With love, The Sens

This evening Joy invited me over to their house for dinner, she treated me to a special Chinese cuisine, which is kind of like a surprise dumpling. It’s a portion of sticky rice filled with various beans, a piece of pork and mushrooms. We had this with a side of vegetables and a chicken and corn soup.

The chicken corn soup, is Nicole’s favourite dish, everything else we had isn’t really her favourite so we had it tonight while she’s away on a school athletics trip. Joy and  I Spoke about the various Chinese dishes that the Sens have, what struck me the most however in our dinner conversation is the love Joy has for Nicole.

Joy and Nicole chatting.

Joy and Nicole chatting.

She speaks fondly of her daughter telling me little anecdotes of the moments she has shared with her daughter. Nicole literally dropped into the Sens home when she was three weeks old, the social worker called Joy up, telling her that she had a baby. Joy thought she would probably collect Nicole in the next couple of weeks or so, instead the social worker said “Actually, can you come tomorrow”?? And that was the start of love so real, you can see it in Joys eyes every time she mentions Nicole.

Joy has been working on a family photo album since April 2012, she is on page 98 of 100. I stood in their study while Joy flipped through the pictures of her Family album.  This is a real family album, there are pictures of each person and little narratives of their individual lives. There are photos of Nicole painting her room with her best friend. There are photos of Clinton’s Grandmother dancing with Cousin Ryan, just before she passed away. There are photos of teddy with his guide dog that they later found out was sponsored by the Comrades runners. (Ted ran the comrades 5 times)

This photo album is everything.  Joy has the embarrassing photos of a naked baby Nicole, of toothless Nicole and of baby Nicole lying on Teddy’s chest.

“When I took this photo of Nicole lying on Teddy’s chest, I noticed that every time I laughed, she laughed in her sleep, so I said to teddy, look I’ll show you and I laughed, then she laughed, it was the most amazing thing ever”

This is one of the many stories Joy shared with me  tonight, she also remembers the very long conversation she had with an year old Nicole, who sat on the toilet seat and asked “why didn’t my real mother keep me” this is a conversation that Joy thought she would have had when Nicole was 16, but it came much earlier, and since that day, it hasn’t come up again.

I’ve spent a lot of Time with Sens and in all the time I’ve spent with them, I have focused on the narrative of tradition, but today I realised that the stronger narrative is that of love. I don’t think I have ever met a family more loving than the Sens.

Everything they do for one another is a labour of love. This is what Joy describes the toy box as.

The toy box Joy made for Nicole "It was a labour of love"

The toy box Joy made for Nicole “It was a labour of love”

When Nicole was younger. Joy made a toy box for her, she painted it pink and Decoupaged it, with little fairies, on the inside of this box, there are cut out photos of Nicole that have been made into a collage, covering the surface of the lid of this toy Box. “I chose each picture for a reason” says Joy; there isn’t a single duplication of a photo, that is how much thought went into that toy box.

Just yesterday Grandma Suntoy told me about Joy’s Childhood, she beamed with pride when she told me that Joy was one of two students who excelled in the Trilingual exam, and a generation later, Joy showed me all of Nicole’s trophies, she was the only student to have received the awards for best Hockey player, Netball player and for Athletics in one year “They usually give them to three different kids, but this time, Nicole got them all” says Joy, then she repositions the trophies, lining them up perfectly next to one another.

Joy straightens Nicole's sport trophies

Joy straightens Nicole’s sport trophies

Tomorrow Joy is leaving for Potchefstroom at 7:30 am, to go and watch Nicole run at the Inter high athletics competition.

Yesterday While Teddy was doing my feet, he said to me, “you are just like my daughter, she says to me Dad, I’m going to watch the rugby, but I know she’s going for all the Sexy boys’ legs, I tell her-You don’t know a thing about Rugby”

Teddy also refers to his daughter as a Banana, yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. But whether she is a Banana or not, she is his Little Madam and Joy is the Madam.

So, this got me thinking, what’s the big hoohah? Tradition won’t change anything about this family, they will love one another until the end of time, regardless of what traditions and ceremonies pop up along the way.

