the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: mahjong

How I Explained Black Lives Matter to My Mother’s Mahjong Group


“Liberals” are sometimes stereotyped in the media as elitists. I wonder if there is an element of truth to this. We say we want to discuss issues with our friends and relatives, but then use abstract language more suitable for a Yale graduate school seminar.   If your conservative Uncle Joe on Facebook is willing to agree with you that there is too much police brutality against African-Americans, does it really matter at this point if he “accepts” the concept of white supremacy on your latest post?

I understand this tendency to sound elitist because I can be that person myself. I’m the type of guy who came home from my first semester of college to scold my mother to stop reading her “stupid Sue Grafton mystery novels” and pick up Plato’s Republic instead.

“Do you want to live your entire life in the shadows?” I told her after my freshman year.  “How can you live without ever getting a strong foundation in Greek philosophy?”

Yeah. That type of guy.

Who would have guessed that one day I would be back living in the same apartment with my mother, reading her Sue Grafton novels?

Twice a week, my mother sets up a bridge table in the living room and plays mahjong with her friends.   Her friends are smart, compassionate women, feminists at heart, open to neighborhoods of diversity, but born of another generation.   Each woman is over eighty years of age,  the children of immigrant parents, and have worked since an early age.  None of them had the opportunity to attend college.   It would be haughty of me to lecture these amazing women based on my advanced education, right? But sometimes I just can’t help myself.

I remember a few months ago, the mahjong group was taking a break from the game, having coffee and cake, and gossiping about their neighbors in the building. I entered the kitchen to grab a piece of the cake myself when I overheard one of them mention the cute children of the “Oriental” neighbor in apartment 3D.

“You probably shouldn’t say that,” I said. “She’s Chinese, not Oriental.”

“What’s so bad about Oriental? I’ve always said Oriental. Like someone from the Orient. Like Oriental salad!”

My mother and her friends teamed up against me.

“Yeah, Neil, what’s so wrong with Oriental?” asked my own mother.

I explained the different of Oriental and Occidental, and how the term Oriental comes from a European perspective and gives off the aura of “the other” and exoticism.

No one understood what the hell I was talking about.

“Just don’t say it! They don’t like it!” I shouted, giving up.

A few days ago, I came back from this rally in Union Square. The women were playing mahjong. I showed them a few of the photos I took, including one of a protester holding a sign that read “Black Lives Matter.”

“I don’t get what this means — Black Lives Matter? Don’t ALL lives matter?”

I went to the kitchen and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in order to give me time to think about my answer. What was the best way to talk to a group of eighty-year-old Jewish women about this subject?

I had an idea.  I returned to the living room.

“Remember when you were kids, everyone said “Merry Christmas” to each other?”

I figured this was a good way to draw them in, with an analogy.

“We didn’t say Merry Christmas to each other,” said Louise, my mother’s friend.

“Yes, that’s because you’re Jewish,” I replied.   “But the average American said Merry Christmas. People felt like it was a Christian country, so they just said Merry Christmas. This is the equivalant of saying White Lives Matter, but it’s more like Christmas Matters. Or Christian Holidays Matter.”

Now, everyone just looked confused.

“Hear me out. But as time went by, Americans wanted to include everyone in the holiday spirit, particuilarly their Jewish friends, so they started saying Happy Holidays. This is like saying All Holidays Matters — Christmas, Hanukkah, whatever.

“And what’s so wrong about that? Saying Happy Holidays?” said my mother. “You just made the argument for saying All Lives Matter.”

“Well, yes, but we all know that deep in our hearts, All Holidays Matter is really about Christmas, with Hanukkah and the other holidays sitting in the back row. It’s still Christian Holidays Matters in disguise. So someone who really celebrates Hanukkah might not want to be a mere appendage, but wants Hanukkah to be celebrated as worthy of it’s own meaning. So someone might say, “I never liked when you just said Merry Christmas, because it excluded me, and I did appreciate that you started to say Happy Holidays, but we both know that I was never an equal part under that All Holidays Flag, so now I just want to hear Happy Hanukkah so you are acknowledging that my holiday has meaning in itself. There is nothing inherently wrong with saying Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays, but sometimes you just want to hear Happy Hannukah. And it is the same with saying Black Lives Matter. It’s a matter of giving respect.”

And I think I won them over. Either that or they just wanted to go back to their game.

The Eye of the Mah-Jongg

There are some who dream and some who do. I am a dreamer. There are so many things I would like to do, but fear prevents me from taking the first step. But there is one member of my family who is a true champion, a real Rocky Balboa. Despite being an underdog, this person is not afraid of facing the toughest, most steely-eyed competitors in her field. Yes, for three full days, my mother has taken off from work so she can do battle in a Mah-Jongg Tournament at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City. How this ancient Chinese game became popular with Jewish women of the last generation is a long story, and you can read some of the history of Mah-Jongg on Wikipedia.

Although my mother plays in her weekly “dollar” game in her apartment building, this is her first sanctioned tournament. When her friend invited her, I would never expect my mother to say yes. But something has changed in my mother since my father’s death and her trip to Spain. She has surprised us again. She joined the American Mah-Jongg Association and paid the $150 entrance fee. Now, if my mother “plays her tiles” right, she can win thousands of dollars.

The competition is three days, for at least three hours each day. There are dozens of tables set up, and after a certain amount of games, there is a rotation to different tables. The champion is the one who wins the most games. According to my mother, most of the women at the tournament are Jewish women over 55. Mah-Jongg is also popular in the Asian community, but supposedly, their tournaments have slightly different rules. I was disappointed to hear this. I was so looking forward to a Jewish-Chinese showdown.

My mother promised to call me up several times a day, so I could “live blog” about the big tournament. For some reason, ESPN isn’t covering it yet (although the Discovery Channel is doing some taping tomorrow for some documentary). Is Celebrity Mah-Jongg the next big thing?

Day 1 Highlights —

My mother and her friend, Shirley, took the early morning bus to Atlantic City from Penn Station. My mother said most of the bus was filled with “lowlifes and gamblers” who travel to Atlantic City for the day. During the trip, my mother and Shirley talked about whatever the usually talk about, when they noticed “some gambler in a pea-coat” moving away from them. My mother said “a guy who smelled of cheap liquor” also moved to the back of the bus. After my mother asked what was going on, a third gambler explained that the “regulars” usually sleep on the morning bus and their “loud yakking” was keeping them up. My mother apologized to the drunks and gamblers, and everyone went back to sleep.

My mother made it to casino. She described the Taj Mahal as “large and unfriendly, but they gave us a free buffet, so I guess it is OK.”

As for the first day of the tournament, my mother played at tables 39, 40, 41, and 42 — and didn’t win any games today. Shirley won one game. My mother said that the women played too fast for her, so she felt rushed. I think my mother is being intimidated by those tough-as-nails Jewish women from Long Island, like a NBA rookie in a room of Kobe Bryants.

Tonight, my mother was going to the buffet with Shirley and some of the other women. As my mother’s “coach,” I strongly rejected this idea. I suggested that she stay in her room and watch videotapes of today’s games, so she can strategize for tomorrow. My mother just laughed at me. Would Rocky Balboa do that to his coach’s face?

Are there any athletes out there who can offer my mother some proven techniques so she can better focus tomorrow on WINNING IT ALL?

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