Updated: Jan 27
“To love one another, you have to first understand what love is… Love means that when you look at the person, you don’t try to change them, you don’t have a standard for them for you to love. If you love them, you naturally would be accepting. Love is a choice that you chose to love the person everyday.” - Ganesh R. Sivanasan
Meet Athena Nestor Thomas and Ganesh R. Sivanasan, or by their nicknames Nethy and Gan, a humble and beautiful couple who were married for 2 years. They have known each other since 2012, it took the couple some time to get along with each other until 2 years later in 2014, where they started dating off ever since and were bound to each other in November 2018. Both couples enlighten us in detailed about their unique cultural heritage with us, Nethy shared that she is culturally Dusun with a partial Chinese lineage from her great-grandmother’s side and Gan who is half Tamil-Indian and half Dusun, where his Indian father hails from Perak and Dusun mother is a Sabahan native. Both are born in Sabah, Kota Kinabalu to be exact and currently reside in Penampang district. This interview is no ordinary interview and is such an amazing encounter for our team members, matter of fact, this is the first time that the majority of our team members met someone of Dusun background!
They also shared with us the things they love and love about Malaysia, when it comes to food, both agreed that it would be the main thing that they love about Malaysia as a whole and also the people, quoting Malaysia as a ‘rainbow nation’, as something they deeply love about Malaysia being a melting pot of varieties of cultures and races that unites and integrates as one nation, which for them makes Malaysia unique. Aside from that, they also mention that they love the geographical landscape of Malaysia, particularly Sabah, where the mountains and the jungles are close by if they want to hike and the sea are also nearby if they want a dip into the water.
Ganesh shared that he is a big foodie person and they brought up favourite food such as ‘Serunding Tuhau’ which is hard to get since it is seasonal. We had learned that Tuhau means wild ginger which is mainly found mostly in the interior, mostly in the jungle. Athena mentioned that it doesn’t smell like ginger at all but instead smells very pungent, similar to bunga kantan (Ginger Flower). When Tuhau is made into Serunding and served with hot rice and lime, it is Ganesh’s favourite go-to!
They also brought up local Sabahan delights such as Niu Chap (Beef) Laksa as well as Pan Mian and Athena in particular loves the noodles shops nearby her place which serves noodles such as pork noodle soup and she adds that basically noodle soups are like rice for Sabahans as wherever you go in Sabah, they always serve noodles soup. For Ganesh’s case, he loves Tuaran Mee, especially when it is cooked with tribal rice wine (Tasau or Lihing), which is similar to Japanese Sake. Other than that, they also added that they also have Tom Yum, which differs from its original Thai form, which uses evaporated milk into the broth.
We ask them what was their favourite food if they happen to venture to Kuala Lumpur or maybe Petaling Jaya, however they don’t visit to Kuala Lumpur or Petaling Jaya often, but when they do, their favorite food would be Bak Kut Teh and Nasi Lemak Bumbung in Seapark. They also shared that Athena is turning 6 months pregnant, which she will be due in approximately February 2021 and that’s their first child! Congratulations to the both of you!!! They do know the gender of the baby but they will be unveiling the gender by Christmas this year, where they are also going to have a baby shower on Christmas! They are asking their parents to also be patient as they want to still keep it as a secret till December.
So let’s hop into their journey of 'rojak' (mixed) marriage!
How and where did you two meet?
Sis Athena: The first time we see each other would be in his church. I came from an Malay-speaking church and he came from an English-speaking church. So we had an event at his church and we went there and I saw him, so that’s the first time I actually remember meeting him.
Bro Gan: We saw each other so many times but her first time was the church event, to me that was second. I think the other part was another event that we had together as a whole church, in a way it’s still in a church where we meet each other and that’s the first time we met. She caught my eyes at that time but I didn’t really know her personally yet. But we had a mutual friend, her cousin got married to my brother’s best friend. So they invited us to the wedding and I saw her there, no wedding, during that time she was all dressed. She caught my eyes, but I think I really want to pursue her after the wedding. She was playing her keyboard and singing in church so that’s one thing I always tell myself, my faith is very strong with my faith and Christianity with my God. So I always tell God that, ‘I want someone who would love You more than she would love me.’ So during the time when she was just having her time singing, worshiping God, and that’s where I put my eyes like ‘PANG’! So, since then I keep pursuing her, of course she rejected me for 2 years, almost 2 years.
