Mahjong [Má Jiàng]
Updated: Feb 23
They look good enough to eat. Rich, cream tiles with a thin strip of green lining their bottoms—the
fine layer of matcha dusted on a mochi cake. They weigh heavy in my palm for such small tiles, and they feel cold to the touch. When shuffled around, they click against one another, a symphony of ivory movement. The tiles have different inscriptions for the three suits of the game: tóng, wàn, tiáo.
Tóng curves like rounded cuts of jade that hang from thin, red thread around necks.
Wàn drips like the neon letters that light up Shanghai nights from the inside-out.
Tiáo grows like the bamboo that shoots up from behind apartment complexes, too eager for air.
These symbols are engraved and inked into each surface; I remember how it feels to trace the subtle dips in stone with my fingertips.
I am nine years old, and my grandparents and I arrive at a park in Szechuan.
The acrid smell of cigarettes drenches the sticky, May air. There’s nearly no escape for this scent or
humidity in China during this time of year, but I find solace in the flowers that dot the surrounding structures
and the gentle waves of floral perfume that occasionally waft by. My grandpa, my yéyé, leads me to the shade under a large pavilion, where several of his friends and a few strangers are sitting at a square table, shuffling unfamiliar tiles. Yéyé introduces me, and they smile down at my timid, nine-year-old frame—genial, toothy smiles that seem to be solely reserved for people past the age of seventy five.
“Xiǎo gū niáng,” they call me.
I dislike this nickname, though I know it’s a common way to refer to young girls in Chinese culture. Something about it feels condescending to my defensive, elementary mind.
I watch their hands with fascination. You can tell a lot about a person from their hands. I wonder what
stories hide in the ripples that meet at their knuckles, the sunspots scattered across their skin, the callouses that settle on their fingertips. They begin arranging the tiles into neat stacks: seventeen long, two high. Their hands are deft, their movements precise—clicking the tiles together as though ivory were magnetic, like this was merely second nature. Magic.
Yéyé taught me how to play mahjong. The rules to the game are simple enough—the first to attain four
sets and one pair win—but its strategy bears the fruits of generational wisdom, sentiments that my yéyé
explained to me in his steady tone as we sat around the square table.
Jia Jia, you must look for patterns.
Be attentive. Notice which tiles are being discarded. Watch carefully. Notice the bowls of peeled apple
slices on the kitchen counter. The new blankets wrapped around you when you wake up. The dictionaries and pages of translations that lay on his desk.
You must have patience.
Haste will not serve you. Do not rush your movements. Be patient with the game. Wait for others. Be
patient with your family. They were not born under purple mountain majesties. Be patient with the sand that
coats your own Mandarin tongue.
You must have a plan.
Each move should be intentional. Never pick up a tile for the sake of it. Focus on your hand, on the
details. Focus on supermarket bags that balloon from bins, white tissue inked with red. On the static silence that hangs between phone calls. Focus on the midnight crescents below his eyes—we carry the weight of two worlds.
"Mahjong [má jiàng]" explores my relationship with my grandfather and my culture as a whole. My story speaks for those of us who fall in between--between cultures, between tongues, between worlds.
Sabrina Mei is a junior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, MD. Her work has previously been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, John Hopkins University, Montpelier Arts Center, the Yellow Barn Studio, the Gaithersburg Book Festival, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival. In her spare time, she enjoys rereading Sherlock Holmes and watching an objectively excessive amount of cooking videos.