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The games people play

I have a theory about ex-pats: Everyone of them has something they experience that makes them feel at home, and everything is going to feel weird until they find that. Before I came to China, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find mine. I’m a board game geek. While most of the board games I love are made in China, they don’t hold the same popularity, however fringe, they do in the states. Luckily, I’m a teacher. I found that lots of my fellow teachers were board game geeks, they just didn’t know it yet.

One of our teachers wanted to play basketball more than anything. It turned out that there were several courts with pick-up games within a few blocks of her house, yet without reading Chinese, she would have never found them.

So I made it a point to ask every teacher I work with the big question “What do you miss?”. If I can’t help them find it, chances are another teacher can. If we don’t look after each other, who will?

Here in China, there are no shortage of social activities. Just walk down the street and you’ll see card games, Chinese chess, and various small stakes gambling games. Most neighborhoods have a sports complex where you can play the most popular games. Table tennis, tennis, and badminton are all very popular here. Basketball courts are common, and swimming pools are likewise neighborhood based.

Some of my fellow teachers just said that they want to go drinking and dancing at the end of a hard week, and while they had no trouble finding alcohol being sold, the bar scene seemed non-existent compared to the United States. What they didn’t know is that the bars here are concentrated on 9th. St. and a few fancy ones spaced out. KTV, or Chinese Karaoke, is what most neighborhoods have in lieu of just a bar. We even have a Mexican restaurant/bar/ dance club called “Mojars”. It’s a favorite among the clubbing crew.

Almost every teacher I know has access to some sort of game console. Unlike books and movies, foreign games tend to be largely untouched by the government. I myself own a PS4 that I bought while I was here. I’m able to find English language copies of games with ease. The prices are slightly cheaper than in the USA.

Due to the recent virus, many people have taken to playing D&D on zoom. I know of at least three games that meet personally here in Chongqing and a few others digitally meeting with teachers across China, and the world. If you didn’t ask, you’d probably never know that all of this was going on. Luckily, I ask.

The biggest draw for fun here is Ma-jiang (Spelled Mah-Jiong in the west). It’s a rummy type tile game, that’s easy to learn, and is often gambled on. The Chinese on the tiles may seem intimidating, but the only Chinese you need to know is 1-10. Parlors with filled tables are around every corner. People will play for small stakes for long periods, and it’s fun enough to play for hours and not think about the time.

So when Hamed wanted to get a night for Ma-jiang together, I said I was down for it. We got a few more people who had seen the game and were interested to learn, so we rented a private room with an auto-table. This gizmo has two sets of tiles, and while you’re playing with one, the table shuffles the other and builds the “wall” that the game is played with. Hamed is an observant muslim, so we wouldn’t be gambling, but we would be keeping score (Bragging rights). The local Chinese staff marveled at the group of foreigners paying the Chinese game.

It turns out that the second our newcomers understood the game, they were hooked. The best thing about Ma-jiang is it’s addictiveness, and ease of learning. The worst thing about Ma-jiang is that if you travel a lot, you’ll have to learn it again, as there are lots of variations across Asia. We were playing Szechuan style, which tends to include a lot of doubling the stakes. One of our newcomers had an old table leftover in her new apartment, and at about 3 AM I got a text saying “My table works, but I need a set of tiles”. Yep, it’s that fun.

That didn’t stop either one from talking about the next time we were meeting for board games, and/or poker. There’s enough teachers here that someone is always suggesting a game night. I keep telling my fellow teachers that I’m available most nights to play, and thanks to the Taobao, the local amazon equivalent, I’ve build up a library of board games that dwarfs most people’s in the states. Between Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride, there’s not much we don’t play here. The only limiting factor on gaming is your friends’ reliability.

P.S. I was one of the two players to win points at our Ma-jiang night. Hamed was the other.

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