It wasn’t because of me but because she had her part of not trusting too fast but I tried to pursue her for 1 and half years and she said no, only then she would say yes to me after that…
Were there any challenges before getting married, such as parents approval?
Sis Athena: When we got together, before we became an official boyfriend and girlfriend, he mentioned something to me when we had that mutual feeling, we knew we were not ready. Until we were ready, he said there’s one more thing he needs to do before we are official, and I asked him, ‘What is it?’. He said, ‘I need to ask for your parent’s blessings'. In Dusun culture, you just date and be boyfriend and girlfriend. But he was determined to meet my parents and ask for their blessing. So he actually came to my house and told my parents that he is coming, he made it such a big deal like a proposal, and because of that I respected him even more. Because he did ask for parent’s blessing to become my boyfriend, I think my parents felt that this guy is different and because he did that, up from the dating part to getting married, it was quite smooth and my parents are okay with it.
Bro Gan: We didn’t have any challenges for us to be together. There’s no challenges in culture. Maybe her auntie was like, ‘You don't get together first, too early’. It’s more of just protecting ourselves, because they don’t know who I am, so they are very protective of her, so there’s not much challenges.
What was your parents reaction when they knew you two were dating someone who is a bit different in terms of ethnicity?
Sis Athena: I think before we answer that, the context of the racial situation in Sabah itself is quite harmonious in the sense where different cultures can just mix and even when we mentioned that he met me or he saw me at my cousin’s wedding, that cousin of mine is Dusun and she’s marrying an Indian also. So, there’s a lot of couples who are mixed race and a lot of those kinds of partners here in Sabah, because of the racial situation in Sabah is like that, you don't really see that person as his race or things like that. It's not much of a challenge and it's not that awkward.
We are quite flexible and you can adapt to certain cultures and you respect that. You see that person as a person instead of the race behind the person.
Bro Gan: There’s no reaction. The other 50% of me is Dusun, so same tribe. I grew up more on my Dusun side than my Indian side, so it’s not that I don't know my Indian culture. In Sabah there're not many Indians, so I grew up more towards knowing their culture. But in terms of my parents, my parents are fine.
What is important in your marriage? And why?
Bro Gan: For us personally would always be our faith. Our faith in God is very important because our values would be very much different from one another. An example of a love triangle, God would always be on top, me and her would always be like in a triangle with God. So without God, we won't be able to keep our marriage that strong as I would imagine when we do not know God. Even when we know God, there are also fights, but that is normal, but I don't feel like we fight much, because we learn how to forgive one another. We learn how to say sorry, and those are important. Our values in God are very important in our marriage and respecting one another and because most of the values are from our faith.
Sis Athena: Our marriage is not just about the two us, God is in the center. So the triangle represents as we draw closer to God, we draw closer to each other. So if we don’t draw close to God, then we don’t draw closer to each other. Humans have lots of flaws, so it's important to acknowledge that and it's important to know that we don't marry a perfect person but rather as an imperfect person who seeks to be perfect in God.
What similarities do you find between Dusun and Indian culture?
Bro Gan: Indians, they are very much big on family in terms of getting together, we must always help one another, we help our family as much as we can, try to make them succeed, family values are very important.
For Dusun cultures we have different meanings to family values but it is still the same that we put the importance of getting together, enjoying one another, trying to help as much. So, one similarity would be the family values. Community is very important for us.
Sis Athena: Both of these cultures, Dusun and Indian, are big on family and when we get together, we have families surrounding us, so we don't have much of a struggle.
Did you face any culture clashes? If yes, could you please give us an example and how you overcome it?
Bro Gan: Difference wouldn't be so much of clashes. First of all, our faith is very important because our faith makes a whole different to our culture and practices. For example, if there is death in our family, for Indians, the funeral service is always vegetarian, you cannot have meat. For the Dusun, we must always have meat, must not have vegetables. So is a clash but I’m both, Indian and Dusun, and she’s Dusun but the thing is why our faith is important, like for Indians, why they say only vegetables because they believe that the soul is still around us and they want to see us whether we are enjoying, so meat is always a luxurious food since those days so to them when they eat meat mean you are enjoying something because is in funeral, but you’re enjoying good food, so they want you to eat vegetable to look like you are sad. But for the Dusun culture, they believe that meat is a luxurious food, so they only have meat in order to ...
Sis Athena: Because you are sending the person off, so therefore you eat that kind of thing.