This afternoon Teddy gave me a Chinese name Momonthai. This translates to “No need to worry” and honestly I don’t think he could have picked a better name.

There really is no need to worry, I’m not worried about the future for the Sens, It doesn’t matter to me whether or not Nicole will follow traditions, I know that whatever she decides she will come to home to a house that is filled with Pictures of her family and she will belong, and she will be loved.

That’s my story for today. Love conquers all, it doesn’t many how many disagreements you have, or that you don’t always share the same vision. But if you can sit in the same house and laugh about the past and hope for the future, you have a good thing.

I am totally on a mission to make Clinton marry me, so that I can marry into this amazing family. For those of you who don’t know, The Sens are Clinton’s aunt and uncle and I went to school with Clinton, I must admit. It’s not looking too good right now, but if anything, at least I got a Chinese name and I have experienced “Family” in a way that only the Sens can share it.


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…

What about the rest of us?

Last night I spent my evening with the Sen’s a South African Chinese family that lives in Emmarentia.

The Sens have become the family that my feature will be based on, Lately I have spent a lot of time chatting to Joy, Nicole and Teddy about what what tradition means to them. Teddy, is staunch traditionalist, while Joy has pulled away from tradition.  16 year old Nicole is closer to her mother, and has thus adopted the same convictions about Tradition. For her, Tradition is outdated and she would rather follow the more liberal path, but this a story for my feature, so sit tight until comes out.

When I was interviewing Joy about growing up in South Africa she told me how she remembers the meeting that PW Botha called, for all the Chinese communities in South Africa. The National Party was offering Chinese people, white status. They had been previously unclassified and settled where they could which was often in black and coloured areas.

The Chinese community was not keen on accepting the governments offer, the elders argued that  they did not want to be white, as that would mean that they would have to send their only sons into the army, and they were concerned about what would happen if they died.

“The argument that really stuck out for me, was from the Witsies, they said to us: One day the national party will not be in power and you won’t want to be white then” says Joy.

This conversation with Joy, made me realize that apartheid was not just a struggle for the black people (Black as in African, coloured and white). While one may think, but how did the Chinese struggle? They weren’t even classified. I think that very notion of being unclassified was the struggle.

While everybody else was designated to certain areas, the Chinese weren’t. They lived nomadic lives, settling where they could for however long they could, before it was time to move again.

Can you imagine not having a place to stay? One person can hustle it out maybe, but whole families? How do you keep your kids in school? How do you earn a living?  How do you start families?

I’ll admit, when it was decided that the Chinese would be eligible for our BEE program, I thought to myself, how is that even possible? (These are the boxes of prejudice I was told to unpack, before I started my Chinese Johannesburg research project)

After hearing stories from various Chinese people and the Sens, I realise that I was wrong to carry around this false sense of entitlement as though the struggle was only for black people I mean, I’m not even South African, but I had the audacity to question why Chinese people could be part of BEE.

Perhaps that is the problem with our attitude as South Africans. While we cannot deny the injustices of apartheid, it worries me that our people will always fall back on the struggle as being theirs and theirs alone.

Today Julius Malema, is calling for the land to be returned back to its rightful owners, and this all good and well. This country needs redress, we need to try and give everybody the opportunities of economic, social and political freedom. But here’s my thing, what of the all the other people who fought in the struggle, and were not black?

Do we just take everything away from them, regardless of what they did or did not do in apartheid?

I honestly believe that apartheid would never have ended when it did, if we didn’t have the support of all the stake holders in South Africa. There were whites thrown in jail, for having relationships with non-whites, Newspapers that tried to bypass the censorship laws to provide people with the right information were harassed endlessly, what do we say about that? Or do we just ignore that because well, they aren’t black?

There is no quick fix to what apartheid did to us, and maybe if we all just stopped walking around with this sense of entitlement thinking “This belongs to me, I deserve this” we could find a way, to come together and figure out how to make our country work.

