Rolling with the Sens

Grandma Suntoy.

Grandma Suntoy.

For the past couple of days, I have spent a lot of time with the Sen Family, trying to tell their family story of Tradition. But yesterday I realised that, while I’m telling their particular story, the Narrative of tradition and the dynamics therein can be found in every family.

Yesterday afternoon I had with Grandma Suntoy who spoke of her undying loyalty to the Chinese traditions. “My father always told me before you are anything else, you are Chinese”. This is the teaching that Grandma Suntoy has grown up with. I watched Grandma Suntoy tearing up, while she spoke about her daughter Joy, and the road she has chosen. Joy has not abandoned Chinese tradition, but she no longer feels the need to observe Chinese traditions as strictly as her family did.

For Grandma Suntoy, it’s important to observe her Chinese traditions. It’s important to follow in the footsteps of her father and her grandfather. Being Chinese is part of who she is, and while she has to live in this modern westernized world, she says she will always choose her Chinese roots “Put me at a western dinner table, or a Chinese one, I will always choose the Chinese one”

Her and Teddy mused at how going out for “fine dining” means that you’ll only get a taste of a taste. For Chinese people however, it is important to eat in abundance, when people eat, they must feel as though you are satisfied. Burping isn’t something that is looked down upon; it just means that you are really enjoying the food.

Joy and Nicole Sen share a hug a laugh!

Joy and Nicole Sen share a hug a laugh!

Earlier in the week, when I spoke to Nicole she told me how her Dad had tried to teach her mandarin when she was younger. Grandma Suntoy also remembers having helped her daughter Joy (Nicole’s mom) practise her Mandarin. Her face lights up, when she tells me that Joy was one of the top students when it came to her Trilingual exams. She excelled in English, Afrikaans and Chinese. Grandma Suntoy is Moyonese, but not having anyone to speak too means that she is slowly losing the Dialect. This made me think of myself and my own language issues. I am supposed to speak Zimbabwean Ndebele, but because I’ve been here for so long I now speak Zulu. Being the only Zimbabwean person in both primary school and High school, I never really had anyone to speak Ndebele too, and now I can’t string more than sentences together. But when I hear other people speaking Ndebele, I can make the connections of which word means what.

Teddy Sen, with Pip. Nicole's 9th birthday gift.

Teddy Sen, with Pip. Nicole’s 9th birthday gift.

Every time I speak to Teddy, I am reminded that dissociation from tradition is not something that happens to black people only; It is something that affects all of us. Just as it’s an issue for Black kids that can’t speak their mother tongue, it’s an issue for Chinese families too! “Heritage day, is the only proper holiday in South Africa” says Teddy. Tradition is an ever changing thing, with stories of migration and settling comes the narrative of change.

While Tradition is something to hold onto, I feel that you must be ready to loosen your grip, and readjust your hands as time as goes by.

Throughout my whole experience with the Sens, I have placed myself in between both worlds, yet I find myself being more sympathetic to the traditionalists in the family. Every time I speak to them, I see just how much it means to them, and while they have resigned themselves to letting Joy and Nicole follow their own paths one can see that it isn’t easy for them.

Lately, whenever I feel overwhelmed or confused, or uncertain about how things should be, I think on Teddy’s words the first day I met him. Again, we had been talking about tradition and the future of his family, he paused for a while and then said: “Nomatter, what must be, must be and What will be, will be” I believe he is right, at then of the day, people will choose their own paths, and being Chinese will mean different things to them, and that is just how the going goes!

What must be, must be and what will be, will be…


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