The Open Hand

I was walking home from work two days ago when I came across an elderly woman standing on the sidewalk with a luggage bag beside her.  She reached out her cupped hand and said, “Please.  I’m very hungry.”  

In New York, many people ask for money, but certain people catch my attention. This woman, I guessed, was in her 70’s.  She looked East Asian, but I don’t think she was Chinese (maybe Tibetan, Bhutanese or Nepalese?).  She looked cold.

In very New York fashion, I got straight to the point:  “Why are you like this?  Do you have a home, or is there anyone you can call?”  (Some elderly people suffer from dementia.)  

“No,” she said, and then again, “Please. I’m very hungry.”  

I asked, “Do you have any family?”  

She said, “My son.  My son.”  

“Can you call him?”

“No,” she said and shook her head and didn’t say any more.  I realized it was a private matter.  Perhaps she had gotten kicked out of the home, or perhaps she had left.  

I paused and asked, “Where are you going to sleep tonight?” 

“The laundry room.  I will sleep in the laundry room.”  I didn’t know which laundry room she was referring to.  There are laundromats that are open 24 hours a day, and I guessed that’s what she meant.

“Can you call your son?” I asked again.  

“No.”  She paused a bit.  “My son changes his phone number every day.  He plays poker.  You know poker?  He plays poker every day.  He loses money.”  

I understood now that, whatever the case may be, I shouldn’t and didn’t need to ask any more questions.  I opened my purse and found two $5 bills and gave them to her. She bowed very deeply. 

I thought of inviting this woman to my home, at least for a night.  The truth is, with a poor economy, I am already supporting one friend who has been living with me and have two long-time friends (a couple) arriving this weekend to stay at my place who are not in good financial circumstances.  I have a one bedroom apartment with one bathroom, a small kitchen. 

But it was painful to see someone who was elderly and probably a proud person begging for money.  I thought to myself, No, I do not need to take on more than what I am dealing with now.  

Then a thought came across my mind – only several blocks away, there is a huge community center that helps the elderly and immigrants.  I pointed out the way, only two blocks up, three blocks left, a big building on the corner.

“They may be able to help you.  You may be able to find yourself in a better position.”

Again, she bowed very deeply.  I began to walk home.  Perhaps I should have at least walked this woman to the community center.  But I was so tired after work that day that I did not.  Also, I know people are very resourceful when they need to be.  I need to take care of myself also.

I have known for a long time that many Chinese people have problems with gambling.  If you walk into a casino, you can see whole areas that cater to Chinese people.   I have known people in my extended family who have gambled and lost a lot.  And, unfortunately, I know many sad stories of Chinese people who have lost everything because of their gambling habits.

There are many misfortunes in this world.  You can’t help everyone.  In New York City, I tend to be mindful about giving money because many homeless use the money to buy drugs or alcohol (although I don’t have anything against people buying alcohol per se).  But I don’t think this woman was trying to take advantage of me or anyone else.  I could be wrong.

I do hope she has been able to find a place where she can feel safe and warm.  What would it have cost me to have her in my home for one or two nights?  Actually, I feel a bit sorry, but then life is what it is, and I think the best thing is to concentrate my limited resources on the people who are close to me.  

I don’t expect to change the world, but I can make a little difference, perhaps, in the lives of a few people who matter the most and also in daily, small interactions where, hopefully, I can put a smile on someone’s face, even if only for a brief moment.

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Why Respecting the Elderly is So Important

From the youngest age, I was taught to respect those who were “older” than I was, and this “rule” or tenet was very curious to me.  Why should I show respect to someone simply because they are older, even if I didn’t know anything about them and especially if didn’t particularly like them?  This is a cultural tenet that is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and in many other cultures.  

When I visited China in my early 20’s, I saw something that has stuck vividly in my mind ever since –  the parks were filled with old people who seemed happy and content. They were exercising, playing chess, playing instruments, singing opera… Some were just sitting there, watching or chatting.  They didn’t particularly pay much attention to me as a foreigner because they were ok with whatever they were doing and enjoying the moment.  It led me to think hard about why old people in America seemed so much more isolated and lonely (at least, that was my impression at the time and still is in many ways).

To be happy, most of us need to be active and need social interaction.  As human beings, we recognize that other people are ourselves in some way – whether they are of a different race, a different color, a different culture, young or old.  But when it comes to old people, many of us shy away because we don’t want to see ourselves getting old, losing our physical strength and beauty and losing certain abilities to do what we did before.  It may feel more inviting to want to take care of a child because you can influence their growth and because they are naturally less inhibited and new to many experiences.  But I feel lucky every time I meet an old person.  It doesn’t matter if they are set in their ways or old or crabby.  And whatever their stories may be, they have something to share and to give, pieces of wisdom and of life.  

