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How well do you know your grandparents?
From sharing meals at birthdays or exchanging red envelopes at Lunar New Year, you gather enough pieces … but can you recall the details? What about their pet peeves, old pastimes or the games they enjoyed in their youth? As a Canadian-born Chinese, English was the main language I used at home and so I often struggled to communicate with my grandparents growing up. It’s impossible to ask detailed questions when you can only scrape by with broken Cantonese; sometimes I felt that a closer and more intimate relationship was lost in translation.
The language barrier made it difficult for me to play mah-jong with my grandfather and it was a game my Yeh Yeh loved.
He had been playing mah-jong since he was 16. It is a game of luck, strategy and skill played with thick green tiles, each tile being a little larger than a domino piece. The objective is to build a hand of different combinations before anyone else. The more complex your hand is, the more points you score, and by extension, the more playing chips (or money) you can win. This is a gambling game, after all.
When I was younger, I’d often see him tie up his shoelaces, slip on his coat and announce that he was off to meet with his friends for a few rounds of mah-jong. The following morning, Yeh Yeh often strolled into the kitchen and eagerly recounted how well he’d played. But when he was less lucky, I heard him tread to the mah-jong table and quietly review his hand from the night before. Whenever I saw his head propped up by his arm and his brows deeply furrowed, I knew the tiles had his undivided attention.
Back then, I never understood the source of his pride whenever he won, or his disappointment when he’d lost. I was doubtful that a game like mah-jong would ever pique my interest; perhaps I was too young to understand the appeal. The game play looked too complex – keep the tiles shuffled in disarray but be meticulous when you count them; draw your tiles from the right but take your turn following the person on your left; stack your tiles in rows of 18, but only grab them in sections of four – and don’t forget to roll the dice!
Rather than learning what any of these actions meant, as a youngster, I found entertainment in using these tiles to create towers and build walls or other structures. I paid no attention to the characters and symbols on each tile; I just needed them to create something decorative and beautiful.
Typically, when I finished building something of my own, Yeh Yeh would glimpse at what I’d built with his tiles. He’d crack a smile as I proudly revealed my new creation, or to my dismay, when he needed to practice or study his old hands, he’d take them apart and flip the pieces up to analyze different combinations. My magnificent cities would be demolished and the green tiles were once again shuffled, stacked and organized in variations that my 10-year-old self could never comprehend.
This Lunar New Year, over a decade later, I learned how to play mah-jong. I can proudly say that my perspective of the game has surpassed what I once considered Lego for dummies.
Just as I watched my grandfather play, I flip the tiles face up, review the characters and symbols on each piece and study the rules. To my delight, I thoroughly enjoy the game! Moments in my childhood that never made sense to me suddenly clicked into place; I went from questioning how a mere gambling game could hold someone’s undivided attention for so long, to exclaiming – who wouldn’t want to spend hours playing mah-jong? I could finally appreciate my Yeh Yeh’s appreciation for the game.
I have lost many rounds since I’ve learned. But I relish the giddy anticipation, followed by a thrill of excitement if I’m the first to slam my tiles on the table and beat my opponents. Using Yeh Yeh’s mah-jong set for its intended purpose was like unlocking a piece of him that I’d often overlooked – I can’t help but wonder if he’d felt all those things when he played, too.
And so, despite the scramble of Cantonese phrases and English words lost in translation, this game has divulged pieces of him that I once thought were gone, once he had gone.
There is not a game that goes by now where I don’t think about Yeh Yeh. Whether I’ve obnoxiously let the tiles clatter, begrudgingly lost all my playing chips or victoriously drawn a winning hand, I wish that we could play mah-jong together.
Giselle Quon lives in Vancouver.