Learning to Play Mahjong

In the midst of our quest for indoor activities, our British ex-pat friend, Kasia, managed to get us all invited to a Chinese man’s house to learn how to play Mahjong. In exchange for Mahjong lessons, he wanted us to cook some western cuisine for dinner. We gladly took him up on it!

I’ve been wanting to learn to play Mahjong ever since we traveled to Beijing and Justin and I haggled for and purchased a nice souvenir Mahjong set at the Silk Road Market.  I’ve only ever played Mahjong Solitaire (and on the computer at that, never with a real set of tiles), and I would have felt very disappointed to return to the U.S. without any inkling of how to use my nice souvenir. However, none of our Chinese students or friends have been able to teach us to play thus far. Apparently, Mahjong is a bit of an “old person’s” game, and one that usually involves gambling. We often pass by groups of old men in the park, sitting around playing Mahjong or playing cards, winning (or losing) hundreds of Yuan while passersby look over their shoulders.

This is also the first time I’ve ever used Facebook to meet a stranger. Disclaimer: I would never recommend using a social network for this purpose in the U.S. without being very cautious and taking a friend along for your first meeting, as it can be kind of dangerous (everyone remembers the Craigslist serial killer). But Kasia had already met him in person, and Justin was coming along with me, so I didn’t feel too nervous as we set out for Huolin Shen’s house on Saturday afternoon. We had been Facebook friends with Huolin since December, and I had chatted with him online before, just never in person. He is a civil engineer who is apparently a member of some sort of International group in Huzhou (though what that entails, I have no idea, considering there are only a handful of “international” people living here). Kasia, who has actually attended one of their meetings, said that it is basically a group of men who meet every so often at a restaurant to eat, smoke, drink, and occasionally speak a little bit of English.

When we arrived at Huolin’s house, we were surprised at the large amount of people gathered in his living room. There seemed to be friends, neighbors, and all sorts of random people wandering through to have a look at the foreigners. “I didn’t bring enough food for this many people,” Kasia whispered nervously, but it all worked out in the end. Though many of them were interested in meeting us, not many were interested in sampling western cuisine, and most of them ended up leaving before dinner time.

It turned out that Huolin didn’t really know how to play Mahjong (again, proving it to be an older person’s hobby), but he had invited a friend (an older man) who was a pro at the game. If you have ever, in the past, found it difficult to learn the various rules of a new game, then you can only imagine what it was like to learn the rules of Mahjong from a man who spoke very little English. First we had to take a look at all of the tiles and learn which sets belonged together, and in which order. This was a bit difficult considering many of the tiles were written in traditional Chinese characters. His teaching methods involved having us mimic his movements, and then saying “No, no, no, no!” if we did something wrong, and moving our tiles back into the correct place. It took a couple of rounds before we really had a grasp on the rules, and even after the third and final round, we still have a feeling that there are certain aspects of the game we never learned. We all had a sneaking suspicion that the old man kept changing the rules to work to his advantage, but we’ll have to play Mahjong again (with a different group of people) to really test our theory.

I've got my serious "thinking" face on.

Our teacher showing us the moves. He gave us playing cards to use as pretend money so that he could teach us the gambling aspect as well.

Our teacher with Kasia, who won round one. I managed to win rounds two AND three!

For anyone who has ever played the Rummikub tile game, Mahjong is almost identical, without all of the exciting swapping of tiles at the end.

When Mahjong was finished, it was time to make dinner. We had debated over what sort of “western” meal to make. There aren’t too many options available given the very limited selection in the foreign foods aisle at the Tesco. Justin and I recently discovered frozen chicken nuggets and frozen french fries in the freezer section, but we weren’t sure if this was really the kind of first-class meal to serve when invited to someone’s home. We finally decided to make spaghetti since Kasia really seemed to like this idea. Kasia was even able to find ground beef (to my surprise!), Hunt’s Roasted Garlic tomato sauce, and Caesar dressing for salad, so we were all set to cook a nice Italian meal.

A side note about why I’m so surprised that China has ground beef: Justin and I recently did a lesson called “How is it done?” in which we taught our students to describe a process in numerical steps and use transitional phrases like, “first,” “next,” and “finally.” In a couple of weeks, our students will take the stage and give a speech (for a test grade) in which they will describe how to do something at the front of the classroom, complete with PowerPoint and everything. Anyways, during his lesson, Justin showed a video that he downloaded from YouTube of a man instructing “How To” make simple spaghetti. As soon as he dropped the pink ground beef into the pan to saute it,  Justin’s students started going NUTS! They were gagging and turning away from the screen, completely disgusted by the sizzling ground beef. A couple of girls in the front row really looked like they were trying not to vomit. They asked incredulously, “Justin, do you really eat this in America?” And he answered, “Of course. Everyone eats spaghetti.” That set off another round of gagging and choking sounds from the crowd. Who knew that spaghetti was such an offensive food?

We were hoping that our dinner guests wouldn’t be too offended by our meal choice, and most of them seemed eager to try it (except for one man everyone kept referring to as “the chef”–which they pronounced with a “ch” sound instead of an “sh” sound–who seemed more keen on helping us cook the food than helping us actually eat it). One factor that I’ve forgotten to mention about Huolin’s house is that it was freezing! We were hoping to avoid the cold by spending our Saturday indoors; however, because there was no heater in the living room, and because Huolin kept the living room windows and the kitchen windows open, creating a forty-degree cross-breeze, we were never able to get warm. If there was ever an occasion to purchase a Snuggie (as seen on TV), living in cold, cold China is it, and I would wear my Snuggie out in public with pride. Kasia and I were in the kitchen, trying to chop vegetables and cheese for the salad and appetizers, and we kept laughing because our stiff, frozen fingers just weren’t cooperating. It’s no wonder that the chef was so eager to boil our pasta–so he could stand near the warm stove!

Huolin and Justin serving up their plates

Our dinner turned out deliciously (if I do say so myself), and made me feel like I was back at home–except that I was eating my pasta with chopsticks. Most of the men seemed to enjoy it as well, the chef excluded. I doubt the chef would have eaten any at all, if Kasia had not kept smiling and serving pasta onto his plate, encouraging him to eat more. Justin even brought what little bit of Parmesan cheese we have left (which we packed with us in our suitcases when we first made the trip to China), and showed everyone how to sprinkle it over their spaghetti. They were a bit skeptical that it was actually made of cheese–I must admit, it does look more like salt or seasoning than cheese.

Justin showing everyone how to use the Parmesan cheese

All in all, a very fun (but COLD) weekend! Now where is spring?


One thought on “Learning to Play Mahjong

  1. I’m trying to do the same here in Ya’an with a noodle shop owner. He doesn’t speak any English though, so it may be a little tougher. Thanks for posting.


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