Looking for Inter-Racial Love Stories
By Fitri Khamis and Sandy Cheng
2006 was a life-changing year for us. That year, we began to notice the blatant stares of curious onlookers, their double takes, their careless whispers. We remember the sweet yet discomfiting feeling of holding hands in public.
Perhaps it was an uncommon sight. After all, both of us are of different racial ethnicities. We have had different cultural upbringings and we speak different mother tongues. While it is widely advocated that love knows no boundaries, stories surrounding inter-ethnic relationships were then somewhat limited. Examples of handling the downsides of such relationships were virtually unheard of. Social media was in its nascent phase, reducing our chances of crossing paths with another couple in a similar situation.
Perhaps they were looking for us too.
It seemed to us that most inter-ethnic couples preferred to keep their relationship low-key and less public. It was something we could relate to, given what we were experiencing. Silently, we wished for a stronger support system in place.
This idea is probably still relevant to date. In 2004, 13.1% of all marriages were between people of different races and this has grown to 20.4% in 2014. It is wonderful that society has grown more accepting towards the idea of couples who do not share the same skin tones.
The challenges that inter-racial couples face go beyond getting along with each other, sharing the same values and growing together. In relationships where both people are of the same race and religion, there is no need to think too deeply about societal norms. While love in an inter-racial relationship is shared between two people like any other relationship, community norms and familial expectations play a bigger role, making it harder for such couples to co-exist, even in a diverse society like Singapore.
In our case, as our relationship and feelings for each other developed, we had to grow more conscious of the needs of our family members. In terms of cultural practices for instance, we were lucky that our early exposure in Singapore to different racial and religious customs and practices gave us some sense of what the norms were. Nothing beat experiencing them first-hand though.
For instance, the act of kissing an elder’s right hand upon meeting them is second nature to Malays. It signifies a deeper level of respect for seniors given their age and wisdom. However, the same act was relatively new to Sandy, even though she had regularly seen this among Malay families. While it took her some time to get accustomed to the practice, she has since embraced it well enough to even get kisses on her cheek in return from my family members.
Likewise for Fitri, having meals with a pair of chopsticks was never an option that would cross his mind. The choice of fork and spoon was the next best option after using his hand. But like a toddler learning to write with a pencil, he soon clocked enough practice rounds under his belt to be able to enjoy sumptuous lunches and dinners, using chopsticks, together with my family at the same dining table.
Photo: From left Fitri Khamis and Sandy
As the years went by, the plot thickened with more characters introduced into our own love story. Celebratory occasions such as Chinese New Year, particularly for Fitri, did not go by without initial awkward introductions and the rejection of traditional delicacies like bak kwa. The same went for Sandy in terms of donning the traditional baju kurung during Hari Raya, which she is now accustomed to.
We are still each other’s self-obliging translators up till today as we do not expect our family members to start learning a new language for our sake. But we have picked up simple words from each other’s mother tongues, that allow us to string a few sentences, enough to carry a day-to-day conversations.
As with most cases, it was certainly not an easy transitional period for both of us to get our family members to accept our unique relationship. We encountered incidences where we were met with strong objections and warned of foreseeable complications that are bound to occur down the road.
However, we also assured those who cast doubts on us that our differences did not mean we were less likely to succeed than any other couple of the same race. Only time would be able to tell if we could smoothen out any rough edges, enough to commit to a life together.
The best scenario
None of the scenarios presented to us by family members concerned about our future could beat what we experienced ourselves. This was the mutual respect and compromise that we demonstrated and felt towards each other’s set of deeply rooted cultures and traditions. In fact, the laugher we continue to share and the smiles we exchange are unlimited and not dependent on how different we are from each other.
In recent times, inter-ethnic relationships have gained positive media exposure. Earlier this year, a report in The Straits Times, “Mixed and Match: Interracial couples say love is truly more than skin deep”, started on a good note, saying that “No one will bat an eyelid at a mixed-race couple”. The compilation of heartwarming stories dates back to the 1960s when circumstances were different and families had a much more apprehensive view towards mixed marriages.
The stories show that inter-racial relationships have existed for a while. But the challenges today are not the same as those before. It would be timely to tell more stories of people in the current generation, who can share their experience of what it means to be with someone from a different race and background.
As part of active promotion of the irememberSG campaign, I also came across the story of one of Singapore’s greatest athletes, C Kunalan, who incidentally is in a inter-ethnic relationship himself, happily married to his wife, Madam Choong Choon Yin. He too shared the same level of anxiety when both his own parents and in-laws got to know of his love for his then-fiancée.
Singapore has laid a healthy fundamental base for people of all races to co-exist with one another, from the racial quota of public housing right up to the equal representation of its Cabinet ministers. It is only a matter of time before interraciality between couples finds its place amongst the people.
Nine years on, my partner and I are still in the race, only more aware that it is very much a marathon of our own kind. True as the saying goes, it is never much about the destination but the journey instead.
Fitri Khamis is a Digital Media Online Specialist at ESET Asia, Sandy is a Regional Marketing Specialist at Garlock Singapore. They are getting married on 3 January 2016.
Fitri Khamis and Sandy are also featured on The Future of Us Ideas Bank Page (Dreamers)
Top Photo from Weekender Singapore Facebook Page