when learning doesn’t come easily


Recently, my mother-in-law tried to teach me how to play Mahjong.

I’ve wanted to learn how to play for a decade, but everyone that I know says it’s awful to try to teach someone new. Besides, my friends who play already have established games, league nights, regular players.

I get it.

But privately, I fancied myself a quick study who would be able to pick up the game easily. I mean, I’m good at games. I love games. Plus, I’m insanely competitive. As my friend Michael will attest, I’m practically blood-thirsty. (Do you know I have beat him at Chess and Scrabble and Bananagrams! It’s true.)

I think this is why I have such a thing about grammar. A competitive perfectionist, I simply had to master it. I also think it is why I become irate every time the rules for MLA citation change. Dammit, I think to myself, I have already mastered this game; I’ve already won! Now I have to go and learn the rules again? Really? But I do. I kick grammar’s ass the same way I beat that punk Pac Man and his wimpy friend Donkey Kong.

Anyway, my mother-in-law showed amazing patience that Sunday afternoon because it didn’t take an Oxford scholar to realize that I was going to suck at Mahjong. Or, rather, that Mahjong was going to kick my ass.

No wonder the Chinese are so smart! That game of tiles and cards and numbers and patterns and dragons and jokers is really freakin’ complicated. Hell, even doling out the tiles is complicated. I will not even try to explain the double-stacking of the tiles or the elaborate way that one is supposed to push out the tiles, or the highly ritualized criss-crossing of tiles across the board as one decides what to keep and what to toss. I’m sure you get the idea that there is very little about Mahjong that was intuitive for this neophyte.

Trying to learn Mahjong reminded me of being back in calculus or trigonometry. Something in my brain wouldn’t click: a little place inside me that kept pushing back, resisting. Even though I desperately wanted to learn, it was very hard. The little ivory tiles have secret code names: “bams” and “cracks,” “dots” and “winds,” “birds” and “dragons.” And while I loved the ritual of setting up and the symbolism of the names and the pretty patterns carved into the ivory, the mental game itself was absolutely grueling.

It was a humbling experience.

I am pretty sure my mother-in-law thinks I’m really stupid. She is probably worried about her son. I mean, we have made it to 15 years, but now she has to be worried.

That said, this was a really important exercise for me.

It has been a while since I have tried to learn something truly new. Oh, I am forever adding things to my little bag of tricks, but this was outside my comfort zone. This was not another word game.

It is important for me to remember that Sunday Mahjong lesson because I am certain that some students experience that same overwhelming feeling of frustration as they sit in my Composition classes every other day for fifteen weeks. After all, it is a required class. Each student has to take it and pass it as part of their distribution requirements. So I had to ask myself, What if Mahjong were a required class? How would I manage? How would I feel on the day-to-day? What kind of support would I need from my teacher? Because there is no doubt in my mind that I would need a lot of extra help to pass Mahjong-101.

Obviously, I teach English because I love language – to dissect grammar, to read critically, for symbolism and irony, to revel in the particularly wonderful turn of a phrase, and because I love to write. But it is also interesting and rather easy for me. Obviously, not everyone has the same zeal for the subject. And that’s okay. I just have to remember that for some students, reading literature and writing essays is…well, like Mahjong for me: really challenging. Which is not to say it cannot be done. I will conquer this game. Eventually.  I will just have to work harder to understand what others seem to pick up with much less mind-bending pain.

Recently, a few foolish kind-souls offered to have me join them in a game of Mahjong. I politely declined. I am not ready for prime time. Not yet, anyway. Right now, I am slow. Even my father-in-law said I am ridiculously slow. It’s true.

I recently read somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something. (I don’t know where I read this, but I fear it may have been a golf magazine.)  I believe there is a naturalness that can come with practice –  when people finally get to that level of play where they don’t really have to think any more. They can just do. It happens in sports, in writing, in music, even in games. There comes a tipping point where, suddenly, a person just “gets it.”

One day, I will become one with the Mahjong tiles.

I will see 1111 222 3333 FF, and decode its meaning with ease, the way I know with certainty in which context to use “their,” “there” and “they’re” or when to use a semi-colon. Someday, it will be completely obvious.

Until then, it is my understanding that my 10 year-old niece can kick my ass.

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