At the end of the day, whether you are black or white, coloured, Indian or Chinese you are South African. You have a role to play as a citizen of this country, and pointing fingers and crying foul about everything will not do anything for our country.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should downplay or simply forget what apartheid did to us, what I’m saying is, at some point in our lives, we need to stop being victims. We need to stop treating the struggle as though it was an exclusive club reserved for black people only. There is no degree of suffering; everybody in apartheid had to deal with the struggle as well their own personal battles.

Who are we to decide, who has lost more? Who we are we to decide who belongs and who doesn’t? At the end of the day, apartheid happened to all of us, we will never be the same again. But what good is it, to dwell in these differences if it’s not going to change anything?

For God sake, why can’t we all just get along??

The stories we find, when we aren’t looking.

Piyong, A 52 year old resident at the chinese Old age home in Belgravia

Piyong, A 52 year old resident at the chinese Old age home in Belgravia

This afternoon I took a trip down to the Chinese old age home in Belgravia, just past Jeppestown. I wanted to meet some older Chinese people, who would be able to let me know a little about traditional weddings and what marriage means to the Chinese. When I arrived, I learnt the lesson I have been learning over and over again this year.

You hardly ever come home with the story, you went to look for.While I was recording an interview with Sister Maureen who works at the old age home, my attention was drawn to a little Chinese woman, who was pitter pattering about in the courtyard.

“She hops from one chair to the other, taking a moment to sit still in each, perfectly poised. She looks down in conversation with herself and every now and again little giggles escape from her, and fill the air. This is Piyong, A 52 year old Chinese womn, who suffers from Down syndrome. Suffers is not the right word.She pitter patter’s around the court yard, peering curiously at all the other old woman. A sheepish grin spreads to her face, before an effervescent giggle from her heart fills the atmosphere .

That’s the thing about Piyong. “She would have been really lonely in China, but she is happy here, in her own little world ”says Sister Maureen.That’s the thing. She is happy. A happiness that is so simple, uncomplicated by words or frivolous translations thereof. Piyong cannot speak anyway, she has mastered one word though: Mama. Perhaps the most important for any living human.

Piyong is alive, she is life, unphased by the stillness around her, she moves from seat to seat as if playing a little game. After she pauses deep in thought, she slips away, and appears again to peer at me through a stack of chairs. Her curious eyes light up as I raise my camera and she throws her head back giggling in the simplest purest moment of ecstasy that I have never seen. I don’t know what she thinks of, when she stills. I don’t know what she sees in her mind when she quietens for a few a seconds, when she comes back to us though, she is laughing always.

Meeting my eyes with a bold confidence, Piyong stares into my camera as if she had been waiting for this moment all her life. Again, she peers at the elder woman sitting across from her and a little grin finds its way onto her small face. I looked away from a minute to adjust my camera and when I looked up, Piyong was pulling out a packet of Marie biscuits . A Chinese man had come to the old age home last week and bought with him, some biscuits and milk for the residents. Piyong has guarded hers, with her heart.

she holds the packet in her hand and quietens, before long she giggles again and makes her way back to her fort behind the chairs. I can’t see her now, but I can hear her giggling, mumbling sweet nothings and everything to herself.

Piyong came to the old age home after her family lost everything they had when the civil war broke out in Maputo. She is at the Old age home with her mother and her aunt, they are all illegal immigrants. There is no way she will ever return to China. She will never go anywhere, except the places she goes to go alone. When I woke up today, I never went to look for a story about a down syndrome Chinese Woman, but what have I come home with? A story of happiness, purity, simplicity and life- Piyong’s story.

A Noddy badge for Google translate

So, I am fully recovered from German measles and I have officially joined #TeamChineseInJohannesburg.

Yesterday, one of the girls told me that I could bypass the language barrier by using Google translate to translate my questions into Chinese.

So that’s what I did. I wrote up an introductory letter, explaining who I am, and what my research project is about and what I need help with. I typed that up into Google Translate, printed it out and went forth into the world to find myself a Chinese source.

