By EMERY NICOLETTI
Tenny Tenka, 63, sits upright, knees together, back arched and not quite touching the chair, seemingly positioned in the very manner of a proper Chinese lady.
The Pima Community College student made her way to the United States from Indonesia in 2010 after the death of her husband, leaving behind her entire surviving family and relocating to a place she had never been before.
The first thing she did upon arrival was find a school to learn English.
“It was my passion,” she said, beaming. “I took classes four days a week. I like to learn.”
Tenka would like to eventually master Spanish and French as well. Ultimately, she dreams of becoming a writer.
Her storied journey begins more than 100 years ago with her grandfather and parents on the southeast coast of China in Hokkien, known as Fujian Province. Her parents immigrated to Indonesia before she was born.
Many ethnic Chinese around the world, especially in Southeast Asia, trace their ancestry to Fujian.
Tenka lived through tumultuous times in Indonesia, including a series of uprisings in 1965-66 involving the 30 September Movement that killed more than 500,000 people. The secondary school she attended as a 15-year-old was seized.
Her husband died at age 61 after contracting what Americans refer to as black lung. He acquired the condition as a result of painting fenders on cars without protection or proper ventilation, and from working in an atmosphere filled with second-hand smoke.
After his death, Tenka emigrated to the U.S. through the applied efforts of her younger sister. Her sister arrived 30 years ago, and now lives in Sahuarita.
Tenka left behind three sons. Martin, 36, and Ricky, 33, moved to Australia a half-decade ago. Her youngest son, Renaldo, remains in Indonesia.
She has applied to bring Renaldo to the U.S., but it takes five-to-10 years for approvals from U.S. Customs and Immigration. Her own immigration in 2010 followed an approved application submitted by her sister in 1998.
Tenka grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese, a dialect different from the language spoken by her parents. She learned a little English as a child, but quickly forgot it.
She now attends English as a Second Language class at Pima’s West and Northwest campuses, and works in the deli department at a Fry’s grocery in Sahuarita.
Some co-workers and customers were initially impatient with her lack of communication skills, Tenka admits. That was both challenging and disheartening at times.
Her Fry’s supervisor, manager Bechir Sfaxi, says Tenka’s communication skills have greatly improved. “She knows her job and gets along well with her co-workers and customers.”
Tenka drives to her job at Fry’s but takes the bus to her Pima classes.
“I am a slow driver, so I only drive in Sahuarita,” she said with a renewed school-girl grin.
There are many things that Tenka misses about Indonesia, including the spices and the smell of the earth.
“It not same smell,” she says with a lingering accent not easily detected in earlier responses. “The beauty of the clothes, the fabrics, all different, not like here.”
She goes on, trying to paint word pictures to describe the type of woven fabric she is envisioning, how it’s made and how it shimmers. “Not like silk, better.”
Tenka remembers the beautiful foliage of Indonesia, and laments that her former engulfing color of green is wiped from her new landscape.
And lastly, the air. The air she breathes in Tucson doesn’t feel quite the same.
She also misses celebrating an esteemed annual tradition to honor family ancestors, held on April 5 at the cemetery and in July at the temple.
Tenka’s marriage was not arranged, as was the tradition in many areas of China, but her parents enjoyed a successful arranged marriage for 55 years.
Her parents never expressed outward emotions such as holding hands or kissing in public, but it was quite clear to Tenka that her parents were in love. “My parents were very happy,” she says.
Public displays of affection are prohibited in Chinese tradition and are against the law in Indonesia.
“Americans hold hands in public and always say, ‘I love you,’” Tenka says. “We don’t do that.” Does she miss her husband? “Yes,” she replies. “I miss him very much.”
Would she ever re-marry? Tenka remains silent for a moment, long enough to suggest that she either did not hear the question or considers it too personal.
She raises her head. “If I meet the right person, I would consider to get remarried. But have to be the right person,” she says.
“I’m rabbit in Chinese zodiac, which means I like safety and to be comfortable in my own space. Future husband have to understand that.”