Saturday, October 30, 2004

Musings on the Mahjong (vs MIT) Mentality

I did a google search on "mahjong" and "mentality" to see if anyone has beat me to these musings, and I found a blurb for Absolute MahJong, a computerised mahjong game, claiming that
you will understand the mentality of Chinese people playing this addictive game.

A little hyped or romanticized? Or is there some truth in it?

I searched again, using "philosophy of mahjong" as my search string, and found this interesting article, "Cruelty and Crowds".

This paragraph was close to what I was looking for:
"The Chinese like poker, and do not like bridge," [Lin Yutang] wrote in his book, "My Country, My People". "They have always played mahjong, which is nearer to poker than to bridge. In this philosophy of mahjong may be seen the essence of Chinese individualism." (emphasis mine)


It's been a long time since I've watched a mahjong game (I don't play it), but let me attempt give a meta-description of one. (Mahjong experts out there, feel free to correct me where I've gone wrong.)

It's late at night, and you are sitting at the square mahjong table with three other of your friends or family at one of their houses. A new game is just about to begin, and all of you are "shuffling" the tiles, making the signature loud clacking sounds as the tiles collide, while you engage in small talk.

The game starts, and the atmosphere is still somewhat friendly, with light doses of humour and shallow gossip. But beneath the light coating of congeniality is a lot of scheming and strategy to make maximum monetary gain - at the expense of everyone else.

For every game, someone wins some money, and someone else loses some. And at the end of the whole mahjong session, if you made a net loss, maybe you'll win them back and and hopefully more the next time round; or if you made a profit this time, hopefully luck will still be on your side the next time.

As in any gambling game between family or friends, you exert a smile to mask your disappointment when you lose, and suppress your grin when you win. No hard feelings - we're all chums after all, right?

It's a mahjong game in school, especially if your classmates are the competitive type, and you're seen as competition.

Yeah, we're friends and all, we joke, make small talk, but underlying that friendly facade is a cloaked competition, a championship series which no one wants to mention, but it's palpable nonetheless.

You remember that the game is being played when you ask your classmates for help with some assignment, and you detect that slight hesitance and reluctance. Or when they give great reasons like "it's better for you to do it yourself" or "I didn't put any effort in mine; are you sure you wanna look at it?"

You remember the game when your test results are great, and they do little to hide their suspicion when you claim that you didn't study much for the test. And they claim they don't study either, but you know very well that they do.

You remember the game when you do well for your exams, and they show polite admiration, but you know from their cool gaze and distracted kudos that they're gonna beat you the next time round.

It's too easy to be like one of them when you're in that kind of environment, and I've had to catch and consciously keep myself from adopting that mentality.

On a slightly higher level in Ngee Ann, look at our MeL Portal (powered by Blackboard). All our lecturers' notes are hiding behind a login and password. Contrast that with MIT's Open Courseware, where any kid with an internet connection can access the faculty's great material. I've personally benefited much from MIT's initiative, and perhaps I should be paying them school fees.

So why can't we be like MIT, so open and willing to share? Afraid that the other polytechnics would benefit from our "intellectual property"? A general fear of being open?

Or, "our stuff isn't as great as theirs, are you sure you wanna look at ours?" Sound familiar?

Mahjong mentality?

This psychological phenomenon is certainly not limited to Ngee Ann, or even the rest of Singapore. It does seem like the ethnic Chinese people around Asia tend to have this mentality.

Maybe that first quote does have some truth to it.


Blogger Zen|th said...

I didn't know MIT share their material online. I guess it's just the Kiasu attitude that the polys don't share their material. Later people might compare them with other schools and then they lose face.

I know how to play a bit of poker and if mahjong is something like poker, then I wanna learn mahjong too! =)

3:19 AM  
Blogger calm one said...

Forget your lecturer's notes - use MIT's =)
And don't learn mahjong - you might turn into another one of those mahjong-mentality fellas. Anyway it's unlikely that a girl would ask you for a game =))

6:40 PM  
Blogger Zen|th said...

I tried learning it once but I couldn't get the hang of it. I just like the thrill of taking a gamble at times, but I'm sure I won't become like those mahjong mentality people. Haha. By the way, do you mind if I link you in my blog?

7:46 PM  
Blogger calm one said...

The thing is that mentality is part of the culture here, so sometimes you don't even realise it when you have it. Anyway, of course you can link here =)

9:02 PM  
Blogger iciclesandsnow said...


Stumbled upon this entry in your archives. Thanks for introing the link to MIT! I think part of the reason for why our Unis and polys do not share info is that the standard can't be as good as these American institutions. Most of the stuff we learn originate from western universities, and the articles we refer to are also written by them, so it may be abit malu to post all our lecture notes, assignments and stuff online. However, I think my lecturer did mention that they have collaborated with some US unis to share teaching materials. Hope the things we share will have some standard..

6:06 PM  
Blogger calm one said...

Thanks for your comment, Merry Potato.
Yes, it may be a bit malu because many of us in Singapore have an inferiority complex - it's done by an ang moh therefore it's better. If our lecturers are made to display all their material on the internet, it would motivate them to create better stuff so they won't malu.

6:16 PM  

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