A game that bridged a cultural divide

A new card game pays tribute to two grandmothers who bonded over mahjong.

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Stories matter.

Take that of Jenn Guo and Adam Szakacs, a Toronto couple who invented a delightful family card game called Not Your Ma’s Jong. The game is an homage to their grandmothers, who came from different cultures (one’s Chinese, one’s Jewish) and spoke different languages, but bonded over a mutual love of mahjong.

My own family discovered the game recently on BoardGame2Go, a local app that allows you to rent or purchase games and have them delivered to your door. (Scroll to the bottom for an exclusive offer.) It was easy for kids to learn but still reasonably challenging for adults to play too.

But what really won us over were the illustrations.

The red cards pay winking tribute to Guo’s grandma, the blue cards to Szakacs’ — and, by extension, to nai nais and bubbies everywhere — while the green cards imagine the two women enjoying pastimes together, like building snow sculptures, playing bingo or practising tai chi.

“When I was pregnant with our first daughter in 2018, we started thinking about how we could connect our children with their cultures and heritage,” says Guo, explaining the card game’s origins. “I realized that living in Canada, they would not have the same exposure to Chinese traditions like mahjong as I did growing up. We started thinking about ways to honour the memories we had of growing up with our parents and grandparents.”

The project quickly found an audience, reaching its initial Kickstarter funding goal in 12 hours.

“We really liked the game,” says Howard Hu, owner of BoardGame2Go. “They contacted us when they first launched … and we were happy to support them and give them exposure.”

Hu adds he’s been working with the creators on developing “a drinking version” of the game, a set of rules that adults can play when the kids go to bed.

By now some of you might be thinking this story, of a modern mahjong update, sounds kinda familiar.

Maybe you heard of another effort to give the classic Chinese pastime a “respectful refresh.”

It blew up certain parts of the internet back in January, and not in a good way. 😬😬😬

The Mahjong Line, which gave the game pieces a makeover so they resembled Pantone colour tiles, and stripped them of their traditional Chinese lettering, caused a significant backlash, prompting an apology from the founders over accusations of whitewashing and cultural insensitivity.

Today, the line is still selling for $325 U.S. per set, though the website has now been updated with more sensitive language and a page explaining the history of the game in China and the U.S.

Not Your Mah’s Jong, which takes inspiration, and its cheeky name, from mahjong, has received no such blowback. Why not?

A post shared by Not Your Ma’s Jong (@notmahjong)

For one, the creators make it very clear that the game is not mahjong, but merely inspired by it (note its Instagram handle @notmahjong and its homepage URL: notmahjong.com).

But the authenticity of its story sets it apart too, and it’s hard to play the game without wanting to know more about the one that inspired it.

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Guo sums up simply. “We drew from personal experiences, and the game comes from our hearts. It's been a bonus that it's resonated with people around the world.”

Guo and Szakacs agreed to answer a few more questions for Uncultured about Not Your Ma’s Jong in an email exchange. (Answers have been lightly edited.)

First please tell me a bit about yourselves.

Adam: We're Jenn and Adam, a couple from Toronto. We met here nine years ago, and have since lived together in San Francisco and New York. We're now settled back in Toronto with our two young daughters. Jenn was born in China and immigrated to Canada as a child, and I'm originally from Mississauga.

Jenn: I learned how to play mahjong as a kid by watching my grandma play in China. Mahjong was a part of our daily lives, and at the centre of every family occasion. For me, mahjong is a way to connect with those memories.

So I'm really interested in the backstory of the game. On the website it says "When our grandmothers first met, they didn’t speak the same language but quickly discovered their shared love of mahjong." Can you go into more detail about that? Did your grandmas start playing together or what?

Jenn: In the early 2010s, my grandma used to split her time between her home in Xi'an, China, and Toronto where she stayed with my parents. In 2014, we brought my grandma to visit Adam's granny who was healing from a hip injury. My grandma speaks only Mandarin, so we started by translating some simple hellos and small talk. My grandma was in awe of how energetic and collected Adam's granny appeared in her late 90s. It was so special to have them meet and communicate with each other.

Adam: At one point, we were talking about their respective cultures and things they enjoy. My granny plays a lot of card games, and also mentioned mahjong. Jenn's grandma's eyes lit up, and she told all about playing throughout her life. Jenn's grandma is certainly the more avid player, but once my granny's hip recovered and she was back home, they were able to play together.

And how did that connection lead to this card game?

Adam: We … realized that even though our grandparents play mahjong and we played with them, we never played with our friends. We started asking around and kept hearing the same thing — most of our friends had heard of mahjong or seen their families play, but few knew how to play themselves. It can be a tough game to learn, so Jenn suggested that we try to create a simpler version of mahjong that our generation and their kids could learn and enjoy.

I love the drawings on the cards. Where did those come from?

Jenn: Thank you! We wanted to dedicate the game to our grandmas. I'd say half of the cards are symbols and memories we have of growing up with them — some with Adam's Jewish granny, and some with my Chinese grandma. The other half are a bit whimsical — we imagined what their friendship could have been if they had lived near each other earlier in their lives. Things like doing tai chi together in a park, or building a muscular snowman together! We wanted to make them relatable for people who grew up in any culture, with special winks to people who grew up Chinese or Jewish. 

And what has the response to the game been so far?

Adam: It's been thrilling to ship Not Your Ma's Jong around the world, and to hear how much people enjoy it. Our Kickstarter in 2019 met the funding goal within 12 hours, and we're currently on Indiegogo to fund our second production run. Our favourite feedback is when a customer reorders because they say a friend or cousin stole theirs!

What do actual mahjong players think of the game? More to the point: What do your grandmas think?

Jenn: Several mahjong players have thanked us for creating a fun adaptation of the game, since it's given them a way to introduce mahjong to their friends or children. We did have one mahjong player online criticize our "fast-paced" tagline since tile-based mahjong can also be fast-paced — which of course is true for veteran players. Not Your Ma's Jong gets games moving fast within a few minutes of opening the box.

Adam: My grandma unfortunately passed away in 2019 at nearly 104 years old. She had an amazing life and we miss her every day. Although she didn't have a chance to play the final game, we were able to share some of the concepts with her. Jenn's grandma is enjoying showing her illustrated self off to friends in China :)

Which do you play: Mahjong or Not Your Ma's Jong?

Jenn: Mostly Not Your Ma's Jong, our friends have caught on really fast. The games are quick and it's cards instead of tiles, so very convenient to carry around. Mahjong is of course the Chinese New Year staple, but we haven't been able to see our families much this year to play either version.

What's next? Any more games in the works?

Adam: Our second daughter was born in October, so we're a little tired! Future expansions for Not Your Ma's Jong aren't out of the question, but for now we're enjoying hearing the stories of people enjoying the game.

Special offer for Uncultured readers

Today we’ve got a special promotion for BoardGame2Go, the excellent board game rental app (only in Toronto for now), where you can choose from more than 1,200 titles, get them delivered to your door, and picked up again a week later. It’s where I discovered Not Your Ma’s Jong, the game discussed in today’s post.

New signups using the offer code “uncultured” will get 1,000 Go points, worth about $5 off any rental (the cost of a small game), plus Elite membership status, which accrue points twice as fast and earn a $2 discount off every delivery. Download the app on iOS or Android, and get renting!