Chronicles of FeiXingQi and Mahjong
By Joey Li
A tale of an immigrant’s adjustment to New York City and the impacts of childhood and cultural board games.
In the remnants of the villages that once dotted the empty fields of Guangdong, houses and traditions are passed down generations, emphasizing the importance of family. Ironically, I was raised apart from my mother and sister in the tight-knit village of Taishan. As my mom labored in the city, my time was often spent playing Fei Xing Qi, a board game where the objective is to be the first to get your planes to the home base. Though there was no sense of satisfaction in victory, I’d play in solitude for what felt like hours, excited by the prospect that somehow, something would change.
At six years old, I found myself playing Fei Xing Qi in real life, flying to the center of the board: New York City. The skyscrapers and cramped buildings were a stark contrast to the shabby, handmade homes in my village. The flashing billboards of Times Square and the petrifying roar of the Toys “R” Us dinosaur intimidated me, yet amidst the chaos, I became intimate with the haunting familiarity of loneliness.
In 2009, I joined a classroom with students who were all learning English as a second language on the Lower East Side. On the first day, I could not read sentences about yellow school buses or count past 20. My self-consciousness became a muzzle: If I did not speak, I wouldn’t have to be embarrassed with my inability to express myself.
In my silence, I found comfort in reading. Alongside Nancy Drew and Amelia Bedelia, I mastered structural linguistics and pragmatics, quickly finding my place in the Gifted and Talented class. Eventually, the commotion of New York City simmered to a low hum.
As the sole breadwinner in my family, my mother didn’t always live in America. She would return to China annually for months at a time to earn money to ease the transition between moving to the United States from China. My grandparents became my caregivers, but it was evident that their age began to catch up with them. Though seemingly trivial, I missed the folded laundry, my mother’s cooking, and a clean floor. Every night was a battle as I worked to complete my pile of homework and chores before the clock reached midnight. I found myself living in a perpetual state of motion, struggling to find time for myself.
In time, I honed my survival skills, learning how to cook, clean and care for myself. At home, I adopted a new game, Mahjong, to combat my grandfather’s dementia. When we sat down to play, my aging grandfather became unrecognizable: nimble, calculated and menacing. After countless hours of playing, I started to adopt his methods—especially how he memorized tiles and anticipated my moves. Now, my grandfather boasts of his granddaughter’s killer Mahjong skills. Initially, I played to counteract the mental toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the game allowed me to integrate with my family and culture, providing me consolation and support.
Starting high school, I was intimidated by the competitive environment and intellectual capabilities of my peers. Excelling academically was no longer an exception, but the norm, leaving me obsessed with my grades. Over freshman year, I realized my idea of academic success had evolved beyond numerical results, and I became infatuated with education. Whether I was learning about Machiavelli, solving derivatives in Calculus, or conjugating Spanish verbs, the process of learning made me feel content. Every morning, on the musty, graffiti-ridden seats of the New York subway, I would crack open the spine of a book and the promise of endless encapsulated knowledge empowered me, transporting me for 90 minutes out of the dreary train and into scenes of Oblomov. Nothing compared with the unbridled joy of the pursuit of knowledge, except maybe its fulfillment.
I grew up believing that there was no greater companion or Fei Xing Qi partner than solitude. Solitude birthed a brilliant, young girl, but it also nearly destroyed her. The pain of loneliness and grief is unchangeable and incessant, but the people present in my life have helped me grow around it.
When I betrayed loneliness to play Mahjong, the difference was stark: the mere presence of others was heartwarming. My solitude is no longer suffering, but undeniable resilience and independence fostered through my experiences.
I started writing this piece around the summer. After attending a Pen Your Personal Statement workshop, I developed new insight and skills into crafting my personal statement for colleges. I personally went with more of an anecdotal writing style, conveying traits of determination and adaptation through my stories. When I finished writing this piece, I went through several drafts of editing with the help of peers and my mentor. A lot of sections were omitted, words were cut down to fit the limit, and several anecdotes were swapped out. After rounds and rounds of feedback and tailoring the essay to fit the word limit, I was satisfied with the final draft as I felt it best attributed to my identity and showcased my academic talents.
Joey Li was born in Guangdong, China and immigrated to the United States when she was three. She likes to read and draw. Her favorite books are "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Her biggest goal for this year is to get into college. She also wants to work on article writing for her high school newspaper. A quirky fact about her is that she likes to hug her knees when she sits.