I remembered that there is a young Chinese girl who works at a clothing shop in Emmarentia. I missioned there this afternoon, where I found her with another  young Chinese man. I was really excited to show them my letter, so I literally walked in there, said Hi and pulled out my letter.

They read it out loud, and sort of tried to understand some parts of the letter.

Em, had warned me earlier that Google translate wasn’t always very accurate. This is what she meant.

After they read the letter, Yen asked me to leave my contact details and he said he would message me later this evening.

At about 8:15 I received a text from Yen, that I suspect had also been Google translated as there was a bit of Chinese writing at the top the text.

In the message, (Possibly the longest Text I have ever received) Yen gave me a lot of information about arranged marriages, he said in some cases, people may meet the person their going to marry, the night before the ceremony.

His text also touched on ancient Chinese Traditions, and how young Chinese are slowly pulling away from that favouring more western weddings.

At the end of that very informative text, Yen added “I’m sorry, this is all I know”

And I thought to myself, what a hero. What a humble hero!

Anyway, I have an appointment with Yen tomorrow morning again, so I need to get my next Google translate letter ready! So we can delve a little deeper into arranged marriages, I am looking forward to it!

I think I am also going to tweet Google and let them know that their getting a noddy badge from me! 

Spanner in the works.

So like…

I have measles and I am supposed to be out and about doing research for my in depth project. This is awkward.

It’s not a train smash though.

This means that I just have to spend a little more time doing desktop and telephonic research. And as the universe would have it, this led me to another interesting topic Chinese marriage.

I read up about the week long celebrations and how the bride must always cry when her groom comes to fetch her to show that she is sad to leave her family. All in all, it sounded like a big Jol, with fireworks.

But while I read on, I quickly found that it isn’t exactly a big jol. There are cases of forced marriages in China.

When I found this, I thought. Yup, this is the one. This is what my In depth assignment is going to be about, forced marriages.

Not an easy topic, but then again, when have I ever gone for the easy topics? In my other mind, I am still working on Chinese sex workers and where there is a will, there’s a way. Best believe.

Now that I’ve found an aspect of Chinese Johannesburg that I am really interested in, I am quite amped to get back in there.

I just need my body to play along and speed up its “get rid of this virus” process. Come on body, there’s people to see, things to do, stories to tell!

Tomorrow, I hope my joints will be a little less achy, as a sign of recovery. But other than that, the going keeps going. 


China Town waddup??

Earlier this week, our  In depth research project was announced to us “Chinese in Johannesburg”.

I was just like [Insert blank stare here]. After the announcement we had a few guest speakers come in to give us a bit of background on the Chinese community in Johannesburg, where they came from, where they are and their struggles in Johannesburg under apartheid.  

At this point I was like, okay maybe kinda sorta. This could work.

This afternoon we ventured into the original China Town on Commissioner street, where I met a petite Chinese woman who told me, that If I wanted to get skinny, Tea was not going to help me if I didn’t exercise. She gently put her hand on my belly and said “you must work hard”, then told me to have some green tea.

So there I was, in the middle of China town, drinking some green tea, trying to figure out why I had never known about this, but before I could find someone to blame (what is wrong with my friends? Why haven’t they told me about this place??) we were off to Cyrildene, the new China town.

Cyrildene was nothing like Commissioner Street.

A lot of the community aren’t very fluent in English so it wasn’t very easy to interact with them and ask them about questions. One of the shop keepers was able to tell me that a floating blob looking thing in her shop was duck blood, we got a little stuck when I tried to find out what it was used for.

While I zoned around the shops, I came across a young woman with her baby. I instantly gravitated to that beautiful baby, and before I knew it I had my hands out to that baby smiling at him. I don’t know what it is about me and babies. Afterwards I stepped back and thought, this is someone else’s baby. What if she isn’t comfortable with this?

This is my biggest worry at the moment. How am I going to break down these boundaries? How am I going to become part of this community, so that they can allow me to tell their stories?

Right now I feel like the woman from Sui Hing Hong, the Chinese store on Commissioner Street, knows more about what I need to do, that she realizes.  I “must work hard”.

Tomorrow, we brainstorm.