In the last edition of the Rocket, our feature story ‘Stepping into cultural melting pot’ by Rocket reporter Faye Chia shows us the forgotten aspect of the quintessential Malaysia’s uniqueness, the ‘muhibbah’ spirit. Here we continue with two feature stories on the muhibbah theme in conjunction with Malaysia’s golden jubilee year. Report by Faye Chia (Chinese Rocket). Translated and adapted by T.K. Tan.
(For previous article on our feature story ‘Stepping into cultural melting pot’ please go to
Some say love is bliss, once together all of life’s troubles seem so far away. So it would seem for Zaferi and Lee Chui Mei; however there were more challenges for them than the usual couple’s fuss.
Lee Chui Mei (38) is a working mother who has a lovely two and half year-old son with Zaferi. Evidently the family of three has an unusual background; he is a Malay, she a Chinese.
From the time they both met and interacted to getting married, it was one trial and challenge after another. Their sufferings was one touching story that many Malaysians may not comprehend.
Getting to know you
Lee related that in 2000, while she was working in a furniture company in Penang she was transferred back to her hometown Ipoh to become the manager of the furniture shop branch. At the same time Zaferi who was working in Kedah then, was also transferred to Ipoh for work relocation.
From being colleagues to everyday sharing of meals, in the ambience of a new environment it led to the shedding of apprehension for both of them to interact congenially. That was how the first seeds of feelings blossomed for both of them, leading Lee and Zaferi to take the tentative steps of engaging interactions that led to cross cultural dating.
“When we both returned to Ipoh, it was a strange feeling as we felt like new migrants with no friends to mingle around, after being away from Ipoh since our schooling and working days. We found each to be good communication partners.”
“After work, we often spent time together. He came to my house quite often, so much so that my mother began to query me on where we were going!”
However it wasn’t love at first sight. After three years of friendship did both of them started dating. The funny thing was the slow start in the relationship wasn’t due to racial differences between them both. It was different personal character at play as well.
“Both of us didn’t plan for this courtship; I just felt he was very caring and thoughtful of me. That’s how I decided to take this bold step.” Lee hasn’t lost the girly grin one remembers of teenagers.
“From the beginning, racial differences didn’t affect our perception towards each other. Perhaps it was because that I grew up in a multiracial environment. My neighbours were Malays and Indians. I also majored in Malay studies while I was in university; many of my class mates and friends were Malays then.”
Braving the challenges
Lest one gets the perception it was smooth sailing for both of them, Lee relates that both sides’ parents were against their relationship in the beginning.
“We were aware that many such relationships like ours had foundered on family pressure; the gossips in the families and friends circle were an additional burden that we had to shoulder. Thank goodness, we were able to persevere through.” Luckily for Lee, her parents’ objection wasn’t as strong; they finally consented after much persuasion.
Lee also said that in her university days she had a classmate who had a Malay boyfriend; however due to family objection they had to break up.
“As for me, I did intimated early on that I would pursue this path regardless of what happens. Perhaps because of that only my father gave me a heart-to-heart talk on my relationship, advising me that it would be a ‘tough’ life ahead.”
Slowly, the lovebirds began to make plans for matrimony. However the smooth sailing initially gave way to the unforeseen and forgotten obstacles. For Lee who had taken a nonchalant attitude all along, the reality of cross cultural challenges finally dawn upon her : religious conversion.
As this was Malaysia’s religious reality, there wasn’t anything they could do about it. “I was so boggled by the thought of the relationship and the conversion that I flew to the UK for several months of travelling to take my mind off it.”
Unfortunately the travels didn’t ease her worries. “My heart was still pining for him. I came back and decided to start the relationship anew and walk this journey with him for the rest of my life,” she recalled with tears.
Taking the plunge
She went through the requisite bureaucratic procedures, including making a trip to the Perak state religious department to convert to become a Muslim and solemnize their marriage. She was given a new name : Melisa Lee.
December 25, 2007 while the world was celebrating Christmas, the big day came for Lee and Zaferi. They tied the knot in a traditional Malay wedding.
Making the personal sacrifices requires much courage and perseverance for both of them, especially for her. Lee was also never one to keep things to herself. “Perhaps that’s why we were able to sustain this relationship to be married; we would constantly talk things over.”
“When we announced we were going to get married, our family members were calm to receive it. Then someone pitched us a curveball; I remembered an elderly relative raised the question, if he were to die, how would I be able to pay ancestral homage to him? Would I still be able to come back and have dinner in my parent’s home anymore?”
Like the proverbial knight in shining armour to her rescue, Zaferi made it a point during the Chinese festivities to celebrate with her family members. “During the Chinese New Year we would go to my parents and have the reunion dinner with them. On my part I made sure during the Ramadan month, I would observe the fasting and breaking of fast with Zaferi’s parents and celebrate the Aidil-fitri festivals too.”
“I am thankful for Zaferi’s understanding and accommodating of my circumstances. He even allowed my mother to take care of our son. He also agreed for our son to be studying in a Chinese vernacular-type primary school when grows up.”
Lee also gave a Chinese name for her son in addition to the Muslim name he bears. Like any typical Malaysian family it’s multi-lingual in their home as well. “I would speak in Malay, English and even Cantonese when conversing with my boy. My husband has picked up some Cantonese too, though he can’t speak it yet. Someday, both of them will be able to speak Cantonese to me too (laughs)!”
A family of two cultures coming together, by accepting and accommodating each culture’s sensitive points Zaferi and Lee demonstrated that in deeds and words. The boy will be studying in a Chinese primary school upon schooling age, while both parents made the conscientious effort to enroll him in a religious nursery to establish his Islamic understanding at age of three.
Like a story of a typical family one may know of, we sees the twist and turns added here and there when we remember the challenges they faced. They are no different of us; their story is a reminder that we are at heart and body, human beings first and hopefully Malaysian as well.