The Sens are a family of Chinese heritage who reflect their South African roots in all they do. This story explores the life of this family that navigates its way between three distinct attitudes towards tradition and finds a middle ground that allows them to remain connected.
The Sens are a Chinese family whose contemporary house in Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburbs gives no obvious indication of the origin of its inhabitants, save for the red Chinese tea set gleaming in the entrance hallway. On every family occasion, this family of three grapples with either loosening the ties of tradition or holding them firmly in order to preserve their history for future generations.
Its members own tradition in three very distinct ways. For mother, Joy, tradition is an experience she engaged with at her wedding and for the first couple of years in her marriage. But, after 30 years, she is no longer concerned with upholding custom.
In contrast, her husband Teddy is a staunch traditionalist and steadfast in his beliefs. He is bound to tradition by a sense of loyalty and duty. Their daughter Nicole believes Chinese traditions are outdated and she should not have them imposed upon her.
So how does this family navigate its way through the dynamics created by their different attitudes to traditional values?
Joy Sen’s grandmother was a coloured woman. It was from her Chinese husband that her grandchildren inherited their pin-straight hair and barely perceptible Chinese eyes. And from her, their richer complexion, and their title of being “mixed”.
“It was from her Chinese husband that her grandchildren inherited their pin-straight hair and barely perceptible Chinese eyes”
Coming from a mixed family, Joy has never completely claimed Chinese traditions as her own. Her mixed family never strictly observed Chinese culture and, growing up during apartheid, Joy’s family settled in areas that were previously set aside for coloured and black people. The mingling of different lives, cultures and traditions blurred the lines of her Chinese tradition and her understanding of it.
Joy never thought she would marry a Chinese man. She dated many white boys but it was Teddy who won her heart by bravely telling the head boy, who was dancing with Joy at a school dance, to “piss off”.
When Joy married into Teddy’s traditional family, her mother told her she should do whatever her mother-in-law saw fit, and that she should take whatever she was taught by the family, regardless of what she had learnt in her mother’s home. That is how Joy ended up having a traditional Chinese tea ceremony at her wedding.
At the start of their marriage, Joy found herself observing traditions, as the Sens did, out of a sense of obligation. When the Sens insisted on having a Chinese tea ceremony, Joy and her family willingly participated. But not having had much previous experience of Chinese traditions, the family found themselves thrown into a world they really did not understand.
During a Chinese tea ceremony, the parents of the bride are supposed to present the bridegroom’s parents with red lucky packets. Joy’s family were unaware of this and felt embarrassed when they didn’t have them. Joy laughs as she recalls the photograph taken of Joy’s mother complaining to Teddy after the ceremony while Teddy is shrugging his shoulders.
After the wedding, Joy had to make sense of these traditions. Although she tried her best to understand and make an effort to play her part, she soon decided it wasn’t for her. She found the customs a burden and, in some cases, she did not even believe in the ceremonies. She remembers two that she refused to participate in. The first was her daughter’s introduction to the ancestors and the second was the Chinese burial of her father.
In Chinese tradition, when a child turns a month old, a munyat is observed. This is a ceremony in which the child is allowed out of the house for the first time and is introduced to other family members. The child is also taken to a shrine and introduced to the ancestors.
Joy participated in the festivities but when the time came to present Nicole to the ancestors, she chose not to go. Instead she let her mother-in-law and Teddy present Nicole at the shrine. Her reason for not taking part was a simple one: “I don’t believe in that.”
Joy also has different beliefs about death and the afterlife. When her father died, Joy was content to let him go and say her goodbyes.
However, it was at his traditional Chinese burial that Joy learnt “the Chinese don’t say goodbye”. Her face twists in confusion as she explains how money and expensive liquor were put into her father’s casket. The items are believed to be for the use of the deceased person in the afterlife. “My mother even insisted that they put his spectacles in.”
When Joy thought she had said her final goodbye to her father, the rest of the family “brought him back home”. They placed his photograph in their house, not just as a reminder, but as a representation of him.
Joy recalls the day she came home and found her mother cooking some fish for her husband, as it was his favourite. Later, she placed the fish and a drink in front of his photograph. Joy says she was shocked by this and remembers that it “creeped” her out a little bit.
As Joy discusses Chinese traditions, she speaks of “they” rather than “us”. She brightens as she declares that her in-laws have never made the traditions intrusive. Her mother-in-law once told her that when her side of the family were all “asleep” she would not have to carry on with the traditions.
However, Joy has already started to rid herself of the customs she views as “cumbersome”. The Sens no longer observe Chinese New Year. For her, New Year is on December 31, at midnight. Yet, in spite of this, Joy celebrates the global New Year in a characteristically Chinese way.
Every year, she sets off fireworks at all the entrances of their house to chase out the bad luck of the previous year and make way for good luck in the coming year. For Joy, this is as Chinese as she gets. For husband Teddy though, there is more.
Unlike Joy, Teddy grew up in a home where Chinese tradition was observed quite strictly. He has kept many things he learnt from his mother close to his heart.Teddy recalls spending a lot of time with his mother learning about traditional ceremonies.
