Kendama, Sungka, Sipa: Asian Pastimes That Shaped Times Games Creators

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As members of the Games team at The New York Times who are also Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we created an entire page of activities in the farewell At Home section of the May 30 newspaper that incorporated influences from our respective cultures. This project grew partly from a desire to honor our collective heritage (May was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month) and seemed particularly timely in light of the rise of anti-Asian attacks in the country.

In planning the activities, we drew inspiration from games we played as children. Given that Asian Americans are such a diverse group, it was interesting to hear team members share their personal experiences, and we discovered shared references, like the connection between the Korean game go stop and the Japanese hanafuda card deck, or the fact that many cultures have their own variants of mahjong.

Ultimately, we developed a puzzle with a cryptogram, a set of paper crafts and a game to play outside. All of these could be made out of the physical newspaper, and all of them are infused with influences from our backgrounds. Working on these stirred additional memories and thoughts on the role that games have played in our upbringings, our multicultural identities and our communities. Here are a few of our reflections.

Hand, eye, mind

My dad is from Japan, and my mom is from the Philippines. I was born in Hawaii and raised in Japan. The games that inspired me the most were the traditional Japanese games that had a physical element to them; they required some hand/eye coordination. There is a game called kendama, which is a wooden ball tied to a wooden stick with a string. The goal is to swing the ball onto the stick and try to balance it. Another is called otedama, which are small cloth bags filled with beans. They were used like juggling balls, but you had to make them yourself by sewing beautiful Japanese fabric together. I think I was drawn to these games because I was constantly navigating multiple languages and cultures. The games required concentration and practice but also had a crafty element about them (silk, embroidery, wood), and perhaps the introverted nature of the games helped me cope with my multiracial, multicultural background. — Amber Taniuchi

Art in a deck

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. My parents immigrated from South Korea. My dad worked a lot when I was a child, but I have memories of him introducing us to classic games. I recall learning how to play chess on a nice wooden set with my dad describing the movements of each piece. He once surprised us by getting a large, heavy board for go and Chinese chess, which he also taught us to play. The hwatu card deck, which is used in the Korean game go stop, remains a special object for me that connects me back to my family and home. It’s one of those things that I discovered as a child while curiously poking around my mom’s cabinets. The cards are probably the first pieces of graphic design that I ever loved as a child. I never mastered the game but have always kept a deck in my desk since moving away from my parents’ home. — Caroline Oh

A touch of home

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia in New Jersey. My parents immigrated from South Korea, and when I was born, my grandmother immigrated as well to help raise me. I can still see the image of her playing a version of hwatu solitaire by herself in my aunt’s living room, where she would try to line up all 48 cards in their suits. My grandmother used a small towel on top of the coffee table to make it easier to pick up and flip cards. I would watch with no understanding of the rules but loved to react to her color commentary. As I get older, I always think about how challenging it must have been for my grandmother to assimilate to a new country at her older age. I think that hwatu solitaire was her way of passing the time and connecting back with her homeland in a small way. — Dan Lim

A way to bond

I was born and raised in California, where my parents had immigrated from the Philippines. I also feel connected to Japan, where my husband’s family lives, because I spent a few years there during my childhood. Growing up, I played a type of game known as mancala, involving counting and capturing, but I liked sungka, the Filipino version. It’s a two-player game using a long wooden board with two rows of seven small pits called bahay, which means “houses.” Each player has their own store of shells at either end, and players take turns emptying and depositing their pits to reach their store. When I visited my cousins in the Philippines for the first time, playing sungka was a way for us to get to know one another. As I asked my parents about their experiences with sungka, which is played indoors, they were more excited to tell me about traditional Filipino games they had played outside, such as tumbang preso (trying to hit a can using a flat stone or slippers) and patintero (in which players draw lines on the ground and try to prevent the other team from getting past them). Even though I’ve never played these games, just talking about them was a way to bond with my parents. — Lizelle Serrano

Making do

My parents and my mom’s family moved to Bayside, Queens, from Manila in the late ’80s. I have lived in New York my whole life. In middle school, I got weirdly obsessed with hacky sack and would play it with my friends after school. One day, my mom taught me the childhood game she used to play called sipa, which I didn’t know about but was surprisingly similar. She added that it was the “national sport of the Philippines.” She told me that she and her friends used to play growing up and would fashion sipas out of found objects and reused materials, and she showed me how to make one out of a washer and a candy wrapper. I remember being fascinated by how an object made out of simple pieces could be so cleverly engineered: Like a badminton birdie, it was capable of self-righting in midair, always landing with the washer side down to give your foot a flat surface to kick. I was so enamored at the time with this small connection between my culture growing up and my family’s. — Robert Vinluan

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