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How Mah Jongg Expanded My Shrinking World

Learning a new game also helped me make new friends

By Linda Wolff

I am not a game player. I never have been.

People playing mah jongg
Credit: Adobe

Playing games meant sitting still, focusing and mastering a skill: things that didn’t interest me as a child. I liked play that involved moving, not thinking. While my sister and her friends played gin rummy on the shag carpet of our cozy family room, I ran relay races with my big brother on the blacktop in our front yard or played kickball against our back wall with my neighborhood friends.

My short attention span and boundless energy made sitting still for anything — except giving my Barbies a much-needed makeover, debating which Brady boy was the cutest (Greg, duh!) and dishing about our latest crushes in marathon phone calls with my BFF — impossible. Why rest on your bum when you can play tag or have a dance party in front of your mirror?

Fast forward 30-some years and I was still just as disinterested in games as ever. When some of my mom-pals started taking up Mah Jongg and asked me to join them, I declined. I would rather meet a friend for coffee, enjoy a brisk walk or take a writing class. Besides, games of skill still left me with bad memories from when I was little and didn’t have the patience or discipline to achieve even a modicum of mastery.

Well, never say never. Because here I am just a few years later, drawn to the mysteries of the ancient Chinese tiles. And it’s not for the love of the game.

A Need for Connection

Now that my kids have grown and flown from the nest, I've found that meeting new people and making new friends isn’t as easy as it was when they were in school. Daily encounters with other mothers on the playground, volunteer committees and PTA meetings made socializing a no-brainer for an introvert like me. I miss the effortless camaraderie and impromptu plans that gave me a warm sense of belonging. Sadly, those days are gone, just like the fading tail lights of my kid’s car in my driveway.

I need to hear voices. I want to see people. I ache for connection. And I know that none of that will happen unless I make the effort.

Today, I am a writer. And while I enjoy spending countless hours by myself in a dreamy world of words, sometimes the solitude and tranquility get to me. When loneliness strikes, the silence feels crushing. The gentle buzz from my phone reminds me that my friends are still there, but texts aren’t enough. I need to hear voices. I want to see people. I ache for connection. And I know that none of that will happen unless I make the effort.

I have witnessed the negative effects of solitary life first-hand with my older relatives. I watch them grapple with sadness, loneliness and isolation as family and friends juggle home and work life responsibilities, become ill, move away or pass on.

I see the dramatic differences of my elders, mentally and physically, between those who remain active and social and those who don’t. Hence the phrase “Use it or lose it.” I am painfully aware of the importance of having and creating more social circles before life naturally causes my world to shrink.

Moving Past the Learning Curve

Though not only do I hunger for socialization, I also yearn for something that will challenge my mind and keep the synapses in my brain firing away like the Fourth of July long into old age. Mah Jongg, a game of luck and skill, does both. (Mah Jongg is a Chinese word and is spelled phonetically, therefore there are several variations as you see with words from other languages, such as Hebrew's Hanukkah or Chanukah. In Asia, it's spelled with one g; in America it's two. They are both correct.)

I used to think playing games was a waste of time, which is not unusual living in a society that seems to value productivity and success over leisure activities. But according to recent studies, game playing might be the perfect panacea for keeping our minds sharp and slowing the rages of dementiastaving off depression and providing us with adequate amounts of socialization -all things necessary to promote healthy and positive aging.

So, when a friend recently asked me to join her new Mah Jongg game, I threw caution to the wind and said, “Yes!” I was excited to make new friends, push myself beyond my comfort zone and do something proactive for my sluggish menopausal brain.

But the lingering worry persisted. Would I be able to keep up? Would I be thinking of all the things I should be doing? Work, organizing my home and did I mention work? However, my growing need for belonging and routine prevailed.

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Afraid I might feel overwhelmed before my first game, a dear friend gave me A Beginner’s Guide to American Mah Jongg: How to Play the Game and Win so I could learn basic rules and simple strategies. Another friend recommended I join the online Facebook group, Mah Jongg, That’s It!, filled with over 23,000 players of all levels, where I could ask questions 24/7 or just be a silent observer.

And my mother-in-law, a savvy “mahj” player, bought me the National Mah Jongg League 2019 playing card so I could familiarize myself with the different hands, steering me towards the least challenging combinations suitable for newcomers.

With every roll of the dice, we laugh, we share our lives, we joke how we're saving our brains one tile at a time.

The first time I sat down to watch a Mah Jongg game, it was a blur of hands and tiles. My head started spinning and I questioned my decision to play. But I hung in there past the uncomfortable learning curve, beyond the fear that I couldn’t keep up. And it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

The Joy of Time with My Mahjagals

My "mahjagals" feel the same way. “Foolishly, I felt I had to be of a certain age to play Mahj. Now, I’m only sorry I waited so long,” said Alicia Goldsmith of Santa Monica, Calif. “It’s great to spend a few hours with funny, quick-witted and supportive women. Coincidentally, we have had several child-related crises during our games, and guess what... our village is sitting right at the same table for great advice. And oh yeah, we play Mahj.”

Not only is it saving our sanity and social life, it’s fun. With every roll of the dice, we laugh, we share our lives, we joke how we’re saving our brains one tile at a time.

“Mah Jongg has reintroduced me to the joys of having girlfriends,” said Helen Palmer of Los Angeles. “During the “middle period” of working various careers, raising kids and nurturing a marriage, the pure joy of having girlfriends went by the wayside. Now that I have retired and my kids have left the house, it is a treat to be able to indulge in something enjoyable and non-consequential with a few chosen and special friends on a regular basis.”

Mah Jongg is like the gift that keeps on giving. When one player has to miss a game, we invite another, or a friend of a friend to join, which widens our circle even more.

After just a few sessions, to my surprise, I — a non-game loving creature — now anchor my entire week around the clacking of the magical milky white tiles. Acquiring a new skill makes me feel good about myself. Knowing that wherever I am, I will now be equipped to join a game is a bonus.

The best parts, other than quietly shouting “Mah Jongg” when I win, are the sense of belonging I feel, the deepening friendships that I’ve made, and knowing that every Thursday I get to play with my mahjagals. Regardless of how the tiles go that day, it feels like I’ve already won.

Linda Wolff is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan and more. She is also the voice behind Carpool Goddess, where she proves that midlife, motherhood and the empty nest aren’t so scary. Read More
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