The One Game That’s Helped Me Make Friends While Living Around The World

It was The Collected Short Stories by Saki that first introduced me to the Chinese game of mahjong. The fashionable 1920s crowd that featured heavily in the stories always seemed to have a mahjong table set up at parties. As this was before the advent of Google, I just stored away the name of the game somewhere in my brain, without knowing much about it.

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An Opportunity Not Missed

A few years later, not long after we had moved to Qatar in the Middle East for the first time, someone asked me if I wanted to join her in learning to play mahjong, and I not only found that word in my brain but also said yes, because, why not?

Having a husband who relocates regularly around the world for work, I have to date lived in seven countries (and in three of them more than once), on three continents, and two hemispheres. Even though I am a very self-contained individual and absolute introvert, even I need friends outside of my small family bubble — but making friends as an adult can be tricky.

Despite being shy, and wanting to say no automatically, I had decided that when moving to a new place, I would say yes to every invitation and opportunity offered to me. There was nothing to lose after some initial awkwardness, and you never know where it might lead. This attitude in fact led me to a full-time job I did not apply for, but which saw me traveling around the world for a few years. It also led me to mahjong. Little did I know that this game would become a lasting hobby and useful lifeline in the strange world of a serial expatriate.

Mahjong (Photo Credit: Lora_Aks /

Learning To Play

One morning, some 20 years ago, I thus found myself in the home of Pamela, an English expatriate in Doha, Qatar, two tables set up for four players each with sets of tiles with Chinese marks and signs on them. Not too different from the suits in card games to be utterly discouraging, but there were many traditional Chinese superstitions and rules associated with the game to learn before I could slowly start to enjoy playing. Before I knew it, once a week I spent a morning at Pam’s house, playing and chatting, and all the while learning not only to play the game but also understanding more about the ins and outs of my newly adopted country.

Dubai downtown (Photo Credit: Rasto SK /

Everybody Plays Differently

A couple of international moves later, I found myself living in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and not knowing anybody, I searched online for a group of mahjong players and found them in the American Women’s Association Dubai, a group which luckily was also welcoming to non-American expats. Thinking I could already play mahjong, I was still surprised to find that the American way of playing involved a very different approach to the way I had learned it. Instead of playing a hand that was simply called “ordinary mahjong,” here, the group had printed cards with numerous different hands that could be played with the tiles. And the even bigger surprise was that each year, just when I had managed to commit most hands to memory, the game cards changed, and you started afresh.

But the mixed group of women — always women, but I guess that was due to the fact that we always played during the day, when the husbands were at work, and the trailing spouses and freelance workers like me were more flexible — was again a heaven-sent in a new country and a buzzing, confusing city. This time not playing at a private home, instead, the group took over a small café in the city once a week, and I made friends who I have kept in contact with since, and who I meet up with wherever we all might be in the world at the time.

Other Countries, Other Groups

Another two countries later, I was living La Vie En Rose in Paris, France. Loving every minute of being there, but now, without my daughter who had taken off to university abroad, making friends was even more difficult not only because of the lack of interaction outside the school gates but also because of the language barrier. While I was learning French, impromptu chats with neighbors were still out of my reach. So, I started searching for a mahjong group again — and found one.

The British and Commonwealth Women’s Association or BCWA this time. This time, it was mostly British women who had married Frenchmen and had lived in and around Paris for years, meeting up regularly to play mahjong in each other’s living rooms. I, grateful for my English husband who allowed me entry into the group, was happy to join them, not just for playing my favorite game, but also to meet another whole different set of potential friends, all the while having a look at how they all lived, not strictly being expats, but adoptive Parisians. I went to homes all across Paris and the suburbs, meeting some very interesting people in some equally interesting private homes.

Recently I moved back to Qatar, coming full circle, and joined a different mahjong group that is part of the very international Tuesday Ladies Group, playing once a week at the local Golf Club. A true expat group, I continuously meet new people from Australia, UK, America, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, India, and many other countries, all brought together by mahjong.

Making Expat Friends

The game of mahjong does not only offer me a respite from sitting at my desk writing travel articles, but connects me with others who, more often than not, do not call the city they play in home and are feeling a little bit out of their depth away from their home country. Today it is simple to join in, wherever you live. Googling women’s associations usually brings up a group that is made up of global and international expatriates, and whose organizations tend to have a variety of subgroups that surprisingly often includes the game of mahjong.

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Want To Start Playing?

If you are not a card player, mahjong can be a little daunting at first, especially once you realize that the real game has nothing to do with the so-called mahjong solitaire online, which is simply collecting pairs of the same design. But it is easily learned in person, and I have yet to meet a player who is not keen to teach a newcomer and get them involved. You need a minimum of three players, preferably four, but a quick search on the internet will usually lead you to a group of players near you. So, whether you are in America, where the game seems to enjoy huge popularity, or you live abroad, playing is not just fun — it is proven to stave off brain-debilitating diseases through its quick-thinking matches and will connect you with people who might just become friends for life, all around the world. Win-win, or should I shout “Mahjong!”?

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