Overcoming cultural and religious barriers for love

By Lisa Twang, Jan 16, 2020

Sarah* was born and raised a Malay Muslim. When she was 18, she began exploring the Christian faith and later met a Christian man, Jerry, who would become her boyfriend and husband. Sarah converted to Christianity, and though her family had difficulty adapting to the change initially, they came to accept her new status.

This is her story of how she found her balance between two families of different faith, and how she is now at peace with having a place in both cultures. 

*Names in this story have been changed to preserve their anonymity as requested.

* * * *

Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m 66 years old. I have a wonderful husband, three grown-up children, and two adorable grandchildren. 

I was born the eldest of eight children in a Malay family, and named Aminah. My mother was Indonesian, and my father was Chinese but was raised a Muslim, as his mother remarried a Muslim man. Growing up, I was especially close to my father, and I was his favourite child.

At 18, I started work as an architect’s draftswoman. There, I got to know girls outside of my Malay community for the first time, and some of them were Chinese Christians. We would chat about our own Christian and Muslim faiths, and I was curious about Christianity and would ask them many questions. 

I met Jerry at this time, too. He struck me as a very kind and considerate man, and he was one of the most serious and mature guys in the office. I learned he also had a big family with many siblings (four girls and four boys, just like me), and we bonded over this similarity. On my 20th birthday, he asked me out, and we started dating. 

I didn’t mind that we were of different faiths, because we enjoyed talking to each other.

We spoke (and argued) a lot about religion. When we went out for dinner, he would ask why I needed to eat halal food and couldn’t eat pork, and it irritated me, because I’d think: “Why do you question my faith?”

I would feel like I needed to defend myself. But these discussions actually brought us closer, and we also became better at avoiding sensitive topics. 

At the time, I was attending Quran classes to deepen my Muslim faith, but at the same time, I was also reading the Bible to find out more about Christianity and wondering who Jesus was. 

After a few years, I became convinced in my heart that Christianity was the choice for me. When I prayed, I felt like I had a personal connection to God, who was like a father and a friend. 

It was important to me and Jerry that I didn’t become a Christian just for his sake. He wanted me to be certain about my decision, and come to it on my own.

I officially became a Christian when American evangelist Billy Graham came to Singapore for the Billy Graham Crusade in 1978. Jerry wasn’t with me at the time, but my friends were.  

Leaving my Islamic faith felt daunting, because it was the only life I’d ever known. I asked myself, “What have I done?” but I reminded myself that I’d made this decision after a lot of thought and prayer, over seven years.

Soon, my parents found out about my conversion and they were very upset. For a majority of Malay people, being Muslim is such a strong part of our culture and identity, and when I left the Islamic faith, it must have felt like a betrayal. Becoming a Christian was considered taboo, because Muslims see Jesus as a prophet, not the son of God. 

There was a lot of pressure on my parents, because they were held responsible for my choice in leaving Islam and the community. In spite of this, my parents continued to love and support me. 

When people advised my father to throw me out of the house because I had become a Christian, my dad defended me. He said: “How can you gossip about my daughter? She’s 25 years old; she’s an adult and can choose her own faith,” he said. “Why are you trying to break our family up by asking me to chase my daughter away?”

When I heard this, I knew that deep down, I was still my father’s daughter and he loved me very much, no matter what.

It took awhile for my family to accept my new faith. I’m sure they also thought Jerry was part of the reason why I decided to become a Christian, although I explained that I’d decided on my own. 

At first, my father didn’t speak to me for a few days, because he needed time to process his thoughts. My mum accepted that I’d become a Christian, but she made me promise to keep my faith to myself, and not try to convert my brothers and sisters. My siblings didn’t question me much, and I kept my word to my mother not to speak about religion to them.

My family also dealt with a lot of gossip from family and friends, some of whom gave my mother the cold shoulder because of me. And in the office, people would sometimes gossip about me too, or make up rumours that I only dated Jerry and changed religions because his family was well-to-do. At times, I felt a lot of persecution and stress, but I dealt with it through prayers and talking to other Malay Christians I came to know. 

Though I shared some of my struggles with Jerry, I didn’t want to worry him, or make him feel responsible for what was happening to me. This was my choice, whether I was dating him or not. 

Jerry was also worried about his family accepting me. Before we’d started dating officially, Jerry had brought me home, but his mother had said, “It’s better that you don’t date a Malay girl.”

Because of this, Jerry thought his family would not accept me due to our cultural and religious differences. He kept quiet about me, though we’d dated for eight years. We even went to separate churches, because he wasn’t ready to introduce me to his family in their home church yet. 

Fortunately, Jerry’s family embraced me. They had been more worried about us being at odds with our religious beliefs, than the fact that I was Malay. She said, “I know you’ve been dating this Malay girl for a long time, and that she is also a believer. Since you’re in love, why don’t you marry her?”  

Jerry’s father also made sure his mother was fine with me being non-Chinese, because his dad knew it was important for a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law to get along well. His parents said: “If you love Sarah, we will accept her.”

Jerry invited me to his family’s Chinese New Year gathering that year, and I got to know his family better. He didn’t really know how to propose, so he called me and said, “My mum said we should consider getting married… so will you marry me?” I wondered: “Where’s all the romance?” I asked Jerry: “Are you being forced to propose by your mother, or is this from your heart?” He assured me it was from his heart, and we arranged to be married in church. 

On our wedding day, my father walked me down the aisle, and my mother and some of my siblings were there. The others were not comfortable going to our church wedding, but they were still supportive of my marriage.