Bro Gan: More like providing good food. But because our faith, so we celebrate this together, we don’t believe in all those things, we respect it, even when our moms or our family are not Christian, they are some Hindus, some still believe in our Dusun, believe in animism or ancient paganism, So we do one agreement that it doesn't matter meat or vegetable. For us it’s okay, we don't have much of a different culture, but the most important thing would be values and food. For her dad's side, although it is also Dusun, there is a culture of Chinese, so there’s a lot of Chinese cooking at home. And then, her mom's part is Dusun, so we have Dusun food too. My side has always been Indian also Dusun. So, in the sense mostly I eat at home and it would be a mix, my mom sometimes likes Western too, and my dad likes Indian food so there’s so many mixes. But her house, since we are staying together right now, we are both staying with her parents, so there's a lot of Chinese cooking, and normal Dusun cooking. Sometimes I would miss my Indian food so it is not a big problem, we both enjoy food so we can eat each other's food, we don't clash on it.
Culture differences may be our values, but our values are mostly on how we are raised up, Example is the toilet floor has to be dry all the time, that’s my mom, but for them it’s wet is fine.It is more of just personal things, but because my mom and dad are both different cultures, I get the blend of both cultures, so I can adapt.
What are your vision and hopes for your future children living in Sabah?
Sis Athena: I hope that they grow up in an environment where when they meet people, they will see people as people first, instead of who they are by skin colour or by how they speak and how they walk... to really grow up in the kind of environment that is safe, respectful, harmonious, and to grow up to be people who respects others.
Bro Gan: The main thing is our faith, so I want him or her to know God, like really well and know the values that we had with each other as a family too. It's not so much about performing. We’re so used to performing in order to receive love from our parents and it’s not a good thing because we thought we only can be loved because we perform. But we do not want to pass that on to our children, we want to know that they could be able to love despite their performance, so that when they treat other people outside, they would treat out of love and not out of you can do something for me and do well then I will love you. So I want my kid to grow up and we don’t want to be placed upon like, you must succeed, but we want to show our values of just loving, love respecting. The most important thing for them to grow up is to really love one another without their race, culture or anything about religion, is about loving people.
How can we embrace one another better?
Bro Gan: I give you an example, do you have siblings? Do you love your siblings even if sometimes you fight, at the end, we do love them right?
I want to pass my values down to my children which is to love one another, so you have to understand what love is. Love means that when you look at the person, you don't try to change the person, you don’t have to have a standard for them for you to love. If you love them, you naturally would be accepting, so that’s no specific thing that you would do or say. But to me, to tell your heart to love them means that, for me love is a choice, it’s not my feeling.
If love is a feeling, then our marriage would not last. But love is a choice that I chose to love everyday, that would be days maybe like I just don’t have the feeling of love, but if I tell myself to choose to love her, that makes a whole lot different because love is a choice...
God has given us free will for us to love. So we need to learn how to love despite whether they are performing or not, whether they are being bad or they are being good with love, like your siblings, you fight because sometimes they don’t meet your standard of goodness, but you still love them. Why do you love them? Because you love. So, how do we embrace one another with different cultures? We love. Although we might not agree on certain things, we might fight together as though we are like brothers and sisters, but at the end of the day, we love. It’s not easy to love people, but you could start with a small group of people, it can be your friends. Without looking at their culture or their belief, we can love one another.
Sis Athena: I echo what he said to love is one. We tend to be naturally self-centered, like we take care of our own need first, so humanity also is a necessary thing when we want to embrace one another, because without humanity, you won’t see someone else as more important than you and when he said that love is a choice, what comes to my mind is the word commitment. Sometimes you can love someone without the feeling because you’re committed to it, and eventually the feeling is like a bonus thing that comes after that.
Bro Gan: One of the values that we hold one is to love others as yourself. She was self-centered right, if you love yourself, you buy yourself soap, you want to buy yourself some food, buy someone else some food. So, love others as yourself.
Knowing how Sabah is much more harmonious and embracing towards others, can you share some positive messages or advice for people who are facing different ethnic relationships?
Bro Gan: I wouldn’t say Sabah is 100% that’s like really harmonious, to be truthful there’s also some racial situation that’s still happening in Sabah.
