By Susan Tan
As a child, I was enthralled by traditions.
I loved them, from going to Hebrew school, to my parent’s tradition of letting us eat ice cream for dinner on April Fool’s day, to the way we lined our shoes up in straight, neat rows before going inside my Nai Nai and Ye Ye’s apartment.
This love of traditions has lasted into my adult life, and I often wonder if my family and our traditions are the reason that I write. My mother’s family is Jewish, and came over from Russia several generations ago. My father’s family is Chinese and Christian, and my Ye Ye was an evangelical Christian minister. I’ve inherited a rich family history that teems with stories, from my grandparents’ accounts of their close escape from Communist China with my father as an infant, to the stories my mother’s mother tells of Passover Seders all in Hebrew and Yiddish, with linen napkins so big they spilled from your lap to the floor. We’re also a family that continually generates new narratives, because when you ask your evangelical minister grandfather to please come up to say an Aaliyah at your Bat Mitzvah, that simple act is, in itself, a pretty excellent story.
When I was younger, I followed our traditions with what must have been an exhausting zeal. I was enthralled by the at-home pageantry of preparing meals for the high holidays, and loved learning about (and then telling everyone else) what kinds of foods we should eat for luck on Chinese New Year. I was just as invested in our small, everyday traditions. I taught my sisters that you could never walk down the hallway to Nai Nai and Ye Ye’s apartment — you had to run. Because the tradition was that they’d be there, arms open, waiting to swing you up into the air. It was a tradition. It was our way. And it seemed that to change this would have been to change something intrinsic about who we were.
It’s easy to see, now that much of this childhood insistence on tradition came from a desire to belong. There were few other mixed-race children where I grew up, and from a young age, I was used to having to “prove” that I was a member of my respective communities. Traditions, I felt, grounded me. Because when I knew them and enacted them, wouldn’t it prove that was, unequivocally, part of the group?
Of course, this was not the case. And as I grew older, I learned that there were darker, more rigid sides to rituals and the familiar. In Hebrew school, I’d always be asked “why” I was there, and even after years at my Temple, there were still some convinced that I simply “couldn’t” be Jewish. And while my Ye Ye and Nai Nai were supportive of me, I always had to check the red envelopes other church aunties and uncles gave us on Chinese New Year, going through my sisters’ envelopes and taking out the pamphlets on hell and damnation before giving them the $10 bill that remained.
There were other realizations too, such as my growing awareness that many traditions on both sides of my family rely on the invisible labor of women. Indeed, I later learned I almost didn’t go to Hebrew school at all. My mother hadn’t been allowed to go because she was a girl, and had felt estranged from Judaism ever since.
These moments became traditions of a different kind. They were repetitive, familiar moments of negotiating ignorance, of confronting close-mindedness, and of realizing the flaws built into the foundations of my family world.
Writing Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book is A Classic was a chance to revisit these experiences and to consider the loaded nature of tradition and families in all their tensions and joys. Cilla, like me, has a deep love of her traditions. In them, she finds connection and community, a rich narrative history that she and her family can share.
At the same time, throughout the course of the book, the traditions she loves become a source of worry for Cilla. Prompted by other peoples’ assumptions, Cilla begins to question if she’s “Chinese enough” to participate in her family life, and puts pressure on herself to learn all her families traditions in order to “prove” herself to the people she loves. Ultimately, Cilla has to learn that the traditions she values are, above all, acts of family and community. She has to learn that even in the most supportive and loving of communities, there can be flawed traditions. And she is given the chance to realize her own power: that sometimes, when traditions need to be changed, you can make your own.
 Chinese for grandmother and grandfather
Susan Tan grew up in a mixed-race family, and, like Cilla Lee-Jenkins, had very little hair until the age of five. After studying at Williams College, she earned her PhD from the University of Cambridge, where she studied children’s literature. She currently lives in Somerville, enjoys frequent trips to Chinatown to eat tzuck sang, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.