“Do you know what we call this?”
“No. What do we call it, Dad?”
“We call it washing the tiles”
The first time I played mahjong, my father reminded me how young he was when he first learned.
“You know, our parents would go to the mahjong dens, and we would sit and watch behind them as they played. We were not allowed to play, so all we could do was watch. We picked up all our skill there. There were masters, we learned from them. We learned by watching.”
He’d been a street kid in Hong Kong with a keen eye, who learned to play because there wasn’t a lot to do back in the sixties. I was soft in comparison; university educated, a late sleeper with bags under my eyes from absent scrolling at night.
“You will get better when you play. Hurry up!”
We gambled with money from a pot. It all went back into circulation. Nothing was serious.
One day, my mum had expressed, at some half-way point between nostalgia and jest, that she longed to play mahjong with us sometime.
“It’s a family activity!” she insisted, “I just want to play, and spend time with us.”
Fortuitously, she received mahjong tiles for Christmas.
“How will we find a table?” She asked. A fair question.
My father asked for twenty minutes and came back with a table he had made by dismembering a couple of chairs, and then laying some thin cardboard over the back of one of them. He held the table together with lots of tape. He was resourceful like that. He was resourceful, like he needed to be. The kind of resourceful that doesn’t go away, no matter how comfortable your life eventually becomes.
The whole set up was interesting. It was just in a space between our kitchen, and our dining room – we had pulled some stools out, one to sit on and one to hold all our coins. Everyone surrounding each side – as you needed to; my mum reminded me, mahjong is possible with three players but it is not ideal. And they said it slightly differently too. Mah-jeung. I had always thought it was jong.
Washing the tiles, of course, was a communal shuffling of a deck of cards. The tiles were flat on the table, and everyone made large, circular motions, like the currents of a green-and-white ocean.
At some point, we decided enough was enough, and began making the rows of tiles from which the game would be played. Two rows of nine. Eighteen. You counted them out, slapped them against your side of the table and – hardest of all – lifted one row on top of the other.
See, you could tell my father learned his mahjong in the dens. It was from the way he held the tiles. Every time he would grab one, he would palm it, knock his hand on the table, and then show it to himself, just in front of his stomach. His hands were elegant. He played like he played for money.
My mum played like she had her mother over her shoulder. In every half-space of quiet during the game, she would say “Oh, your grandmother would not approve, if she saw me play! You know why?”
I entertained her. Why?
“Gambling. Mahjong is gambling. That’s why you don’t need skill to win. Of course, you do need to have skill, but there is also luck. You cannot control whether you have a good hand or not. But mahjong is about gambling.”
I nodded. Sure.
Unlike my parents, I played mahjong like a scavenger. I picked at the tiles like a vulture at carrion, all nails, and fingers. I squinted forensically at every tile, every symbol.
“Hurry up!”. Dad got frustrated over small things, like the expediency between rounds.
Two rows of nine. Eighteen. I had the largest hands in the family anyways, so I clasped each end. My thumbs wandered, unsure of location and decorum.
“You’re not pushing enough. With your fingers, you have to use your fifth fingers.”
I pushed, and the row of tiles snapped. Buckled, like a bridge with a weakness in the middle. The sound it made was that of ivory on ivory on wood and cardboard.
“Son is always bad at using his hands. Your hand-eye coordination is very poor. See, you have to hold the tiles and bring them over quickly.”
He said “hand-eye coordination” in English. To emphasise the point, I think.
“What’s the number?”
“No, did you forget how to count? It’s fourteen. Fourteen – who is the banker?”
The next time I played mahjong, I was with my girlfriend.
It was a deal that we’d struck. She brought me over to play the Vietnamese version of bingo – a loud, chaotic affair, with gambling, alcohol, and high spirits. We had all been sat on the floor, adults, and children alike. Parents guided their children’s’ hand, pointing eagerly to their sheets if a number was called. Notes of money were scattered around, carelessly under people’s kneecaps and feet.
“Should I do the numbers in Viet?” I asked – a half-joke.
“Oh, of course not! Don’t be silly.” She paused. “But it would be nice if you did call out the numbers. It shows you’re having fun.”
She was flushing, pink like the cruiser in her hand.
“Is your family okay?” she asked. “Have they gotten out yet?”
“They are. Some are in quarantining in Sydney right now, the others have gone to England. They will be out in a couple of days. They were lucky with England, they got accepted.”
“Yeah, it must be terrible, not being able to go back.” She turned to me. “I remember how much you said you wanted to take me to Hong Kong.”
“No longer on the cards, I guess.” All I could offer. “Wait, what just got played?”