In a conversation with his mother- in-law about munyat, it was Teddy who corrected her interpretation and understanding of the ceremony. “It’s not ‘if’, Mother, it’s ‘when’ ” a child is being introduced to the ancestors, he told her. Teddy is the first point of reference for the extended family when they are uncertain about the finer details of particular ceremonies.
Teddy learnt the customs from his mother because he had to. “When you are a child, you do what you are told.” One of the first traditions that springs to his mind, when he remembers his childhood, is the offering of food and drink to the ancestors at a shrine in their home. This is a practice Teddy’s mom still follows today.
For Teddy, tradition and its passing on, is the responsibility of the matriarch. As in many other cultures, the mother teaches the children and instils cultural values in them. “The child will practise the teachings from the mother,” says Teddy.
While he would have liked to practise Chinese traditions more overtly in his family, Teddy has taken a back seat, allowing Joy to teach Nicole about life, culture and tradition – a bitter-sweet arrangement in the Sen household, as Joy is intent on raising her daughter as South African, rather than as a Chinese girl.
Even though Teddy does not impose his traditions on his family, he insists on sticking to his roots when he can. At least twice a year, Teddy and his mother visit the cemetery to pay their respects to all their relatives who have died. His wife and daughter no longer go with him, but he is steadfast in this. He believes it is a matter of respect.
Teddy attributes his family’s disassociation from Chinese traditions to being in a different country. “It’s now not about not wanting to practice tradition, it’s about not being able to.”
Before 1994, there was no temple where Chinese people could worship. By the time the Chinese temple in Bronkhorstspruit was built, he says many Chinese people had started to let go of their traditions. “You can’t expect to do what you do in another country.”
Teddy laughs as he explains that he calls his daughter a banana. “She’s yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.”
The Chinese girl who wanted to be a Zulu girl
Nicole was delivered to the Sens when she was just three weeks old. This was just after her father turned 40 and, because of this, she is affectionately known to the family as “Teddy’s 40th birthday present”. The baby girl of Taiwanese origin landed up with the Sens after a phone call from the social worker who had been helping Teddy and Joy adopt a child. “We have a baby. Can you come fetch her today?”
Nicole spent her early childhood immersed in Chinese culture. Relatives bought her Chinese dresses. One aunt even bought her a Chinese doll, so that she would have a doll who looked more like her.
Nicole remembers “going all out” when it came to heritage days in school. Clad in her button-up outfits, hair in pigtails, she would pitter- patter around in the Chinese slippers her mother had fashioned by painting flowers on her ballet slippers. Nicole was always enthusiastic about displaying her Chinese culture and tradition but, when she was five, her enthusiasm died.
When Nicole was five years of age, she came home from nursery school in a state because her teacher had told her she would have to play a Chinese girl in the school’s cultural showcase. “Mommy, I don’t want to be a Chinese girl, I want to be a Zulu girl.”
At school, Nicole had the chance to negotiate being Chinese but at home she could not suddenly become “un-Chinese”. Like many other Chinese children, Nicole was exposed to Chinese traditions by her father. She would visit the cemetery with Teddy, who also tried to teach her Mandarin and Cantonese.
“My dad used to teach me how to count in Cantonese and say Seng fo before we ate, which means, “the food is ready”.
Now 16, Nicole believes she is ready to negotiate just how Chinese she will be. Although she has an understanding of the importance of tradition for her father and grandmother, she is closer to her mother and follows her convictions.
For Nicole, tradition is not the be-all and end-all. She believes the traditions her father follows are outdated. “I feel like the people like dad’s side of the family that left China a long time ago are holding on to traditions that the people in China don’t even have any more.”
The cultural events she has participated in, she has done so because she felt obliged to. “I feel like I have to do it.” Her grandfather’s funeral earlier this year was the most traditional event she has ever taken part in.
“We had to fold paper boats, I swear I folded like 2000 of them and then we had to burn them as people came in.” Yet, even though she took part in the ceremony, she is unable to explain the significance of the boats.
Like her mother, she does not claim Chinese tradition as her own, but takes part because it makes her grandmother happy. “My dad guilt trips me,” laughs Nicole, “then I feel bad.”
On the surface, Nicole is only as Chinese as her pin-straight hair. “I don’t even look Chinese.”
Her father and her grandmother are the only two people who call her by her Chinese name, Yuklan. To everybody else, she is Nicole Sen, and according to her Instagram account, a “fashion obsessed lover of art and collar bones”.
“My friends don’t even think I’m Chinese. People always ask me what I am.”
Nicole’s parents represent two opposing views on tradition. Like any family, they fight and they compromise. When it comes to Nicole though, Joy and Teddy share the same view: they want her to be happy, a happiness that is not hinged on Chinese traditions or the lack thereof.
“I have no Chinese wishes for Nicole,” says Joy, and Teddy believes “what will be, will be and what must be, must be. Once they have their wings, they will ultimately decide what they want to be”.
FEATURED IMAGE: A family portrait of the Sen Family. Photo: Nomatter Ndebele