I’m grateful that my parents and siblings all came to accept my conversion, and my new Chinese Christian family. 

I now know they love me unconditionally, and understand that just because I left Islam, it doesn’t mean I stopped being Malay.

One way I remained on good terms with my family was to continue respecting their own Muslim traditions. For example, during Ramadan, though I wasn’t fasting myself, I wouldn’t eat in front of my family or Muslim colleagues. I also continued to use the ‘salaam’ Arabic greeting and handshake with them, and would not say grace in front of them before I ate. 

I did have to make some changes when I married Jerry and moved in with him and his family. My mother-in-law spoke mostly Teochew, so I struggled to understand her in the beginning. I also wasn’t used to cooking Chinese food, but she taught me how to make the family’s recipes. 

Later, when I gave birth to Anna, my first child, my mother-in-law helped me with the traditional Chinese confinement. I picked up Teochew and Mandarin when my mother-in-law spoke to baby Anna, and I learned how to say things like ‘poop’ and ‘bath’. As time went by, I grew closer to my in-laws, and I truly felt like I was part of their family.

Today, as a Malay woman with a Chinese family, I feel privileged that I live in two worlds —  because I enjoy the best of both.

Sadly, my parents have passed away, along with all my sisters, but I still see my brothers and extended family during family gatherings. I visit them for Hari Raya, and they come over for Chinese New Year. We’ll usually cater halal food for them. We also visit often at other times of the year, and their children are close to mine. My brothers still call me by my Malay name, Aminah, and I love them with all my heart.

When I think back on my life, I have no regrets. Jerry and I have now been married for nearly 40 years, and we’re still very happy together. 

I always wanted to have my life story written down, to remind myself of the journey I took to get here. I hope to encourage others, and tell them it’s possible to reconcile two very different cultures and religions, and build a family you can call your own. 

* * * *

We also spoke to Anna, Sarah’s eldest daughter, to talk about how she feels about her Chinese and Malay heritage, and her mother’s story.

* * * *

I’m Anna, and I’m 37 years old and a mother of two. People have always been confused about me, because I have both Chinese and Malay features. They ask, “Where are you from? Are you Singaporean?” When I explain that I am Chinese but have Malay blood, they will usually ask if I’m Muslim. 

If I have time, I share my mother’s story with them about how she became a Malay Christian.  They’d find it very unusual, because people usually expect that my father would have converted to Islam for her.

I like the fact that I’m both Malay and Chinese, because I feel that it makes me special. I’m a mix of two cultures.

As far as I can remember, my mother was always open with me about the fact that I had both Chinese and Malay heritage. We lived with my father’s family, and my paternal grandparents, but we’d visit my Nenek (my mother’s mother) every weekend. We’d enjoy home-cooked Malay dishes like sambal goreng, lodeh, rendang and bergerdil, which are really yummy. 

In school, I took Mandarin as my Mother Tongue. My mother tried to teach me Malay as a child, but I only remember one phrase: “Ini apa? Ini bola. (What’s this? It’s a ball.)”  I can also say terima kasih (thank you), but that’s the extent of my Malay! 

I was struggling enough with Mandarin in school, so learning a third language seemed like a lot of work. I would make excuses for my shaky Mandarin, saying, “Well, it’s because I have Malay blood.” Of course, that wasn’t a good enough reason.  

Since I didn’t speak Malay, I found it hard to communicate with my Malay relatives: especially Nenek, who didn’t speak English. She’d speak to me in a long stream of Malay, but I could only nod in reply. My mum would translate for me sometimes, but I didn’t want her to do it too often as it was troublesome for her. 

I ended up communicating with Nenek mostly through gestures. She’d show her love for me through hugs, or pinching my cheeks.

These days, I wish I had a better grasp of Malay. My younger brother and sister understand more Malay than me, because they’ve taken lessons through a language app. I’d like to do the same, but as a working mother, I just don’t have the time. Maybe someday, when the time is right, I can pick up Malay.

Growing up, I definitely felt loved by both the Malay and Chinese sides of our family. And I like getting to know about the Malay traditions from my mother’s family.

I enjoyed seeing my cousins during Hari Raya. Most of the time, we wouldn’t dress up in baju kurung: we’d show up for the family visit in our usual clothes and collect the duit raya (the green envelope, or Malay ‘angpow’). I now bring my husband and children to these gatherings, and we look forward to the food and fellowship every year.

As a teen and young adult, I became more curious about my Malay heritage, and I got the chance to learn about Malay traditions through Hari Raya gatherings with my mother’s Malay Christian friends. They would showcase cultural dances and things like dikir barat (the choral ensemble), and everyone would sit on the floor to eat with their hands. I really appreciated these little things, and I thought, “This is fun, I should really get in touch with my cultural roots more.”

We’re blessed that my mother’s family is still close to us. I enjoy having them over, and sharing our lives with them, because that’s what family should be. My mother’s family is sensitive about our religious differences, but we get along well. When they come for Chinese New Year, my mum sometimes cooks halal Chinese New Year food for them, and buys new utensils and cutlery for the occasion. 

I hope to teach my kids more about about their Malay heritage, because it’s important for them to know their grandmother’s culture.

My mum spends a lot of time with my daughters, and I hope they can pick up some Malay from her (more than I did!). It’s also good for them to see their Malay relatives, and be close to their cousins.

I’m proud of my mother for having the courage to carve her own path in life, and I love sharing her story with others.

It’s always a nice conversation to have with people when they ask about my background, because it gives me the chance to tell people about how I live in both Malay and Chinese worlds, while being a Christian. It’s who I am, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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