Dad responded. I understood the first bit, but not the last bit. “Seven what?” He slapped me on the head. “Coin! Remember. This, coin.”
Mum laughed and pivoted.
“Anna, do you speak Vietnamese at home?”
“Yeah, I speak it at home.”
“Would you say you are fluent?”
“Yeah, so I went to Vietnamese school basically up until I was 15. My parents really stressed how important it was to learn your mother language. Like, I could go back to Vietnam to work there if I wanted to.”
“That’s very impressive!”
Anna turned to me. “Would you say you’re fluent?”
Cantonese wasn’t a second skin, more like a set of my dad’s old clothes. They didn’t really fit. The phrases and inflections seemed to tumble out, bowing their knees and tripping over their toes. I really wished that it would learn to walk someday, but they said it got harder to learn a language the older you were. Sometimes, I would hope that wasn’t true.
I would have said something – lied, probably – but Mum butted in. “I tell you a funny story. This is what we think. In a past life, in his previous life, he was white. When he was young, he was so difficult. Always temper tantrum, always crying, always on the floor. So picky too, never eating anything we make. And when we come to Australia, he gets better! His English has always been his first language. But he never speak Cantonese well.”
The table laughed. I smiled. Mum reached under the table and squeezed my thigh. Just a joke, la.
I was eager to move it along. “Seven coin, right? Anyone want it? Nope? Alright then, Anna’s next.”
The next time I played mahjong, I didn’t really want to. I had other plans.
“Mum is bored! Come play with us. Come, sit down.”
I was about to leave. Go out with some friends. It was the late afternoon – the light from the windows was mellowing, growing older.
“Hey, hey, wait a moment! I’m changing” I yelled back in their language. I quickly put on my pants and walked out of my room. They set up in the same space as they always did – four chairs pulled out from the dining table.
“I’m going out now. Getting some dinner.”
“Oh, just some people. You don’t know them. It’s okay, they’re fine, Mum.”
“You should have let me know earlier, la! We cooked dinner.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Now what will we do? Your sister is already out, and I thought you were staying.”
“Look, I’m sorry. One round, okay? Is that fine?”
Mum nodded. She looked sullen – just a bit of empty nest syndrome or whatever it was, I thought to myself. Mahjong wasn’t really the same game with three people. Mahjong wasn’t really the same game in one round.
“Just to let you know,” I forewarned “My Opal card ran out of money, so I’m using your one.” That was to Dad.
“Okay. What time is your train?”
“Okay. I will drive you to the station.”
I pulled out a chair and sat down. The wind was blowing east.
“Son, why do you never stay at home? You never stay, or take care of us”
“I have noticed that he doesn’t like to play mahjong that much.” That was my aunty. She had just gotten out of quarantine and had taken to the game quicky after only watching television for two weeks.
“No, no, I do!” I pleaded, trying to win the approval of someone, somewhere. “I do, it’s just I don’t play it all the time like you do. What makes you think I don’t like it anyway?”
“Well, you never want to play it with us!”
Mahjong, I told myself, was great. But I would sit at the table and listen to my family chat and bicker and exclaim with happiness when they got a good hand. And I would smile, listening and translating some things in real time, not catching everything, grasping, thinking. I would shake my legs and fidget with my tiles and imagine a world in theory where my parents and I understood each other to perfection. Where I loved the game. And I would almost cry.
“That’s so stupid Mum, what do you mean! Is this about me going out and seeing my friends? I’m allowed to have a life outside of staying at home, you know that right? You know, you can see your friends whenever you want to.”
She nodded, with the slightest of smiles. It was a nod that acknowledged the act, but not the fact. She had colleagues and family, but she didn’t grow up here. I probably shouldn’t have said stupid, either.
We washed the tiles, and the room was filled with sounds of clinking porcelain. As we made the rows, I counted in my head, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. I finished my section last.
Two rows of nine. I put my fingers on the first and pushed. I remembered to use my pinky fingers. Pressing in, I lifted the row.
The bridge collapsed.
“Are you serious? You play for so long, and you still don’t know how to pick up the tiles?”
I looked down. Hands went and placed the scattered tiles back in, something like a relief effort. My father reached over and placed my tiles on top of each other. His hands were forceful, and the sound of him smacking the tiles down made me flinch.
“Be quick, okay. I need to drive him to the station.”
On the train, I closed my eyes.
The sun was setting now, passing beneath the horizon. The inside of the train was awash with yellow, and orange. There were pools of light behind my eyelids.
I imagined the tiles in my hands. I imagined pushing as hard as I could.