It’s known as the chattering of sparrows, the sound the tiles make when you wash them on the table. With a good set, the rectangular tiles are cool and heavy in your hand and stack together with resonant clicks. The sparrows talk to one another for a few minutes until they are interrupted by the groans of a loser. Money is conceded, received, and a new ma’jiang [mahjong] game begins.
I always believed there was a huge entry barrier for ma’jiang. The game is not made for me, is not a part of my history, and who was going to expend the energy to explain it? I was aware of its ubiquity, of course. Living in Beijing I couldn’t ignore the scores of older Chinese men, pajama-clad, sitting on stools, tossing tiles between friends. I would pass them on the street, lazily curious, but ultimately accepting that I felt about ma’jiang the way I felt about bridge — it was a game consigned to a time and age that preceded me. But then one evening here in Xizhou, some friends suggested that my American colleague, May, and I join them for a few quick rounds before dinner.
It is an easy game and we learned quickly. Its closest Western equivalent is rummy, where the object of both games is to form sets of two or three in the same suit or family. There are countless variations of ma’jiang based on province and region, so although we live in Yunnan, we play by Sichuan rules (I’m compelled to note, there is more than one way to play Sichuanese ma’jiang depending on where in Sichuan you live). The game is transactional, rejecting and accepting new tiles until your set is complete. Ma’jiang is especially popular during the Chinese New Year when families come together to eat food, exchange gifts, and just see each other, sometimes the only time in the year that they can. In the beginning May and I played frenetically, texting friends most afternoons to gage interest in an evening game. And I exposed my inexperience as many novices do, asserting that the game was one of chance, not strategy. Overcome by hubris, I failed to acknowledge that if success was truly down to luck with the tiles, then how did my friend QY win every time we sat down to play?
She’s a skillful player, no doubt. But more importantly, she embodies what I most love about ma’jiang: its style. By the time I’ve finished turning my tiles over face-down, QY has already completed her double-stacked row, her piano fingers tapping the table as she waits patiently. We start the game and her back straightens, eyes cast down. The arc of her hand forms a ‘U’ as she picks up a tile using her thumb, forefinger, and middle finger. She needs only to contemplate her hand for a split second before she discards or accepts. When she sees that she can pick up a piece to complete a set of three, she speaks to no one in particular and breathes peng’ba, before knocking two tiles over with her middle finger and reveal her move. It’s a dagger to my gut. Before long she smiles, “zi’mo”. She takes her row of thirteen and they flip over in unison to reveal a winning hand. Her elegance and ruthlessness bring me back to the table every time. She’s only twenty-five, but we’ve started to call her auntie – “a’yi” because of her veteran style.
Having mastered the basics, May and I have decided to set clear goals for improvement, starting with developing speed. Ma’jiang can be a very quick game, with rounds taking as little as two minutes before a winner is declared. It takes a good deal of skill to consider your hand, determine a strategy, and match your opponent’s speed. Once we had started to gain a bit of speed, we wanted to make things a little bit more interesting. Our first betting round, each win or loss was worth 2 毛 ($0.07 USD). And finally, we re-watched that scene in Crazy Rich Asians where Rachel Chu forfeits a win against her potential mother-in-law in order to prove a point about honor. “Oh, yes”, we murmured to ourselves as the YouTube video played. “Yes, I totally see what she did there. Very clever”.
I owe a lot to this game. It has served as a vehicle with which to connect to local coworkers and people of an older generation. It’s brought me places I had previously considered inaccessible. On a work trip to Tengchong, a city about five hours south, I visited for an afternoon and evening at the home of a colleague. Two hours were spent shelling sunflower seeds until someone commented that they had a ma’jiang table in the back. With that, I had something in common with a rural Yunnan laborer who made a living making bricks his whole life. I marveled at his mechanical board. Tiles are tossed into a little black hole in the center and shuffled noisily in the belly of the table before they rise up before each player, neat and clean like bowling pins. Elon Musk who? My wig: snatched.
As all sports fans know, you need more than mileage under your belt when trying to improve your game. You need to go see the pros play. In a satisfying bout of role-reversal, May and I decided to, completely uninvited, walk up to some older locals playing a game in the Xizhou market to learn from their technique. This is not as rude as it may sound. Looking the way I do, there is not much I can do in public without attracting the attention of two or three older men. Whether I’m reading a book on a curb or petting a dog, they will saunter up to me and loom over my shoulder, contemplating my very mundane behavior. But with uncharacteristic audacity May and decided to leer over a stranger’s business instead, and by God, did we stare. We commented on their strategy, chatted with another nosy woman who had come to see what the fuss was all about, and comfortably settled into our roles in the peanut gallery.
For me, the ma’jiang rush isn’t about the winning or the meager betting pot – it’s the feeling of playing a game I’m not supposed to be good at. It gives me props with the local kitchen and serving staff. They ask about my games and laugh when I suggest we play together. It’s probably not advisable yet, I’d need to work up to that. They’re the big dogs and would not hesitate to destroy me. But I have a more elaborate endgame. When not living in a courtyard in rural China I live in a suburb outside of New York City which allows me to regularly enjoy the food and hybrid atmosphere of Chinatown. In a year or maybe two, I will stroll into Chinatown, specifically Columbus Park on the corner of Mulberry and Baxter St. I will walk past eighty-year old immigrants practicing taiji [Tai Chi]. I will sidestep the women square-dancing in unison to mid-tempo Shanghai hits, and I will walk up to the men in their pajama bottoms doling out tiles and ask for a stool.