“It’s almost like a mosaic, just like how colourful your marriage becomes with all these different flavours that you bring. So, I think the more differences, the better, because the more stories you are able to tell your children. So, just work through it, there’s absolutely nothing that your love cannot conquer together. If you’re meant to be together, you will be together. I hope you don’t allow just small cultural issues to get in the way. Those things can really hold you as a couple instead of break you.” - Bernice Johnson David
We had a lovely conversation with Cuzario David and Bernice Johnson David, an interracial couple with two children.
Cuzario was born in Kuching, a city in Sarawak. He is a mix of Iban and Bidayuh where both are very different culturally. Iban guys are tougher, rougher, whereas the Bidayuh are softer. In terms of complexion, most of the Ibans are darker, and the Bidayuhs are much fairer. This is probably because the Ibans are warriors, and the Bidayuh are mostly farmers as they lived on land back in those days. In comparison, the Ibans live by the sea most of the time.
Bernice was born in Aliwal North, a small town in South Africa. She mentioned that she is a coloured person in South Africa. Her mother’s forefathers are a mix of Indian and Koisan, an African tribe. Her father’s ancestors are a mix of Irish and Koisan.
How and where did you two meet?Bernice first came to Malaysia in 2009 for a short trip and eventually moved here in 2014 when they got married. Despite their cultural differences and nationality, Cuzario managed to convince his in-laws to allow their daughter to move 5,720-mile away! They have been happily married for the past 7 years.
How and where did you two meet?
'Ousus' Bernice: We actually belonged to the same church (Every Nation). In 2009, seven of us from my church in South Africa, planned a mission trip to Myanmar to help with some relief programmes as they just suffered a cyclone. Everything was booked - our flights, hotel, etc., but a week before our flight, our visa was declined. When we found out, we were confused and just prayed about what we should do.
We decided to just go for it and it just so happens that our flight had a stopover in Malaysia. So we contacted our pastor here in Malaysia and he told us to come and stay here for 2 weeks, learn about the culture and how the church is managed. Within those 2 weeks of being here, we bumped into each other on several occasions, but it wasn’t until the very last day where we actually had a conversation, and exchanged contacts and stuff. When we went back to South Africa, we kept in touch via email. I came back the following year for a week, and that’s when we decided to start the relationship. We dated long distance for 4 years, where we took turns visiting each other before getting married.
Where there any challenges before getting married?
'Igat' Cuzario: In terms of parents’ approval we had no problem on both sides, because I brought her home when our relationship got more serious, so there’s no objection. I had to make a trip to South Africa to ask for her hand from her parents. That was a nerve wracking experience, but it was a very emotional moment for her dad especially. He was teary when I asked for her hand, but I guess it was very hard to let her go. I wouldn’t say there was an objection, but resistance if I could say so, from her aunt as she wanted me to be there, instead of me bringing Bernice to Malaysia.
'Ousus' Bernice: Fortunately, we didn’t really have much difficulties before our marriage. There was a lot of support from everyone. We spent 4 years in a long distance relationship, but it really didn’t even feel that long, because we agreed to not get too attached and spend too much time together on the phone or email and all of those, because individually we had a lot of goals that we wanted to achieve before we actually got married. I think the last year of dating was a bit difficult, especially after the engagement, when we became more attached to each other.
'Igat' Cuzario: I think the reason it was smooth was because we were busy with our own work,
and of course because of time differences, we had a really small window to communicate real time, so it was mostly through email and probably Facebook or Messenger since WhatsApp wasn’t a thing then. We would drop notes to each other and reply at the end of the day. Work kept us sane for most part so we were able to balance our long-distance relationship.
What was your parents' reaction when they knew you two were dating someone from different ethnicities?
'Ousus' Bernice: I think my parents were quite fine because inter-racial marriages are common in South Africa, so it was probably inevitable that I would marry someone that is not from my own culture. I think the shock was more that he’s from a different country, so that was a bigger pill to swallow. They respected our decisions because they knew they raised us well to make good decisions and they are very supportive as well.
'Igat' Cuzario: There are a lot of inter-racial marriage for my family as well, so it's nothing new. Then again, the nationality, and the distance is quite far. South Africa and Malaysia are over 11,000km apart so they were worried as to where I was going to settle down.
Have you faced any discrimination because of your inter-racial marriage?
'Ousus' Bernice: Probably when I have to go to the authorities to renew my visa. I can never go alone, because I cannot speak bahasa (Malaysia). Sometimes, the officers are not so keen to speak in English, and they will just speak in bahasa. Most times, I have to have Cuzario with me. If I go alone and tell them I cannot speak bahasa, they will give the attitude like “you are in our country, you are supposed to know our language”. Not all will be like this, but it has happened before. Overall, it's not a super bad experience. I don’t think we ever had any discrimination from people around us because of our marriage.
What is important in your marriage and why?