For example, the Filipinos are the immigrants that come in, like the Mexicans immigrating to the US. For us, we are fine by it, but to some people they do not like the Filipinos, not because so much about the race, but because of the crimes they do or they just don’t like them but eventually it will become a racial thing. The only positive message I could give to accept one another, is just to love one another, and to see the person as your brothers and sisters, it will make a whole lot different. It starts from us to value them. Do we see value in them or not? One of the things that we believe in that we are made in God’s image, whenever we look at someone, we believe that we don’t want to have thoughts of things that we don’t want, we don’t want to talk bad about the person, we want to honour the person, we have to learn the culture of honour, not just saying bad things. We say “Ahh, you could do better, you can like that, you can like that”, but the thing is it's very hard for us to honour a person.
When I say we are created in God’s image, it's very important. If I’m saying bad about one person say “You’re not good enough,” what I’m trying to say is, am I saying that God is not good enough because he is made in God’s image in the sense but that’s our believe, but one of the things that we can do is to value the person, one of values that I keep is the value of the individual. One thing that I use to teach people is, I show them a picture of a baby and a cockroach. I asked them if a baby and a cockroach approached you, which one would you kill first, the baby and then save the cockroach, or you kill the cockroach and then you save the baby. Of course, most people, they will “Of course we save the baby and kill the cockroach”. I keep asking them why? The only answer would be because of value, because the baby is of value. So if we see other human beings or we don't see them as a value, their value will, despite their wrong doings, because we are all imperfect, it takes some patience for us to, in order to love someone. But one thing is to refrain from talking bad about someone, as much as you can, just honor the person, see something good in that person and honor them. Eventually when it becomes a habit, you will tend to see that you will start to like that person, it's easier for you to honor them rather than criticize.
SIs Athena: A positive message would be honouring, despite of what or how you are treated you still keep that you are committed to be kind, even though is not easy, but it’s necessary because in the long run will prove to people that you have a value and you have a stand and not you swayed by, you don’t react when people mistreat you, but you are ready, so that when the mistreatments come respond instead of reacting.
If there’s something you wish others to know about your marriage, what would it be?
Sis Athena: I want God to see God in us, loving things like that or we want people looking at us and we are pointing them to something that is greater than this marriage, God is all honesty, because without Him, it has no meaning.
Bro Gan: In a spiritual sense, I would say God, because our whole values are based on how we love one another, how we respect one another, which is based on God. The values that we have from God is to portray to others. For us is not to brag about it, we are able to spread that love. So at the end of the day, it's about the love that we show. It’s not easy, we want people to love each other unconditionally. A lot of people do in our culture, mostly Asians, my wife, in front of my friends, a lot of Asians would say things to make her feel down, “She like that at home, she’s like this”, just to embarrass her, that’s what a lot of Asian people do in front of their friends, especially guys. But to me, I want to have God’s value, is to honour her in front of everybody else, I would praise her in front of everybody, “You know my wife has been this way so good to me and she has been really helpful and cooks well”, so I would love other to see that we could love one another each other despite our race, we don’t take that as something to fight upon or have a problem and to see how we love our kid, is very important, not to put too much expectation, expectation is good but not too much but at the same time, love our children unconditionally. So even when we have problems, one of the things that we do, we try as much, we take the problem, so each of us is not a problem, but when we fight with one another, we always see you are the problem or I’m the problem, what we always do is to take that problem and put in front of us and then we discuss, how we tackle that problem, so with other people, we want to take the problem and put in front of us, okay how can we do about it because we can change, we help one another.
What is your vision and wish for Sabah, or fellow Sabahans?
Bro Gan: Sabah used to be a country but its own, its a partnership it was never a state in Malaysia. The Malaysian agreement says Sabah, Sarawak and West Malaysia was a partnership. My vision is not to have Sabah as a country but Sabah as another equal partner for Malaysia, means that every right that we have as a Sabahan is being restored, freedom of religion is one of them. It's more about just the freedom offer, especially financially for our Sabahans and would be a place that, like other countries. Like the young people are raised with proper education, infrastructure as well. And we can live, one thing we always want to have a rainbow nation. Not as Sabahans as well as Malaysian, because Malaysians are known as rainbow nations, we want to have that in Sabah that will continue on. Most important for Sabah would be preserving our heritage, the trees and all those things and environment. But at the same time, we have progressed as people, like we have the resource but we are not thriving.
