Mahjong with my ā gōng

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All I’m waiting for is one last tile –– a feeling that’s ever so familiar for many a Mahjong player. Just one last bai ban, or “white dragon,” is enough to make my hand a winning trifecta: three chows, a pair and a pung. 

As I gently draw from the smooth wall of newly polished blocks, I take a silent breath. “Please be a bai ban,” I think to myself. “Please be a bai ban.” 

I turn it over. 

It’s a xi feng, or west wind. No use to me.

I discard the xi feng to a pile in the middle of the table. My “ā gōng,” or grandfather, cracks a smile and reaches for the treasure. He’s won the game off of my toss.

“Mahjong,” he says. 

That game was played a little more than five years ago, but I remember it vividly. In a cozy apartment in the heart of Taipei, Taiwan, I sat beside my older brother and paternal grandfather. It was one of the first times I had ever played Mahjong and one of the last cherished memories I have with my ā gōng.

Growing up, I took notice of the respect many had for my grandfather. I didn’t exactly understand why, but I was taught to hold the same kind of reverence for him. It wasn’t until I was about 10 years old that I understood the storied legacy behind Dr. Ching-Piao Chien. 

An accomplished professor emeritus at UCLA and former director of Taipei City Psychiatric Center, my ā gōng carried himself with a perpetually professional demeanor. Exuding nothing but confidence and pure intelligence, he could instantly command the attention of any room.

In a way, this complicated the dynamic between me and my grandfather. As a young kid who wished to be left in solitude to play Pokemon on my Nintendo DSi, I could never quite connect with him. Meanwhile, my older brother –– who was far more eager to read a book than I was at any age –– managed to keep up with the sophisticated conversations our ā gōng would routinely initiate. 

It was a kind of imbalance that bothered me as I grew older. Though subtle, I felt as though my ā gōng also had his favorites in the family. The eldest sons and grandsons were, at times, granted more praise or gifts than their younger counterparts –– an archaic way of hierarchical thinking that continues to guide the principles of many traditional East Asian households. 

As it turned out, however, such favoritism was not totally the case. 

When my ā gōng first offered to teach me and my brother how to play Mahjong, I was admittedly a bit confused. From the foreign characters to the rules of the game, it took a while for me to get my bearings. My lack of knowledge of basic Chinese words also didn’t help. But instead of showing frustration, my ā gōng was at peace.

As I quickly found out, Mahjong is nothing more than a game of luck. There is no possible way for a player to gain an unfair advantage right from the outset: A random arrangement of tiles is what ultimately determines the winner. As such, my ā gōng treated all of us, including himself, as equals. 

It would be in this setting that I finally opened up to my ā gōng. 

While we played, he became something of a confidant. Though I still carried the same respect for him as I did before, I didn’t feel intimidated to share my vulnerabilities — personal insecurities, life interests and career goals (or lack thereof). 

He’d listen to my rants, respond, then drop a tile into the “trash pile.” In between turns, he’d share with me a life lesson. And when I attempted to read the characters on the faces of the tiles, he encouraged me with words of affirmation, no matter how botched my pronunciation (which was probably more times than not).

When teaching me and my brother the rules of the game, our ā gōng was especially patient. At the Mahjong table, none of us were in a rush. There was no pressure to learn or finish the game quickly; in fact, it was just the opposite. More gameplay meant more time spent together. 

It was a chance for my ā gōng to connect with his two grandsons and, if only fleetingly, escape the difficult realities of his life. Paralyzed from the waist down, my grandfather’s post-retirement routine consisted of only a few recreational activities: watching TV, holding conversations with others and playing Mahjong. By playing his favorite tile game with my brother and I, he could appreciate two of the three. 

At times, I still reflect on the formative memories of playing Mahjong with my brother and our ā gōng. Regardless of the outcomes, it was through these games that I learned to truly enjoy my grandfather’s company. Despite the perceived faults in our relationship, I realized my ā gōng valued my presence as much as I did his. And for that opportunity, I am forever grateful.

Ryan Chien is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].