From The Straits Times    |

Do you like your job? Or wonder what it would be like if you’d gone against your parents’ advice and pursued your dream career? Her World’s Career Confessions column spotlights the professional journeys of its subjects and reveals how each individual’s career path and the choices they have made can have an impact on their personal finances, psychological health, and interpersonal relationships.

Most Singaporeans would think of the game of mahjong as an outlet to unwind with friends and family. For Sabrina Tan of Mahjonglah – a platform that organises mahjong lessons for both locals and tourists – it is also a bonding activity that bridges cultures and brings families closer together.

“I once had a Vietnamese-American participant who was moved to tears during a mahjong session,” Sabrina shares. “He expressed that he finally understood why his late grandmother had been so captivated by the game. Playing mahjong allowed him to relive cherished memories and feel a deep connection to his departed loved ones.”

Mahjonglah, which had its first session in April 2019, operates on multiple fronts. It offers cultural experiences hosted in Sabrina’s family home – which was then a 4-room HDB flat in Yishun – through Airbnb Experiences, or via tie-ups with establishments such as Capella Singapore and 1880 Singapore. Mahjonglah also works with companies to organise corporate team-building activities.

While business is advancing at a steady pace now, the advent of Covid-19 brought about major setbacks, with a sharp decline in tourist numbers. However, Sabrina quickly adapted by targeting foreign residents in Singapore who were seeking engaging activities, and overcame the pandemic restrictions by finding innovative solutions for table set-ups and utilising online platforms for theory sessions. “I had to cultivate a creative mindset and let go of my own strict standards,” Sabrina says.

“I realised that participants were more focused on learning rather than the set-up itself. For example, in order to accommodate larger sessions, we used regular square tables supplemented with mahjong mats. When asked about the origins of Mahjonglah, the 34-year-old recounts her experiences studying abroad in Finland from 2016 to 2018, and forming friendships with people from different backgrounds.

“While living in Finland, I yearned to immerse myself in the local way of life, participate in festivals, and celebrate alongside the residents,” she shares. “However, due to a late sign-up, I missed the chance to join a host family and hence, did not get the opportunity to be part of local life. I envisioned a similar situation for expatriates and foreigners residing in Singapore, who may encounter difficulties integrating into our local culture,” she says.

Mahjonglah founder and teacher Sabrina Tan explaining the significance of each tile.

Recognising the significance of mahjong in her own life and the challenge non-locals faced in learning and playing the game, Sabrina decided to list a mahjong experience on Airbnb. This marked the beginning of Mahjonglah, which has since grown in popularity among expats and tourists here. To date, Sabrina has taught more than 2,000 students from countries like the US, the UK and Australia.

Teaching has always been a passion for Sabrina, who worked as a preschool educator and content creator for an educational software company, before focusing on Mahjonglah as a full-time gig in 2022. Not only that, Sabrina is also a yoga instructor and a reiki practitioner. Ever since she attended her first reiki – a Japanese form of energy healing – workshop in July last year, she has tried to incorporate it into her yoga classes.

“I have always been a science person and was initially very sceptical about reiki,” Sabrina says. “However, when my yoga teacher, who is also a reiki practitioner, practised it on me, the energy I felt was unmistakable. As I started to practise with family and friends, they also shared how relaxed they felt during the sessions, and how the sessions recharge them.”

As a lifelong learner with an enthusiasm for teaching, Sabrina says she gets an immense sense of satisfaction from helping people learn, and watching them enjoy the process. “I love organising information and breaking down complex concepts into easily understandable ways, which helps people learn more effectively,” she shares.

“Back when I was a private tutor, I wondered why educational notes had to be so dull and ‘wordy’. I ended up designing a very visual set of chemistry notes for my students. In fact, I’ve just completed designing a basic mahjong booklet, and am excited to develop more learning resources [in the future]!”

Name: Sabrina Tan
Highest Education: Masters in Educational Leadership, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland
Job Title & Industry: Founder of Mahjonglah, yoga instructor, and reiki practitioner
Years of Work Experience: 10 to 11 years
Salary: $88 for a 2.5 hour session

Sabrina Tan of MahjongLah
Sabrina was inspired to become a mahjong teacher after forming friendships with people from different backgrounds while studying abroad in Finland from 2016 to 2018.

How did your family react when you told them you wanted to teach mahjong to tourists in your own home?

My family members were initially apprehensive [about having a constant stream of visitors], but they remained supportive throughout. I am grateful that my parents allowed me to invite strangers from different parts of the world into our home. Initially, my parents were nervous, as they had limited prior interactions with foreigners, and were concerned about potential language barriers due to different accents. Nevertheless, they found the experience exciting, as it allowed them to share the game and what they know with others.

What are some of the most memorable moments you’ve had as a mahjong teacher?

In one of the sessions I organised, a lady approached me with her two sisters and mother. Her mother had been an avid mahjong player, but had to give it up after suffering a stroke. Although her mobility was limited and she sometimes struggled to maintain her focus, it was incredibly touching to witness her reconnecting with something she once loved, but could no longer fully enjoy.

Through mahjong, we were able to bring her back to her identity and sense of self, and the love within their family was palpable. These are the poignant moments that deeply touch me.

As an independent business owner, what motivates you during tough times?

The recognition of the value I provide in my work helps to keep me going. Reading positive reviews left by guests not only boosts my morale, but also validates the effort I put into my teaching. Word-of-mouth referrals and returning clients further affirm the quality of my services. It warms my heart when tourists – with limited time in Singapore – reach out to request for sessions. The genuine connections I form with participants also make everything worthwhile. I am humbled by the kindness and generosity shown by clients, from helping me carry mahjong tables to offering delicious food and snacks, and even dropping me off at the nearest train station.

Looking back, is there anything you wished you could do differently about your career trajectory?

In my 20s, I struggled with going on a different path from my peers, and not having a stable, consistent income. There were times when I wished I would be content and happy with a regular day job that provides financial stability and work-life balance. Now, I wish that I hadn’t spent so much time and energy worrying about being different from my peers. We all thrive in our own ways. What works for others may not work for me. As I spent time doing the inner work over the years, I fully embraced myself and understood that for me, finding meaning and purpose in my work is of utmost importance. As a free spirit, I find it difficult to thrive in an employed environment.

I prefer a lifestyle that aligns with the natural ebbs and flows of my energy, allowing for spontaneity and creativity. Despite that, I do not regret investing time to explore in my 20s, putting myself out of my comfort zone time and again. It is through each and every of these experiences, good and bad, that I gained valuable insights and skill sets. I have grown significantly through these experiences, and everything has contributed to shaping the person I am today.

Visit @mahjonglah on Instagram or Airbnb to sign up for a mahjong experience with Sabrina.

PHOTOGRAPHY Phyllicia Wang, assisted by Raeann Lee Ann
HAIR & MAKEUP Aung Apichai, using Kevin Murphy and NARS