got to the audition phase.
“He says you guys should try — you’re very good,” Ng says.
Their interest was piqued. Last April, her husband signed them both up for the online test.
“He actually had more confidence in me than I did,” she says.
Ng’s results earned her an invitation to a regional audition in Seattle last July where she was surrounded by software and computer engineers who worked for companies like Amazon and Microsoft.
Once home, Ng wasn’t sure what to expect. If you’ve done well enough, she says, you go into a contestant pool for 18 months. Only those chosen will ever get a call.
Then, in late October, a voice mail arrived: “This is Jeopardy!‘s contestant coordinator …”
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “The stars aligned.”
Ng and her husband flew to Los Angeles a couple of days before the show was filmed in December and sequestered themselves in their room to study. Finally, the big day arrived.
As she sat in a freezing studio and awaited for her turn, she tried to soak things in.
“Sitting on the stage and watching other contestants play really was a surreal experience — the lights, the sounds, seeing the clue board,” she says.
Meeting Trebek, though, was inspiring.
The 79-year-old Canadian TV personality has hosted Jeopardy! since 1984. Last year, he went public with his fight against Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Ng found Trebek to be genuine and humble, including his interactions with the fans who filled the studio. People earnestly wanted to know how he was feeling. He joked and said he was feeling well enough to climb up on his roof and clean the gutters.
“I’m very blessed and grateful to get this opportunity to be on the same stage,” she says. “Each contestant got to take a picture with Alex Trebek … and I will cherish that memory for many years to come.“
Indeed, she said just getting there was a “bucket list” experience.
“I had one goal: get on the show, click in once, get it right and get into Final Jeopardy — and everything else is a bonus,” she says. “Stay tuned.”