For a young Chinese South African, marrying outside the Chinese community can still create problems with older generations. Marrying “out” can sometimes mean being left out by some family and community members.

 

By Liesl Frankson.

It is 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon and Zelda Edgar* has cleared a space at her dining-room table in anticipation of her visitor. In front of her she has an invitation and a menu from her daughter’s wedding. She also has before her a copy of Ufrieda Ho’s book Paper Sons and Daughters.

She walks to the fridge for some bottled water and sets it down on the dining-room table. Almost every kitchen surface is packed with collectable bottles, biscuit tins and ornaments from another time. The dining room is no different, with photos of all sizes hanging on the walls and lining the cabinets holding fancy dishes.

A few Chinese ornaments are scattered through the clutter of the house and above the table is a white vase depicting a Chinese tale. This is Edgar’s small way of celebrating her Chinese heritage.

Edgar does not conform to a Chinese stereotype. Darker in complexion, she would be considered “coloured” in South Africa. Only her eyes tweak upward at the edges.

Sixty-year-old Edgar is the daughter of a marriage between a Chinese father and an Indian mother.  Her parents got married in 1951, when the practice of inter-racial marriage was not only taboo in South Africa but also within the Chinese community. “In terms of tradition and inter-marrying, it was frowned upon,” says Edgar. “There was a lot of trouble in the family, especially when we [she and her brother] came along.”

The Chinese community has a long-standing history in South Africa. They have lived through apartheid and are a part of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the “rainbow nation”. However, it would appear the traditional and cultural expectations of South African Chinese parents in terms of marriage and weddings still stand, especially when it comes to marrying outside the community.

“My parents wanted me to marry a Chinese man in order to purify the blood,”

 

Some expectations are rooted in the teachings of Chinese teacher, philosopher and politician Confucius, who lived from 551 BC to 479 BC. Traditionally, a woman is only supposed to get married once and individuals with the same surname cannot marry. Women are also expected to marry while they are still young.  Although some of these expectations are now more negotiable, others are not.

The older generations still expect their children and grandchildren to marry Chinese men and women who are well educated and financially stable, even though there may not be that many Chinese men and women to choose from in South Africa.

Howard Ahhon (31) is unmarried and says it is not easy for him to find a partner because of the limited number of Chinese girls in the country. “The way my mom and dad were brought up they expect me to marry a Chinese girl.”

He does however believe that his parents will respect his decision should he bring home someone from outside the community, even though they may not be too happy about it. “My ideal person would be a Chinese girl but you never know, living in South Africa, the rainbow nation.”

Edgar recalls that, even as the daughter of a mixed marriage, she was still expected to marry within the community. “My parents wanted me to marry a Chinese man in order to purify the blood,” she says, and it was something she was told when she was still young.

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The book on Edgar’s dining-room table is Paper Sons and Daughters, the memoir of award-winning Chinese South African journalist Ufrieda Ho. In it, she explains how Chinese parents in South Africa used the Chinese school as a way to retain some of their “Chineseness” and promote Chinese culture.

It was also a way to make sure their children interacted within their community. “They wanted us to grow up knowing other Chinese children and, in that way, have some hope that we would marry within the race.”

It was at the now closed Chinese school that Edgar’s daughter, Jody*, found her Chinese husband.  Jody* and Derrick* started dating in standard 7 (grade 9) and later went on to get married when they were 28.  Edgar says she sent her daughter to the Chinese school not only for the quality of education, but also for cultural reasons, in order to please her father.

Dan Ling* had been displeased that his daughter had not married a Chinese man. “In all my years I can never say I was ever attracted to a Chinese man, I viewed them in a dim light,” says Edgar.

She also was not attracted to Indian guys and found herself dating and eventually marrying a coloured man. “I just didn’t like Indians even though my mother was Indian.” She says her attraction to a coloured man was probably a result of spending much of her school career interacting with coloured people. As she had often been mistaken for a coloured person, it felt right more than anything else. “My parents were opposed to me marrying Jerome but they knew once we turned 21 we would do it and we did.”

The consequences of marrying out  

Ling was the eldest son in his family. In the Chinese culture, the first-born son has certain privileges and responsibilities to carry on the family name.  He is supposed to be revered, along with his wife and children. But it did not work that way for Ling and his family, because he married outside the community.

“We were unfortunately the outcasts and as a little girl I knew something was wrong.  I just wasn’t sure exactly what,” says Edgar.  Her father, however, continued to ensure that his children interacted with their family and he tried his best to pass on the Chinese culture.

Rejection by your family is still one of the consequences some of the younger generation of Chinese South Africans are aware of.

Edgar believes the main reason some of the older generations are opposed to marrying outside of the community stems from some of the bad experiences others have had. These experiences include divorce, infidelity or abuse. In her case it was the experiences of her family members.

