My grandmother is an avid gambler. Multiple times a week, for hours at a time.
She only started about two years ago, when Mah-Jong Fridays stopped being a thing. My mum says it’s good for warding off dementia, and everyone in my family says the same thing. We usually tack on the medical reason when people inquire why she so frequently visits TAB so that they don’t think she is a problem gambler.
Because she’s not. As soon as she loses twenty bucks, she doesn’t go back for a month. But in the same way Mah-Jong is as much a game of skill as it is a game of luck, betting on races—whether that be horses, dogs, anything that moves (she doesn’t discriminate)—requires a level of understanding. Strangely, it requires commitment. We can’t forget to bring her the race pages, or she won’t know the odds. No one even knows how she understands them, considering she can’t read or speak much English.
But somehow, she usually gets it right. I can tell when I pick her up if she’s won, because the smile that she wears is the same one that appears as when my father attempts to sound authentic when pronouncing Chinese dishes. Elated, she sometimes buys me something to eat if the winning’s big enough, something to chomp on as we both wait for my mother to finish work.
åBetween bites, she fills in the time by describing how happy she is, or by remarking on her old age or the weather in broken English. We revisit these topics often because she knows the vocabulary for them, and because I speak no Cantonese. The blanks are filled in with charades and a complex system of gesticulation.
My grandmothers’ gambling friends tell me I should learn Cantonese, though. They go as often as my grandmother does, wearing the same unconscious uniform of a bomber jacket with the optional cane. In what appears to be a state of meditation, they watch the screens intently from the front table. Silently scribbling down the necessary figures, they break the silence only when a win appears, or if someone’s daughter/son/ granddaughter/grandson appears to pick them up and ferry them home.
Chinese dramas can only provide so much entertainment. I’m seeing my grandmother tomorrow. She hasn’t gone back to TAB since a loss two weeks ago, so I’m expecting a comeback.