5 M’sian Interracial Couples Share How They Celebrate CNY
Written by: Yeu-Gynn Yeung
There’s so much more to Chinese New Year than lion dances, yee sang, and ang pows. Although these traditional elements play a significant role in the festivities, the lunar new year is all about family reunion and spending quality time together. In a country of diverse cultures like Malaysia, it’s not just the Chinese who celebrate Chinese New Year.
For interracial couples, Chinese New Year embodies the meaningful moments they get to partake in each other’s cultures and festivities. We’ve invited five interracial couples to share their insights on how they celebrate the lunar together in Malaysia.
1. Liew Suet Li & Karthik Karunanithy – The most unchinese family
The first time they celebrated Chinese New Year together, Suet Li believes that her relatives were quite shocked to see her dating someone who isn’t Chinese. Suet Li and Karthik had grown accustomed to stares when they went out together, but being stared at by people you’re supposed to impress was something else.
However, Suet Li’s grandparents embraced Karthik into the family wholeheartedly. “He was very involved in taking care of my grandfather, who was in a wheelchair,” she explained. “That’s all that mattered to me, and eventually to everyone in my family.”
Celebrating CNY with her husband enriched her experience with new perspectives. “I began to appreciate my family history more when I started telling Karthik about each of my family members’ respective backgrounds.”
Last year was Suet Li’s favourite Chinese New Year, when her sister returned from the UK with her British husband and their baby. Her brother brought his Kenyah girlfriend back too. “My mom lamented that our family is the most unchinese of the lot, and I overheard some relatives were in awe at how rojak our family is, though reaching the awe stage took some time,” she revealed. That was when when she truly felt the spirit of Chinese New Year in Malaysia. “It’s not a celebration for just one race. It’s a celebration that brings people of different backgrounds together. The oranges, firecrackers, lion dance, food – they are meant to be enjoyed by all.”.
2. Nurkarmilah Nasir & Asree Ahmad Aini – The time to be “rich liao”
Chinese New Year is a season filled with family fun, games and laughter for these two Sabahans. Of Bugis and Bolongan descent, Nurkarmilah is married to Asree, who is of Chinese and Javanese descent. The evening before the Lunar New Year, the whole family will gather at Asree’s mom’s house for the reunion dinner.
“On the first day, everyone tries to wake up as early as possible, and we’ll all have breakfast together before giving and receiving ang pows,” Nurkarmilah explained. Then, the families and relatives will play a few games of cards or mah jongg. Nurkarmilah usually joins the card games, which she’s rather good at and wins most of the time. “Rich liao,” she laughed.
Although Nurkarmilah and her father-in-law are the only ones who are not Chinese, the family’s warmth makes them feel welcomed and loved. “What I love about Chinese New Year is that everyone will come home, no matter how far away they are. We can’t begin meals unless everyone is seated at the table, which is rather different from the Malay culture,” she mused.
“You don’t have to be Chinese or married to one to celebrate the lunar new year,” she said. “That’s the beauty of being Malaysian. I get to celebrate everything, and I love it.”
3. Irene Mya & Kanesan Solomalai – “My family members were intrigued by my ‘Chindian’ children. Maybe they still are.”
For this married couple of almost 40 years, Chinese New Year isn’t at all different from other celebrations. “Despite some cultural differences, at its core, these celebrations are about families getting together and spending quality time with each other,” Kanesan said, when asked about how Chinese New Year compares to Deepavali.
On the first day, family members would gather at Irene’s mom’s house for a vegetarian lunch. Traditionally, nothing is killed on the first day of Chinese New Year.
After lunch, the family will begin a game of cards, all whilst snacking on groundnuts, mandarin oranges, and traditional cookies. Although he’s not usually a fan of card games, Kanesan enjoys participating in the fun. “Some may call this gambling, but the winner will have to buy yee sang for dinner,” he explained. It’s a win-win situation.
Irene and Kanesan’s favourite Chinese New Year was the one when they returned home after having spent the past four years in England. This time, they brought their first child with them. “Everyone was so excited and fussed over the first grandchild of the family.” Irene recalls a time when mixed-race marriages were not as common. “My family members were intrigued by my ‘Chindian’ children. Maybe they still are.”
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Being in an interracial relationship has alot of hardship. Also comes with its fair share of cluttered mouths behind us. We are so thankful for all the support that our parents and families have given to us, because we know that only a few hearts matter. We went through heartbreak when we saw the 'true colours' of those "close friends" who are now acquaintances. We have taught each other how to be strong and not be affected by 'moo points' as it doesn't do anything for us. In Love, you must be sure what your priorities are and who you are doing it for. And we know that this is for us and our families. #rawrandpaws
4. Pearl Tan & Rizrin Shah – The tea ceremony where everyone will sing at the top of their lungs
Pearl truly appreciates celebrating Chinese New Year with her husband Rizrin. “It is the one time of the year for my husband to get in touch with the all things Chinese, such as learning to say all the good wishes in proper Mandarin,” she said.
For their first Chinese New Year ever, Pearl’s father had invited Rizrin over to celebrate. It was the first time Pearl brought her boyfriend to meet her extended family. “They welcomed him with open arms, and that was really significant to me,” Pearl reminisced.
This year, Pearl and Rizrin will make sure that they give ang pows to every niece and nephew. Pearl is particularly excited about this. “I can’t wait for it. To be honest, it kind of gives a sense of power – to make my nieces and nephews like me more.”
Rizrin’s favourite CNY tradition is the tea ceremony. Every Chinese New Year, Pearl’s family would serve tea to the elderly while saying good wishes in the most creative way, such as by singing and dancing. “It is the one time you would see all the adults, like aunties and uncles singing at the top of their lungs in return for mandarin oranges and ang paos,” Pearl explained.
Pearl appreciates that she can return to her father’s hometown on Chinese New Year eve for the reunion dinner. Traditionally, the wife would have to follow her husband back to his side of the family for the reunion dinner. Pearl doesn’t have to do so. “I can have my reunion dinner with my side of the family without any guilt,” she conveyed.
Likewise, Pearl celebrates Hari Raya with Rizrin’s family, which she explains, is quite similar to Chinese New Year, such as the duit raya, ang pow, enormous spread of food and everyone dresses up beautifully. “Most importantly, everyone comes back home to celebrate with their loved ones,” Pearl said.
5. Brenda Ng & Nikesh Nair – The lion dance that “could sense fear”
For law students Brenda Ng and Nikesh Nair, Chinese New Year is a special time for the couple as they get to celebrate with each other. “I get to have one extra person I love joining me and my family for the festivities,” Brenda said.
Brenda recalls a funny moment when the lion dance performance started at her open house. “It startled Nikesh so badly that he hid behind me. Imagine a 6ft tall guy behind tiny me!” she exclaimed, laughing at the memory. According to Brenda, the lion kept coming close to her boyfriend on purpose because it could sense fear.
Although they’re still young, Brenda and Nikesh have been dating for three years and can’t seem to avoid the dreaded inevitable question: When are you getting married?
“When the aunties ask us that, we’ll just say we’re still young and we’ve got stuff we want to achieve before getting married,” Brenda said evenly.
Although she won’t be hosting an open house for this Chinese New Year, Nikesh will still join her family for the reunion dinner. Brenda appreciates that her boyfriend is able to experience such a huge part of her culture and childhood. “I’m really grateful that we are able to create memories together that are so closely related to our different cultures,” she explained.
You don’t have to be Chinese to celebrate Chinese New Year – the festivities are for all Malaysians to enjoy. Let us know your Chinese New Year plans in the comments below. P/S: if you’re hosting an open house for CNY, remember to invite #TeamLikely 😉