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.
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.