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In conversation with Tatler, four Malaysians discuss their cross-cultural relationships and what being Malaysian is all about

In 2005, the late creative great of Malaysia, Yasmin Ahmad, released a teen romantic comedy-drama that tells the tale of a love between a Chinese boy (Ah Loong, played by Ng Choo Seong) and a Malay girl (Orked, played by Sharifah Amani).

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Titled Sepet, it became a hit among Malaysians, snagging multiple awards including seven at the 18th Malaysia Film Festival (Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Most Promising Actor, Most Promising Actress, Best Director, Best Poster), Best Asian Film at the 18th Tokyo International Film Festival, and Best Film at the 27th Créteil International Women's Film Festival in France. The film also went on to spawn the internationally-acclaimed prequel Mukshin and sequel Gubra in 2006.

Sepet was—and is still loved—by many for bravely venturing into unchartered territory at its time. It was a subject matter that would usually be discussed in hushed tones and whispers, coupled with side glances of disapproval. Two decades on, the message of unity in what's arguably Yasmin’s greatest work continues to speak volumes for Malaysians, as many could identify with the characters and the storyline.

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According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, almost 11 per cent of total marriages in 2019 (22,134 out of 203,821 marriages) involved brides and grooms of different ethnic groups, an increase from nine per cent in 2018 (18,620).

“This is a good sign for our multicultural population. The trend is in line with other developing countries and is an indicator we're no longer conservative,” chief statistician Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Uzir Mahidin Uzir said. “The convergence is also due to the openness to accept others, higher education levels and those in mixed unions are able to subscribe to each other's values."

Jessica Kan, 34, and Chris Aaron, 36, first met when they shared an elevator in a common office building where they both worked at—the sort of meet cute you see in movies. He thought she was hot, she thought he was tall. She liked music, so he plotted with a mutual friend to ‘accidentally on purpose’ send her a song that he played on his electric guitar. It worked. Their courtship included many chats and lunch dates (their first was Thai cuisine), and well, the rest is history.

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“I felt that she was a good person and had a sincere heart,” Chris tells Tatler. Until he met Jessica, Chris was happily enjoying singlehood. “At the time, I wasn’t bringing a girl home (as per tradition) to meet my parents so when Jessica came along, they were thrilled to have her!”

“We did have some differences but also similarities in faith. He was raised a Roman Catholic while I’m a Christian raised in a Buddhist family, but we never really saw any differences to our way of life and beliefs,” Jessica reveals.

Chris adds: “In the beginning, there were some minor concerns over religion but following in the precise footsteps of religion was important to neither me nor Jessica."

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He also attributed the seamlessness of this transition to growing up in an interracial family. "My grandparents have 13 children and they’ve all had mixed relationships (my mom included) involving various cultures and traditions themselves. Being exposed to mixed relationships for most of my life has left me without any racial prejudice or hesitation," says Chris.

It’s the heart’s intention that really matters.
Jessica Kan

The only real challenge that they faced was of the logistical kind. "Despite working close to each other, we never had time for dates on weekdays. We lived in two different parts of Klang Valley and it was quite a challenge for him to take me out on weekends because it's a two-hour journey each time," Jessica says. "I could've driven out to meet him, but he always insisted on driving me."

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However, the distance was certainly no obstacle for how far love can travel. Jessica and Chris tied the knot in 2014 and two years later, they welcomed their daughter, Abigail.

Another mixed-race couple who found love in the most unexpected way are Elya Eusoff, 35, and Nicole Andres, 34.

“Elya was supposed to be matchmade with one of my friends and I only went along as a wing woman. As fate would have it, we connected instead,” Nicole, who is of Chinese-Filipino heritage, reveals.

“I knew instantly that she was going to be someone special in my life, I just didn't know when. What attracted me to her was simply the fact that we could connect and there was no forced effort. I enjoyed that and conversations came naturally,” Elya shares.

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Elya adds that despite being from different religious backgrounds, they went through what any ordinary couple would go through. “Nicole’s the only daughter so it took some time for her family to realise that the relationship was headed somewhere serious. But nothing dramatic like a Bollywood film. Though that would’ve been quite a story to tell,” he jests.

“The only challenge for me personally was accepting a new faith. I wasn’t a religious person but I didn’t know how to feel about it. So, I had a conversation with God about it and immediately felt at ease about embracing Islam. That's when I knew everything was going to be okay,” says Nicole.

“I must admit we're blessed to have very accepting families,” says Elya.

Religion aside, being in a cross-cultural relationship means that they can experience the best of both worlds. What caught Elya by surprise at first was how Nicole's family truly embody the meaning of a melting pot of cultures. "It was really an amazing experience for me to celebrate the festivities with the family. They enjoy and celebrate all the festivities because, at the core of it, we're all Malaysians," he says.

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Nicole marvels at how much more she's learning from Elya's family, which has been really rewarding. "Each culture has its own dos and don'ts, but picking up practices from another culture definitely added more value to my life," she muses.

Elya and Nicole were married in 2014 and today, they're proud parents to daughter Aida and son Ayden.

Both couples also share their views on the misconceptions surrounding mixed relationships and marriages.

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"Mixed relationships are as normal as any other relationships," Chris says. "Honestly, our journey is no different and I strongly feel it shouldn't be. People are who they are based on their actions, emotions, and considerations, and as such, these should be the only measures to consider when looking for a partner." He's thankful that Jessica's parents have welcomed him with open arms into their family and equally, his own family.

Jessica chimes in: "Ultimately, do what makes you happy, because like any other issues or differences in opinions that you may face, be it financially, personality-wise, or beliefs, you'll have to work it out like any other couple anyway when you start your own family."

"Most people think that once you decide to go into an interracial marriage, one side loses a child—that's incorrect," notes Elya. "If there was a genuine interest and love towards your partner, you'd accept their family as yours. What I have now are two more parents and another older brother."

"I'm glad that my parents were very supportive throughout this journey," Nicole says. "There may be judgements or criticisms from others but don't be swayed by them. Follow your heart and it'll all work out."

Learn to accept others' cultures in order for them to welcome yours.
Elya Eusoff

Malaysia has come far from when mixed relationships and marriages were frowned upon. Inter-marriages have had a powerful impact on the ethnic fabric of Malaysian society, blurring the lines between race, religion, and culture, and birthing a whole new generation of Malaysians and global citizens who embody diversity, tolerance, open-mindedness, and awareness.

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While the abovementioned scenarios may not apply to every interracial relationship out there (it's not one-size-fits-all), it's evident that, more so now than ever, Malaysians are willing and ready to embrace cultural diversity and racial harmony.