We all have difficulties.  But when we are young, we feel invulnerable. We know that we are physically fit and beautiful and have our whole lives ahead of us.  And then, as we grow older, we realize that our parents are visibly growing older.  We also realize that our parents have made mistakes.  They’re not invulnerable.  We may feel angry and disappointed when we realize that our parents are not the perfect people who we wish them to be and that they have a lot of say in our lives.  We also recognize, on some level that someday we will also be old, and, for many, find ourselves confronting our own emotions about our parents and about ourselves when we have children.  And some of us may had to confront our mortality, disabilities or limitations for other reasons.

I have met many old people who have very rich lives, whether they are rich or poor.  It is true that many of them struggle with loss of hearing or sight or have difficulty carrying their groceries, simple things that a lot of us take for granted.  Some of them reminisce a great deal about the past.  But their past and present is important.   I will tell you why – old people have lived and survived.  They have witnessed a great deal of change, whether in the larger world or on personal levels.  They have experienced many joys and disappointments, and they remain, in spirit, young and timeless. Despite their physical limitations, they are, in many ways, more accepting and wiser and have something to teach us.  

Perhaps you have observed that older people often become more childlike.   Sometimes they have less control of their emotions.  In some ways, they become like children again. I have observed grandparents with their grandchildren, and, often, it seems to me that grandparents are much more free in spirit and less uptight than the child’s parents. They care less about other people’s opinions.   They have learned to accept on many levels what simply happens in life – past, future and present – and recognize that the world changes, people change, in whatever way, that their parents and friends grow old and sometimes die.  And if you listen – they all have incredible stories to tell.  

But why is this important to us?  We can learn from older people’s stories and spirits so that we can recognize and become more accepting of change and that change in our lives is inevitable.  Most old people have worked very hard.  Many have sacrificed for their children. They have suffered, for better or for worse.  But if we don’t respect the elderly, in many instances, many feel their lives are empty and unimportant which also has an impact on their physical and emotional health and on our society. Isn’t it better if we help take care of the elderly so that they can continue to feel valued, stay healthier, share their wisdom, stories and spirit?  To do this, it is important to help people as they grow older.  We all need help during our lives but especially as we find our capacities diminished.  

In China and other cultures which place an emphasis on respecting older people (as opposed with American culture which tends to glorify youth), this respect for the elderly gives them a sense of well-being and makes for a more beautiful, rich and happier society.  When a person has a sense of respect and well-being in society, it makes everyone else around them feel good, whether you are young or old.   When I saw the old people in the parks, I was amazed and felt hopeful and good.  

I have to come to the conclusion that older people in China receive a great deal more respect from society (along with other factors, such as continuing to be an integral part of their children’s lives), and this respect helps make them feel less marginalized and healthy in all ways.  Unfortunately, for many elderly, this sense of well-being, which is good for all of society, is threatened in the face of the fast-paced demands of modernized society.  (Here is a link on the increased rates of suicides amongst the elderly in South Korea due to modernization.   I want to emphasize, by the way, that I don’t mean to post this out of any disrespect for Korean culture.  Much of the same is happening in China and elsewhere in the world where people are facing similar challenges.)  

Old people are often stubborn and often don’t want to accept help.  But it’s our responsibility to be proactive and take care of them because they have taken care of us. And for ourselves, in our old age (which someday, hopefully, you will be lucky to experience), as stubborn and independent as you may be, wouldn’t you feel healthier and better if you knew people respected you as an important part of society, for what you have given and can continue to give?  This helps elderly people to remain healthy and productive.  And this helps all of us.

In practice, this only means that we spend more time with elderly people.  That’s all it takes.  And society, not to mention our own persons, is better off because of it.

The Game of Mahjong

MahjongI look at the tiles in front of me, 16 in all, arranged in a straight line like Scrabble tiles. The type of mahjong I like to play is a bit like Rummy 500. You either create sets of three of the same suit in linear numbers (like having a 7, 8, and 9 of spades) or sets of three or four tiles of the same number or character (like having 3 or 4 aces). The tiles are big and thick, like little bricks. They have weight. There are four players at the square table, and each of them has a wall of bricks in front of them – two layers of tiles, arranged face-down in a long, horizontal row.

