Mahjong is deeply rooted in the culture of many immigrant Chinese families who work tirelessly to make it in America. Tommy’s recollection of mahjong connects back to a vivid memory of diligent Chinese immigrants who would use the game as an outlet to decompress from a long day at work. These aren’t your typical 9-to-5 jobs—this is the type of work that well-off Americans refuse to do and leave for whomever is willing to pick up the scraps. There are no such things as sick days or weekends off; the reality is that many immigrants have to work twice as hard (if not harder) to have a comfortable living situation in America. Mahjong was a game for Tommy’s father and his workers to play during the few hours they had to themselves.
If you are to take inspiration from, redesign, or profit from something that is not part of your cultural identity, you need to ask yourself: Why am I doing it? Who is it benefiting? Who will it hurt?
Consider the story of Uncle King, one of the last original mahjong hand-carvers in Hong Kong. His family has been crafting mahjong sets for three generations. In an interview with Humans of Hong Kong, Uncle King said that if it were up to him, he wouldn’t have chosen this trade. However, he said that he feels a moral obligation to continue his craftsmanship because his father and grandfather did the same. Hand-carving mahjong tiles is considered a dying art in China, which Uncle King is trying to revive by holding tile-making workshops. Uncle King doesn’t do this because it’s simply entertaining or a hobby to him. He does it to preserve the generational skill that has been passed down to him. This lifetime dedication exemplifies the historical significance of the artisanship of mahjong tiles, which goes far beyond a passing Etsy whim.