The domino-shaped plastic tiles, yellowed from age, made clicking sounds as we arranged them in a square, rows of 18 on each side with two layers stacked on top of each other. The set of tiles came from eBay, the one hint of modernity in the story of an ancient game. Gail, our hostess, gave me a short explanation, “It’s like Rummy.” I took a few minutes to study the designs embedded in each tile: the numbers 1-9 with their Chinese characters, pieces of bamboo, colorful circles, flowers, winds from each direction, and red, green and white dragons. Our objective was to collect these so they formed three of a kind — a pong — or two of a kind — eyes. Starting a game involved several mysterious movements of the tiles, the reasons for which no one could explain. Mahjong’s origins are also a mystery, though there is no lack of stories about who or what gave birth to this game. The one thing everyone agrees on is that it came from China.
I had played one version of Mahjong once before, which was called the American version. Today’s version seemed less complicated with fewer new words to learn and was perfectly suited to the novice player.
There were three of us at the table, — Gail, Mini and me — (though four is typical), one each with family roots in Japan, India and Europe and none in China. Mahjong was a different world, one where some of the rules made no sense, but I didn’t care. I didn’t ask why the tiles contained these particular symbols and not others, or what pong meant and why we had to say it. Games were completed quickly with each of us winning several times. We laughed at our mistakes and each other’s. When a player wanted to take a discarded tile out of turn in order to complete a set, she was supposed to say “pong,” but I kept forgetting the word. Fortunately, the other players knew what I wanted when I moved my wrist in circles and pointed to the desired tile and they said “pong” for me.
Games aren’t something working people have much time to play and definitely not on a weekday afternoon. I felt fortunate to be in this place on this day and this afternoon examining my colorful tiles, playing this exotic game with agreeable companions, and forgetting everything, including the word “pong.”