Chinese people love to play mahjong. It’s a a lot like playing cards but with tiles. There are so many different games you can play, but the most popular ones I know of are ones with 13 or 16 tiles in a hand.  The one with 13 tiles is a bit more difficult and takes more thought. With each one, of course, there’s always an element of luck involved because you never know what tile you’re going to pick. Everybody starts by first deciding how much money each point will be worth. Then eight arms stretch out towards the table, and you hear that kwala, kwala! sound of the mahjong tiles being shuffled in circular motions. Each person constructs his or her own wall (this is all done very quickly), and the game begins.

After I have picked my 16 tiles, I start arranging them in order, usually by the same suit. No one else can see my hand.  There are three suits – sticks, numbers and biscuits, and then there are a full set of three characters, which can be considered another suit. There are often two or more tiles that go together, like 3 and 4 of sticks.  I may have one 3 stick and two 4 sticks, which means I have 3 possible sets I could make (2, 3, 4 of sticks, or 3, 4, 5 of sticks or 4, 4, 4 of sticks), depending on whether someone else throws out the third tile to make my set. If someone throws out the right card, I yell out, “Peng! (hit!)” or “Chi! (eat!),” and everyone stops as I reach out to take the tile which I then match up with the pair from my hand. I then lay the entire set on the table in front of me for everyone to see.

Now, when people yell out “Peng!” or “Chi!” everyone gets very excited. You start watching as one set, then two, then three, start appearing on the table. As a person lays out more sets, they end up with less and less tiles in their hand. Other people around the table start to lean forward to examine the tiles on the table more closely, and you start hearing rumbles of, “Watch out!” or “Be careful…” or “Don’t fang pao! (don’t lose, or, figuratively, don’t blow the cannon!) Just because a person has many sets in front of them doesn’t mean they’re going to win. If you pick a tile that completes a set in your own hand, you don’t have to lay it out for everyone else to see. And sometimes, you can win without having Peng’ed! or Chi’ed! a single time. 

Each person takes turns in leading a hand in the game, and each hand takes about 5-15 minutes. As the minutes tick by, people start getting more and more alert because every person is completing their sets. Eyes start darting. Sometimes, the winning hand comes as a total surprise. 

When you win, you yell out, “Hu le!!” (won!) usually with a great deal of excitement on your face, and everyone else’s faces get excited, too. No one wants to throw out the losing tile because if you do, you have to pay money to the person who won. The person who throws out the losing card usually lets out an expression of their own and starts reaching for their stash of money which is now about to get a little smaller. Now, every so often, a person yells out, “Zi mo!” (self grab!), and this gets everyone very excited because it means that the person who zi mo’ed was lucky enough to pick his or her own winning tile. When someone zi mo’s, every person at the table has to pay the winner (and zi mo is worth an extra point, so the winner usually gets paid more than triple).

Taking the lead goes around in a circle to the left. A complete game goes for four rounds and usually takes 2 hours. In between rounds, some people get up and drink tea or go to the bathroom or get a bite to eat. It’s time to take a break. Oftentimes, when friends come over, people play two games in one afternoon or evening.

The money isn’t the reason people play, usually. There are, of course, many who play mahjong to gamble. But as a social game, the money’s just something that makes things a bit more exciting. If each person starts out with $10 in their purse, you could end up winning something like several dollars to $20 for the night (or lose a similar amount), depending upon how much everyone has agreed each point is worth. Some winning hands have a lot of points, and some hands have only very few points.  

During hands, people chat a bit and talk about their friends, families or whatever it is that they want to share. It’s not a quiet game like poker. There’s lots of Aiyas! (when someone has made a mistake) or Zhenmebang’s (What do I do’s? when people are wondering what their next move will be). Sometimes, people even slam down a tile onto the table in their excitement. There’s a lot of laughing (usually coming from the winners, but sometimes also from the losers or anyone else). It’s loud, from the tiles to the expressions. And then there are the frequent moments of silence in between, when people are concentrating or waiting, or when everyone is holding their breath to see what tile is coming out next onto the table.

In China and elsewhere, many older people like to play mahjong, and it’s very common for people to play mahjong in elderly homes and in the parks. They say that it keeps their brains nimble and helps to fend off dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It makes sense, in a way. Mahjong doesn’t require too much thought (like Chinese chess), but it keeps you on your toes. For each new hand, you physically have to stretch out your arms and move them around in circular motions to shuffle, and then you have to reach out to get the tiles to build your wall. You have to stretch out your arm each time you pick up a tile or throw one out. And you usually sit up straight when you play. So mahjong is physically good for you, too. You end up chatting and laughing and making all kinds of expressions throughout the game. When you add all these things together, no wonder many people think mahjong is healthy for mind, body and spirit.

If you win, that’s even better. You can treat your friends, perhaps, or just keep your winnings in your pocket. But by the end of the evening, everyone usually leaves satisfied, knowing they just had a good time.