'Ousus' Bernice: I think trust is number one, we have to trust each other, because I don’t have any family members around besides him. As long as I trust him and know that I am safe with him. Of course, communication is very important as well, because Cuzario is a thinker, and I am a doer kind of person. Like sometimes I just don’t plan my schedule or my routine to such detail, whereas he would.
To avoid conflicts and things like that, it’s really vital that we communicate, even if we have to over-communicate at times. In his upbringing, what I’ve found is that they don’t communicate as much to each other, and whereas in my culture, we over-communicate and tell each other everything.
'Igat' Cuzario: I think for me it's definitely communication, that’s one of the things that I am learning all these years, because I am more of a writing person. In my culture, we don’t talk so much, but we try to understand each other through body language. Even if we argue, we try not to offend each other, we would not say our dissatisfaction because we like to live in a harmonious environment.
What similarities do you find between Malaysian and South African culture?
'Igat' Cuzario: Coming from Kuching, it’s the inclusiveness of the community. We don’t care what skin colour you are, we love to have you around, if you are close to us, you are like family. You can come to our house anytime, you can sleep at our house anytime. We are very inclusive people. That’s what I realize also in South Africa, because when our parents met, they clicked so well. Even for me, when I went there for the first, second and third time, I settled down very fast, and I believe it’s the same for Bernice as well.
'Ousus' Bernice: One of the biggest similarities is the diversity and I think the fact that people are very friendly.
Did you face any cultural shock? If yes, how did you overcome it?
'Igat' Cuzario: It only happened after we got married, so certain things we do at home that’s different. After having my meal, I clear and wash my plates right away. That’s how it is for me back home - you wash your own dishes, so it’s easy for the next person. Whereas for them, it’s a community activity to wash the dishes.
'Ousus' Bernice: At the beginning of our marriage, I just couldn’t understand why after meals he would get up and go to wash his dishes? To me, it’s a bit disrespectful, because when we have dinner around the table, we will chat and eventually when everyone has eaten and we are all full, then we will kind of take our conversations to the kitchen. We’ve worked it out and agreed that we’ll eat together and do all the dishes together once we’re finished.
Another difference is that in South Africa, when we wash dishes, we put hot water in the sink with soap, and then we start off by washing the plates. Here, I realized that people wash the dishes in a different way, where you kind of just use a bowl of soap, water and let the tap run, and wash each item individually, then rinse it off and pack it away. In Durban, a city in South Africa, there’s a lot of Indians there, and they wash using the Malaysian style, so I think that it's just the Asian style of washing dishes.
'Igat' Cuzario: I sleep with my bolster (laughs). It was a very big problem for her. There was one time earlier in our marriage, probably the first 3 months, I realised that my bolster went missing. When I went to bed, something didn't feel right, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Then after the second and third time, it hit me - my bolster! She actually hid it (laughs). Apparently, they don’t use bolsters in South Africa.
What is it like at home? How are you raising your children in this rojak (mixed) culture?
'Igat' Cuzario: We mostly speak English at home, but sometimes when I’m alone and she’s working at night, I do actually speak Bidayuh and a bit of Malay to Cortez. When Cortez was a baby, I put him to sleep by singing a Malay song, it goes something like this, “Ibu, ibu engkaulah ratu hatiku”. Even though he could memorise that song, I don’t think he understood what the song meant. She’s also teaching both boys to speak Afrikaans. It’s cool, Cortez is picking up Mandarin as well, so there’s a lot of languages they are going to learn.
'Ousus' Bernice: Some African cultures that we apply here are putting our kids to bed early. In South Africa, we have an early culture, so we wake up early in the morning, school starts earlier, businesses operate earlier, and in the evening, malls also close earlier, so we try to do it with our boys.
'Igat' Cuzario: So far we are succeeding, our youngest will sleep at 7:30 and the elder one at 8:30 or 9, and they also wake up very early, like around 6 in the morning. We wake up at 7, so he’ll make noise for 1 hour.
Why did you choose to stay in Malaysia? Have you thought about living somewhere else?
'Igat' Cuzario: I believe that’s where God wants us to be at this moment. We plan on moving away, but not so soon. We just want to settle down first, make sure that everything is stable, especially financially. South Africa is a nice place to stay, but at this point of time, I haven’t thought about getting a job there yet. It is a beautiful country to explore as a tourist, though.
'Ousus' Bernice: I think Malaysia is a better option at the moment. One, Malaysia’s health system is way better than South Africa’s. Malaysia also has a better option regarding education. Another one is Malaysia’s infrastructure and technology is quite advanced and years ahead of South Africa’s. Maybe because of corruption failure in South Africa. One of our biggest technology companies is in such a bad state and it’s really upsetting the locals tremendously. For instance, when we go back to South Africa for a short visit, we can pay up to RM100 just for data, for the day. The Internet is easily accessible here whereas in South Africa, it’s not - you can’t just go to a mall or some public place and just log on to the internet and wifi and you know streams or whatever.
