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 Their daughter Nicole believes Chinese traditions are outdated and she should not have them imposed upon her.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 complexio, 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.
VIEW THINGLINK: Modern family – The Sens of Joburg
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.