Mahjong Magic


Mahjong is one of my favorite games. I love holding the ivory-like tiles, weighted, smooth and cold, clutching them with my fingers. I love the sound of the tiles knocking together on the vinyl tablecloth. I love masterfully building a four walled structure at the beginning of each game. Well, I finally acquired my very own set as an engagement gift. Recently a friend of mine came over and together with my fiance, we taught each other to play mahjong using the manual that came with it and what we already knew. As we played until past 2am, it dawned on me that this game of tiles has sparked so much joy in my life.

I grew up in San Diego, watching my parents play mahjong on potluck weekends — which for my immigrant family, was basically every weekend. Multiple families would come over for lunch or we would go to theirs and bring over traditional hot Filipino dishes like sinigang, kare kare, or chicken adobo with rice, and it would feel like a really chill house party. If the dads showed up they’d be handling the grilling outside, drinking beers while fixing someone’s car in the garage. By the afternoon, if there was no inclination to sing karaoke, then someone would inevitably pull out their mahjong set. Then, my cousins and I would play on our own set in a separate room, mimicking our parents. Instead of beers and cigarettes, we’d have our sodas and red vines, a few baby cousins crawling among us along with the occasional dog wandering in. It was my very own tiny world, and I must have been 10 or 12 when I first started to play mahjong.

The magic of mahjong (I learned to pronounce it as muh djóng) is that no one knows what each player has to start with—which also means you don’t know how good your tiles are compared to the other players. If you’re a good tile counter, unlike me, you’d soon find out what people have in hand, according to what tiles they throw away. Instead of counting, I observed their behavior: the facial expressions each player made, or how they put down a tile or rearranged their tiles. I was lucky to grow up with an entertaining set of sisters and girl cousins who cracked me up. The game was dramatically funny as we mocked our parents as we played, usually based on their funny accents and strange commands: “Klose the kurTaynes!” “Open da lights!” Every now and then, a parent would drop in, eyeing us with playful suspicion, and as soon as the door closed again, we would laugh so hard.

I look back fondly on the tricks we used to play on each other, and I am reminded of a time so far removed from my current life in Brooklyn.

The purpose of the game of mahjong is to improve your hand, using the same amount of tiles you already have, not knowing what the other players have in hand. The improvement of your hand requires luck and taking risks. You have to be willing to let something go that no longer serves your hand. One in, one out. This can prove challenging when you think you’re trying to build a triple paired suit but an opportunity comes when you can build a flush instead. In both scenarios, they are good problems to have but you have to make a choice — otherwise the players get really pissed at you and tell you to “hurry up Jen! Jeez! You’re such a grandma!”

I have lost many times, but I have also won quite a few. Win or lose, the game of mahjong has brought me so much delight. As in life, winning usually involved taking risks, letting go, making the best out of what you already have, making strategic choices, and simply not trying to win by having fun with the people you love. In my childhood, I remember that my belly was full from gluttonous weekends, laughing until our stomachs hurt, while playing this ridiculously formal game of mahjong. 

Now who wants to play with me?