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A Struggle

When cultures crash

By M.Published 3 months ago Updated about a month ago 6 min read

Who the fuck would play mahjong in a park?

I have spent the whole morning cleaning up my single room apartment to make it decent. Clothes are tidy, the bed has fresh sheets, the floor is scrubbed, I set up the square table and all. My boyfriend lingers around like a restless ghost asking how he can help. The couple we planned to play with postponed it to one hour later, because they overslept. Ok. It’s two in the afternoon. Then the message comes in.

Cynthia says that her boyfriend is shy and doesn’t feel like intruding on a semi-stranger’s apartment. I stare blankly at the dust-free surfaces, at the AC set up to a comfortable coolness. ‘Let’s go to the park instead’.

‘I’m not even sure we would have tables’, I type. ‘Plus, I made some snacks’.

We have a long back-and-forth conversation where both of us are too polite to force a decision. I like Cynthia. I know that if I use the right words, she will realize the park is a bad idea. I believe she actually knows. I wait to read the message where she says, ‘you know what, you’re right, we’re coming’.

Instead, I find myself writing: ‘It’s not a big deal’.

She immediately sends a Google Map link to the park. ‘This one has tables. Bring the snacks. Thank you.’

Deep inside me, the moral imperative goes: everyone should get along, it’s vital that everyone does. And yet they don’t. People don’t.

“Can’t force him.”

My boyfriend says, pragmatically. I feel the urge to call it off. I feel the urge to lay down on my fresh sheets and call it off. Why couldn’t she tell me earlier? This morning? Yesterday? The city has been a hot bowl during this whole week and we’re going to melt outside. I want to scream.

Instead, I take my annoyance and fold it in a thousand little pieces until it’s no bigger than a stamp. We gather bags. Some of the guacamole spills out of its container and stains everything. The avocado chunks really don’t want to be a carry-around snack.

The sun outside is really going at it, I mean really, two minutes and I am gasping for air. We walk towards the only park that supposedly has tables. My boyfriend wears sunglasses and a straight poker face. The mahjong bag on my shoulders click-clacks with the sound of mahjong tiles in their box. One step after the other, my plans for today slowly melt in salty sweat.

It’s June the 18th and apparently everyone’s birthday. Crowds of children gather ‘round the wooden tables drinking Coke and grabbing cake with grubby fingers. Stale air but at least there’s shadow. Deep breaths. Cynthia and her boyfriend are not here yet.

Maybe we can sit on the ground while we wait.

We try, displacing a swarm of fruit flies of biblical proportions. We quickly get away, but they follow, small and fast and many, with a certain penchant for buzzing before my eyes. I’m still sweating and I want to curse. Why? I look at my boyfriend trying to kill some bugs. Unfair fight. Why couldn’t we see this coming? The wind picks up and at least we can breathe. Deep inside me, my father’s voice, 他媽個頭,是誰說要去公園打麻將的 ?

Eventually Cynthia arrives. Her face is already saying she’s sorry. I want to be super mean to her but I play nice like a second nature. We chit chat in Chinese as my boyfriend and hers shake hands. Back to English. The flies are equally distributed between the four of us. We manage to find a table with benches on two sides, not four. We have to sit parallel to each other, which is far from ideal.

We set up the table. The table’s not even, so mixing the tiles is a nightmare. They chitter like fallen teeth and I keep asking myself if they’ll get scratched. I wonder if I’ll be the one scratching a tile on the back, marking it forevers. One scratched tile and this whole set goes into the trash.

Despite how grating this feels we get a couple of rounds in as we try to explain Cynthia’s boyfriend the rules. He’s frantically googling them and refuses to play a test round.

“I’ll be fine,” he says.

Hard to tell if he is. I mean, we have to explain pong and chi about four times until he finally gets it. He also manages to win a round or two. Meanwhile a woman in her early forties comes asking if she can use part of our table to cut her children’s birthday cake. It’s at least the fourth birthday at the park thus far. I try to follow the game despite the high-pitched screams of the cake-starved monkeys around us. My boyfriend is in high spirits after a streak of wins and has started pestering Cynthia.

“I know you have the card I need,” he jests. I strongly want to tell him it’s not a card, it’s a tile. “Just drop it.”

Cynthia is a bit puzzled. Must be the struggle of managing both her and her boyfriend’s game. We’re offered a piece of cake from the nearby party. We gently decline. I don’t want any cake; I want your kids to stop screaming.

I don’t even know what upsets me more. It can’t be bugs, since apparently, they settled down. The uneven table plays a part for sure, as the non-zero chance of losing a tile in the high grass. I imagine all my ancestors looking over my shoulders, saying, ah, here’s the fuckup that ruined a perfectly good mahjong set.

Before I manage to figure it out, Cynthia’s boyfriend complains about a headache and suggests we move inside a pub. I fail to see the connection but I play nice. We pack the set in its box, free the table, walk towards the pub chitchatting. We go for beers, most of them bottled. We order snacks from a selection of cheap ass freeze-to-frier foods. I would do anything for a bowl of edamame or a plate of crispy salted chicken.

Back to the game. My boyfriend is still winning and suggests playing with real money. I cringe at myself for not being able to keep the score in mahjong, round after round. We make promises to learn, follow by quick and uneventful google searches.

“Well, here it says that one kong is two points, but a concealed one is three,” my boyfriend starts. He quickly loses hope when the random page he’s landed on starts talking about Dragons and Winds. It’s like explaining trigonometry to a first grader. “You know, this would all be more convenient if they used playing cards instead of tiles.”

Well, no shit Sherlock. I’d suggest sticking his cards in his culture if I knew him any worse. But there’s something else. Of course, there’s always something else. Cynthia’s guy has a brand-new complaint for the evening.

“It’s a bit boring. I mean, it’s just a game of chance.”

He’s not been winning much.

When the game dwindles in its last round, we agree to do it again next time. Not in the park, please. I am reminded of uncles and aunties playing till the early hours of the morning in a smoke-filled room. We pack up. A waiter at the pub keeps glancing at our table. I’m sure he’s wondering what the fuck are those tiles, but I’m also sure he’s made the connection. Two Asian girls with their respective boyfriends, sharing the culture. Yea, sharing the culture. I’m painfully aware of how exotic I must look just by the virtue of my fucking eyes.

Maybe that is what troubled me all along. I wanted it to be a commonplace, relaxing, afternoon game. Somehow my grip on that slipped and it became a learning experience.

For who, thought, I am not sure.

credits to Y. for inspiring part of this story, and the Mahjong pieces graphics.


About the Creator


Half-time writer, all time joker. M. Maponi specializes in speculative fiction, and speculates on the best way to get his shit together.

Author of "Reality and Contagion" and "Consultancy Blues"

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