“Some of my other cousins have married outside of the Chinese community, and they are all divorced. So the general idea is, if you marry anything other than Chinese, you’ll get divorced.”

Edgar says her father’s family had similar sentiments. One of her cousins married a woman from outside the Chinese community against his father’s wishes. “My uncle was on his death bed, literally, and he said: ‘Don’t marry her’. My cousin married her and she made him emigrate to Canada, and then divorced him. So outsiders are not viewed in a nice manner.”

In her book, Ho also speaks about the generalised perceptions associated with marrying outside. Her parents were worried she would ask a white boy to her matric dance because of a joke she’d made. Her father told her that “white men are not good for Chinese girls”. To make the point, he used an example of an old family friend who was abused by her white boyfriend.

In the case of her family, Edgar believes the biggest problem was not a fear of divorce but rather that she and her brother had come out dark in complexion. As a result, they had to face sometimes harsh prejudice from within the family because their skin colour was seen as unacceptable.

Edgar recalls the huge fight her father had with his sister when it was time to enrol the children in school. “My father’s sister wanted him to take my brother out of the private school my cousins were at because we were an embarrassment to the family name.”

She also remembers that one of her uncles was keen on photography. At family functions, he would take photographs of the children’s happy moments but he would always make sure that she was only ever half in the photo. “At a recent family reunion we were reviewing family photos and I was always cut in half down the middle.”

Edgar may not have had the opportunity to fulfil some of the wedding traditions expected of her but her daughter Jody did. She performed a traditional Chinese wedding tea ceremony.

Fulfilling wedding expectations

Chinese weddings in South Africa have evolved. Modern Chinese brides no longer wear the traditional dress, the red cheong saam, at their weddings. Now they wear Western-style white wedding gowns.

The weddings may be fashioned in a Western way but some of the younger generation of Chinese South Africans still adhere to the more sacred Chinese wedding traditions.

Edgar’s daughter and son in-law, Jody and Derrick, performed a small tea ceremony in order to honour their tradition but they adhered to other traditions as well. In particular their wedding menu was a very special one. “We didn’t serve any lamb or beef at the wedding,” says Jody. This symbolises that the wife will not be obstinate.  They served chicken and fish dishes instead.

The wedding invitations and some of the decor were fashioned along the more traditional lines. “Our wedding invitations were gold and red. Red is a very lucky colour in Chinese culture,” says Jody. The invitation was written in English and Chinese.

“The English section was on the left page and the Chinese on the right because the Chinese calligraphy reads down, so you could open the invite from right to left for English or left to right for our Chinese family.”

Other young Chinese South Africans are also fulfilling their parents’ wedding expectations but on a much smaller scale. Jenny Min and her husband kept it simple by only performing a Chinese wedding tea ceremony.

“The younger generation are not going to stick to Chinese marrying Chinese. The world’s a melting pot now. People just get married, have kids and life goes on.”

 

“We chose to keep our ceremony very small and intimate so it was just my parents and his parents,” says Min. The tea ceremony or yum cha is the practice of serving tea to your parents and parents-in-law. “It’s a way to welcome you into the family and also to say thank you to your parents for raising you.”

The bride and groom stand side by side with the bride in front of the father and the groom in front of the mother. They present the tea with both hands as a sign of respect. In return the parents present the bride and groom with a lai see, a red envelope with a gift of money in it. “They also give marriage advice,” says Min.

***

Edgar believes that, had her father lived long enough, he would have been very happy with his granddaughter’s choice of husband and proud of her fulfilling some of these wedding practices. “He would’ve been pleased because he loved her very much. He would also have adored his great-grandchildren.”

She maintains that, although it is still very difficult to marry out of the Chinese community, times have changed and the younger generations are more open to the idea of marrying out. “The younger generation are not going to stick to Chinese marrying Chinese. The world’s a melting pot now. People just get married, have kids and life goes on.”

Her belief is that, although mixed marriages in the Chinese community are slowly becoming more popular, the prejudice the community has about marrying out is selective. “It’s more accepted if you marry out and it’s a white person,” says Edgar. She believes that, somehow, having lighter skin is more acceptable than being darker. “But it’s still mixing the blood so it doesn’t make sense.”

She says the older people today need to accept and move on so that the children of these marriages do not have to experience what she did when she was growing up. “It still hurts today. We were called offensive names in Cantonese, names that were an insult to my father for having us.”

Despite the prejudice she experienced, even from within the family, she still respects her father’s family and her Chinese heritage. “Their blood is in my veins.” She also thinks that it is important for some of the more harmless expectations, like performing a tea ceremony and other wedding requirements, to be preserved and passed on to the younger generations.

“A lot of the tradition is falling away because we’ve become more Westernised and it’s sad to see my culture dying out amongst the younger generations.”