Sis Athena: My vision for Sabah in the future is the Malaysian Agreement 1963 and there’s a lot of conflicts going on about this agreement and Sabahan wanting it to be restored, they want Sabah to be a country. Sabah being given the same opportunity because we weren’t given that opportunity as much as possible to the maximum potential in the past 50 over years. My vision is for that agreement to be honoured and to be carried out yet, I want the Sabahans to move on from the past hurt and to grow into a people that is more progressive in thinking, where we don’t always go back to the past because we always live of the past right, we always repeat them and repeat them and we weren’t able to grow. We weren’t able to grow because we keep on reminding ourselves of the past hurt, so my vision is first for Sabahan to learn about the past, now we may fight for it. Work together into, basically life is about honouring people, it's not about how much you earn, it's about values that you put into each life, that’s very important because if you can all the materialistics things but you yourself, for example, Sabahans they still see people as good as them, it doesn’t make them free just by having those things.
Bro Gan: Whenever we say Sabahans, sometimes we always try to refer to our tribal people, because our heart is for the tribal people, they’re very nice people in terms of just being friends and all but they tend to be jealous of one another.
Like you have a business, so sometimes we also look up to the Pakistan people, they try to benefit but they always help each other as their own people. But our tribal people, they will try to bring you down, they just don’t like it if you’re being successful. Not all of them, maybe now in KK area, the town, city area, people are getting ‘let’s help each other’, ‘kita jaga kita’. But there are still people around in the interiors, if you’re successful, we’ll try to bring you down. Give an example, her father has a small shop that’s rented out to the Pakistany in nearby here, our house, seen a successful of another, my father-in-law success of having a small shop, checkout the Pakistan guy, are they even legal to open a shop there and so, they’re trying to bring you down.
That’s why if we don’t progress learning to accept one another, build up one another, then whether we’re gonna restore our Malaysian agreement, doesn’t mean it will progress also.
What can the young people in Semenanjung do to help our brothers and sisters in Borneo?
Sis Athena: I remember Faye when you came for The Rojak Projek, you came to Sabah and stayed in my house and got to know the people here. I find that very powerful, it’s time consuming. But it is very powerful because personally my parents were so blessed, even right now when they hear about you they will remember. I think for Sabahan you need that, you come over and get connected with people without having an agenda because humans are smart. You can tell whether a person is genuine or is trying to sell something or there’s something behind the stone. Being genuine is the first and foremost thing, you don’t even think about trying to fix things, the moment you come with that intention, people who would just shut off because there’s so many people who tried to do that.
Coming with the motive that is like what you did with Rojak Projek is so powerful because it builds a relationship so strong that even if you come back, we know that you are a family already, like you are actually a partly Sabahan. So I think the first step is to keep doing what you guys are doing like increasing awareness or maybe just splashing all these things or messages about learning each other, bridging the gap, like closing the gap between these two things, slowly. When there are people showing such a genuine interest to just close the gap between the West Malaysians and the East Malaysians here, it would take a lot of effort and it takes like a dominos effect, but what you guys are doing now is good to increase awareness, whether is through social media. This kind of interview would be a good platform to just get connected.
Bro Gan: The best thing that we can do is always spread awareness, what you guys are doing are already so good, it's just to spread the truth, not just Sabahan, but as a Borneo people, even Sarawak people are also not known. To aware what is the truth or what are the issues they go through, people can make videos.
They went and made a video about it, so those are speaking truth about where we are so people will just click, repost and keep viraling and they will know who the Borneo peopleWhere is Sabah and Sarawak, so I think it’s just awareness.
Not only who is the Sabahan but what is the issue they go through, what do they think or pretty much those awareness. So, more people would do more videos online, get partners, make videos and spread the news about who Sabahan is, that would be really much helpful.
"The awareness among the young people who are trying to bring awareness, it will build up to become a conviction that would launch them into more action." - Athena Nestor Thomas
Bro Gan: Definitely not just too aware but of course there will hopefully people would want to do something, that would be good. Can always have trip over down and see, rather than just going around the town or tourist spots, maybe they can go see towards the jungles, maybe they will see some people that are struggling, knowing living in so many years behind, they could come like the thing the lights that you guys are doing, you guys are honouring, it's always good to partner and have awareness to partnering with locals and all this things.
___ Interviewer: Evelyn Pang Yi Xin Written by: Sabrina Lazarus and David Leung (Indonesia) Transcribed by: Evelyn Pang Yi Xin & Sabrina Lazarus (Indonesia) Special thanks to those preparing the questions: Lim Sheng Feiyan (Faye), Lim Chia Wei, Evelyn Pang Yi Xin and Sabrina Lazarus (Indonesia)