January 26, 2023

The Ex-Pat Life Series: Mahjong, it’s more than a game– the culture of connection

The Ex-Pat Life Series: Mahjong, it’s more than a game– the culture of connection

Happy (Chinese) New Year, to you all.

The year of the water rabbit represents a year of peaceful and patient energy. It is also considered to be the luckiest of all the Chinese horoscope animals. Over a period of fifteen days, families and friends get together and celebrations take place around horoscopes and customs.

I am reminded of our time living in Malaysia where there was a large Chinese community in the city of Kuala Lumpur. Outside of China, there couldn’t have been a more vibrant city at this time of year. Red was the prominent colour. Most decorations are red, and the sayings speak to fortune and happiness. Fresh flowers and kumquat trees may also decorate the homes. Chinese families fill red envelopes (some simple and some more intricately decorated) with clean, crisp bills to give to children and the elderly, symbolising good luck and wishes for the coming year. Everywhere we’d go in the city the streets would be alive with dancing and drums, people on stilts with big masks, lanterns, and new year banners. It was truly a feast for all the senses. It was a privilege to be invited to the homes of Chinese friends or to visit the wonderful town of Penang at this time of year.

The Majhong Community

In Qatar, where I reside (for now), I’m sure there are some celebrations in family homes but there’s nothing publicly visible. However, I am happy to return to my Mahjong community this morning, after the Christmas break. There will be, I’m sure, a nod to the Chinese culture and a sea of red clothing. That’s because, if you are fortunate enough to be a part of any ex-pat women’s group, be it for business or pleasure, you become aware of the myriad of different cultures that you are honoured to be surrounded by. I haven’t been a part of this group for long but the ladies I have played with thus far have been British, Scottish, South African, Australian, Korean, American, Brazilian, Chinese, and Indian.

When one makes moves around the world for work it’s relatively easy to find your tribe, if you have children of school age or younger. Certainly, in Qatar, it seems the country attracts families. In Malaysia too, although much more diverse and yet surprisingly fewer people. However, my story goes back to Zambia in 1990 when I was invited by a Russian lady to join a Mahjong group. Lusaka was much smaller, with fewer people and I wasn’t working. I also had no children. We were on an adventure “looking for treasure”, as Paulo Coelho wrote in the Alchemist, and we were embracing it all.

A Short History of Majhong

As far as I know, the game of Mahjong, dates back to the mid-1800s in Southern China, towards the end of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing Dynasty. The game rose to popularity during a time of adversity in China when there was much tragedy; China’s defeat in the first opium war, the Taiping Rebellion, and the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Mahjong spread like wildfire through the treaty ports that were opened due to the unfair Treaty of Nanking. People traveling through the ports would take the game back to their respective provinces, and before long, the game was being played by the wealthy, the poor, men, and women, all over the country. It was deemed to be a low-brow game, a waste of time played by ‘corrupt officials’. As the entrepreneurial Chinese travelled overseas and tourists visited China, both taking away Mahjong sets with them, the game become known internationally in countries like America and Japan.

The game became crucial to facilitating a sense of community in groups such as Chinese American immigrants as well as Jewish-American women too. In the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese Americans who were labelled as ‘perpetual foreigners’, by other Americans, found the sense of community they were searching for in Mahjong.

Mum and Babies Group

Back to my time in Zambia and I must have played regularly for three or four years, even after I had my babies. I even remember setting up a mum’s and babies’ Mahjong group, where the energy in the chosen games room (usually someone’s dining room and sitting room) was the polar opposite of the rather serious group where I had ‘cut my teeth’ with the very lovely, but focused, Olga and her friends. Both groups were fabulous. Both groups were serving a purpose for me in a new environment – the opportunity to meet like-minded people and feel safe, so far away from home.

Building Community – Wherever You Are

I was at a QPWN (Qatar Professional Women’s Network) event yesterday evening, where Jamila, a lady from the UK, came and joined my table. Jamilia was just a little older than I was when I set off on my ex-pat adventure and she had come to Qatar for her job role in HR. I felt both her confidence and her vulnerability. I wanted to give her a huge hug as she spoke about the all-so-familiar challenges and oddities around bringing three young children to such a culturally diverse land. Obviously, having had a vibrant social life in the UK up until August, she was feeling ‘alone’. I passed her as many contacts for groups here that she might dip into, and yet I began to realise how much more challenging it is for a woman, a mother of three young children (one with a serious illness), to be able to find her identity outside of work. I would have loved to have introduced her to our Mahjong group this morning but instead, I messaged her and asked for a meet-up so we can talk about how to help her find her tribe.

Mahjong groups around the world have been, and continue to be, a lifeline to many. My experience is that these groups transcend age. I was twenty-three when I first played the game. I am fifty-five now and find myself telling stories about the different approaches different cultures have to the game. I have shared tables with women of all ages – thirty to ninety, all with their own fascinating stories and most very willing to support and listen to those who are newly arrived in town and need a little extra help. It is, like our virtual groups, a connection, a community, and a place where women can talk about whatever it is they need to talk about or ask for advice.

For me, this very indulgent (that is my challenge) 3 hours on a Monday morning is an absolute necessity. I love the game, the sound of the tiles, the colours, the hands and the company. Most of us concentrate enough not to feel the necessity to talk about the troubles in the world, not because we don’t care, but because most of us want to appreciate the opportunity we have for this self-care, in this moment. It also forces me personally, to address my work-life balance. Sunday is a working day here in the Middle-East but, as many of my clients are elsewhere, I work a half-hearted Sunday to stay in line with husband. Self-care; beginning the week with a laugh (most-likely); and, hearty connection to a group of interesting and well-travelled women just gets the week off to the perfect start!

While writing this article, I realised that my other country of residence, France, is somewhere where I haven’t explored the Mahjong community. I know there will be one. Playing in French will be interesting and add another fun dimension. I do have a lovely Jewish-American friend living in Bordeaux who has memories of her grandparents playing the game when she was growing up in the US. I am thinking of unearthing my beautiful ancient Mahjong table from the attic, that hasn’t seen daylight for maybe three decades, and putting it up in the corner at our Women’s Retreat in May so I can happily watch what happens in that corner… a new community may be born.

In gratitude,