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Indelible lessons and flashbacks from a game

Mahjong. Learning it was an adventure. More than that, it was humbling. Totally ignorant of the game, I was, however, very curious. Mustering patience and genuine interest, I listened to instructions from a Chinese friend who quite obviously struggled to find words to explain the game’s basic steps, nuances and intricacies. While I kept in rein the nasty urge to fill in the gaps in his pauses as he searched for right words, I admit, I was more engrossed in my fascination with the sparkly heavy cubes teal-colored on the top, creamy white on two narrow sides, and with images and characters distinctly embossed on the main surface.

Others in the group attempted to translate my teacher’s instructions, but I wasn’t lost in the translation. Guess what, I quickly learned the play!

As in learning other things, I adopted the technique of association – for example, the hut with bars for number 5, the star for number 6, the crossed bar with a tail to the right for number 7, the hat for number 8, the character that I couldn’t associate with anything for no. 9. That worked for me. I learned that four in a match were worth more than three in a series – unless the series was the whole suit of nine tiles. Best of all, I learned to be humble among players who knew much more than I did and who all enthusiastically contributed to my “education”. I learned to be quiet as I listened – a real feat, huh?

Let me emphasize, however, that my quest to learn mahjong was mainly for “education” and fun – definitely not to gamble. No exchange of money at all at the game table. Just cheers and victorious yelps, or exaggerated grunts especially from me who aimed to beat my seasoned co-players. But I won once – and that was good enough for me.

Before my learning session last week, I had never played mahjong. Never even touched the polished glittering tiles with their mysterious sheen and strange appeal. But I recall the metallic shuffling clinks of tiles moved and messed around before the start of every game. In my youth, I had seen my Lola, her sisters and their friends play the game till the wee hours of the morning. I marveled at the magnetic pull that drew them to the mahjong table where they devoted tedious but happy hours after dinner many evenings each week. They bet with low denominations of coins, and I can still hear the rousing sounds of juggling coins in small cans carried to the game table. But notably, I especially was intrigued by the social dynamics that brewed among the players who interchanged stories as they focused on their moves.

During that night of my “education” on mahjong, I thought of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club published in 1989, a delightfully gripping novel revolved around four adult women sharing stories and commiserating about their children and families, as they hovered over the mahjong table. Mahjong was the prop; the game was backdrop for the masterful weaving of tales intertwined in the eclectic drama of love, relationships, ambition and loyalties. A very clever use of mahjong in this powerful saga rich in cultural allusions. Then my mind turned back to my Lola, her sisters and friends, and realized that while mahjong was the vortex of their activity – the intimate social chat was the magnetism of the draw. Then, I understood why they repeatedly gathered to play – it really wasn’t for the coins, not even for the excitement of winning or losing – it really was for the sharing of lives interwoven in relationships and affiliations and friendships.

I learned mahjong that night with some nostalgia. I really don’t know why. Maybe because in my youth I witnessed a game where competitive spirit inspired warm relationships, not resentment or ire (though a bit of playful revenge perhaps, to get back lost coins – at times I was the beneficiary of my Lola’s regained coins). Maybe because I remembered my loving grandparents and grand aunts who frequented the game table with such cheer and enthusiasm.

Maybe because mahjong brought happy memories of my youth — in a culture and time where family was always the center of existence after God.

(P.S. – Thank God I feel no urge to gamble – but I had a lot of fun learning mahjong, with indelible lessons to boot.)

Linda P. Jacob

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