Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude #22: Mahjong & Family Traditions

I'm in that camp of folks who don't celebrate the holidays in a traditional way or the way my family  Partly because family is is all around the world. One brother and his family live in New Jersey, my other brother and his family are in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my sister and her family stay in Hawaii.

Another reason I don't "do" the holidays has to do with stress of doing those holidays "just right." I get anxiety attacks listening to friends kvetch about decorating their homes holidays, shopping for just the right gift for that hard to please relative, or planning the Food Network Fantasy Feast

All that pressure: blech!

So my answer for the  Attitude of Gratitude blog challenge prompt, "What are your family traditions you are most grateful for?" can't be about any traditional holiday gathering or a command performance of mandated jollity.

For me, the family tradition that makes me feel grateful would be our weekly mahjong games.  My parents would play with my siblings and me when we were kids. We played this Chinese game, a cross between dominoes, poker, and bridge, almost every week when we were preteens. Once we kids got old enough to drive and our peer became more important than our parents, we still played, once a month or so.  We played mahjong the way mt friends played Monopogy or Chutes and Ladders with their parents. 


Though the game has its roots in China, mahjong is a favorite Filipino pastime. I remember Mom and Dad teaching us how to play. They squabbled in Visayan, their dialect, over the click-clack of porcelain tiles being shuffled on our coffee table. As a kid, I tripped out when they spoke to us in Visayan, describing the different suits, hands, and mahjong strategies:  bulaklak for flower tiles, puti and pula for white and red dragon tiles, and paningit for a tile that completes mahjong's  version of a straight. 

We pplaced wagers on our games, playing for pennies and nickels. I loved how Mom and Pop's accents grew stronger as games got more competitive.  My parents usually spoke to us in English. Visayan was their special language, what they spoke to privately each other. Instead of spelling out words to keep us from nosing into their conversations, they'd drop into dialect. 

The only time they spoke to us in Visayan was when they scolded us, reverting their mother-tongue when emotions ran high. Hearing them go full-on Visayan when they weren't angry delighted me.

The game helped me pick up, even speak, a little Visayan.  I never learned enough to consider myself fluent, just enough to feel almost "authentically" Filipino, a challenge being American-born. I was raised in a predominantly White/Latino neighborhood. Most folks thought I was Mexican or some variation of Pacific Islander, rarely Filipino. 

Our majhong games helped me experience what my Filipino cousins and relatives took for granted. And the talk-story shared over the games brought us closer to our parents, their culture,  and their recollections of home. Mahjong helped us second-generation Filipinos create our own memories.

When Lola Maring, my grandmother, moved from Cebu to live with us, we got acquainted over games of majhong. Her English was as bad as my Visayan, but the game helped us bridge that gap. A devoted "mahjongera," Lola sharpened my game.   

When we eventually visited the Philippines we showed far-away family we knew how to play. They were impressed that their 'kano (Americano) kin played so well. I felt like part of the club, if honorary. I claimed, at least partial,  membership in the tribe of folks my parents made us pray for every night when we were kids or heard about over talk-story when we played mahjong at home.  

Reminiscing about the family mahjong ritual outweighs any memory of any holiday tradition. Sure, I have a bunch of sparkly, shiny memories of Thanksgiving or Christmas get-togethers. Food. Gifts. More food. But those singular events can't match the regular fun we could have as a family. The more commonplace, everyday character of our mahjong sessions stick with me, warm my insides and make me nostalgic. 

Pops died seven years ago. Lola passed away shortly afterwards What I wouldn't give for a chance for us all to get back together for a round of mahjong.