'Igat' Cuzario: If I can add, utilities in South Africa are much more expensive compared to Malaysia, like water, electricity, and even petrol. Petrol costs four times more over there. It's a bit discouraging to settle down there unless I get a job that pays a lot more. Even then, I will still think twice. Another reason is because they experience power cuts once or twice in a week, even in the city. They call it “load-shedding”, where it is scheduled for different areas at different points of time. It could be like tonight, between 9pm and 3am, and during that time, I will not have electricity in my area. It can be quite annoying that you don’t have power supply for those 6 hours, but it’s normal for them.
What are your vision and hopes for your children?
'Igat' Cuzario: I want them to be a useful person when they grow up; to be an influence in their own sphere, in their own age group, always be the head and not the tail, for them to be able to really set an example for their peers, not to be shy, and not to be timid. In Malaysia, most of the people that I know are pretty timid, they want to play it safe and don’t want to offend other people. I hope that my kids will be nice people, but not too timid.
'Ousus' Bernice: There’s two things that I try to instill in them - one is kindness. I definitely want the boys to be kind to everyone, not discriminate or only be kind to specific groups. Practice equality - show the same kindness to a beggar on the street, as to a CEO or to their boss. Two, I see my kids as leaders, like my husband said, to influence their peers, so that they don’t have to be scared or intimidated at any point in time. If their teachers ask, “who’s gonna lead, or who wants to take the leadership role?”. They should be able to voluntarily say, “okay teacher, I will.” But of course, within the same breath, they will have the respect to follow that leader as well.
Can you share some advice for inter-racial or culturally diverse couples out there?
'Ousus' Bernice: Just be accepting, because especially in the east, there is a big negativity when it comes to inter-racial relationships or marriages if that family or parents tend to disown children. For instance, I have a friend who is dating a Malay girl, and his family is not so open to it. This is because he will need to convert to Muslim if he decides to marry the girl, so the family is kind of against the relationship. Another friend of mine as well, wants to be in a relationship with someone that they know and love, but their parents are forcing them into a pre-arranged marriage. It’s not that easy to just say, “be optimistic” or “just follow your heart”, because there are a lot of things to consider. I feel quite sad if you’re forced to choose between love or family, because it’s not solved by advising them to do one thing or another.
What I can say for people that are already in a relationship is work through your differences, because you’ll discover more of each other. The more you communicate about this, the better actually. It’s almost like a mosaic, just like how colourful your marriage becomes with all these different flavours that you bring. So, I think the more differences, the better, because the more stories you are able to tell your children. So, just work through it, there’s absolutely nothing that your love cannot conquer together. If you’re meant to be together, you will be together. I hope you don’t allow just small cultural issues to get in the way. Those things can really hold you as a couple instead of break you. Especially for inter-racial marriages, it’s really a matter of sinking your pride and working together to form your culture as husband and wife.
'Igat' Cuzario: As parents of kids who are in intercultural relationships, try not to judge or stereotype those kids. And for the kids that are in an inter-racial relationship, try to work it out and explain to your parents why you’re actually in love with this person, and just do it respectfully. Especially when it comes to religious differences, that’s a very sticky situation, so you really have to explain yourself well. Even for kids, you have to show it to your parents, especially your in-laws, that you're able to love their kids as much. Be a good person and prove that you’re able to take care of them.
Any life lessons from your marriage so far?
'Ousus' Bernice: People look at our marriage and think, “wow, they have such a perfect marriage.” That is far from the reality because no marriage is perfect.
When you’re dating, boyfriends will be chasing the girlfriends, trying to win them over and stuff. But when you get married, that chase should not stop, and continue each and every day. It shouldn’t be like,“okay now we are married and all the excitement is over.” No, I think the longer you stay together, the better it gets.” So, I’m excited to see what our marriage would look like in 20, 30 years from now.
Everyday is a learning journey - who is my husband? Who is my wife? We make it our goal to learn something new about each other everyday, so we are able to love each other better. We were put together by God, and so if He thinks that we fit together and we are made to last, then we’ll just accept that gracefully and happily, and figure out what adventures we are meant to explore together and just go with the flow. Marriage is hard work because you really have to let go of your own desires and there’s a lot of sacrifice that is involved but the main thing is teamwork.
'Igat' Cuzario: That’s why I’m always tired because I’m continuously chasing after her. (laughs)
To add on, we are not too shy to say we also have mentors. A lot of young people feel like they have this whole world figured out by themselves and don’t see the need for mentors. We actually have a couple of older people who guided us on how to live or make married life better and help us to resolve conflicts. Don’t be shy to ask for help from other people who you look up to. For us, we are very blessed to have people who helped us out, to help us fix things when things are not working properly.
What do you love about Malaysia?
'Ousus' Bernice: I love that there are so many similarities between Malaysia and South Africa. There is so much diversity in Malaysia - from 14 states you have different ethnicities and dialects, which I absolutely love. And the acceptance in Malaysia for foreigners is just amazing. As a foreigner, I feel safe wherever I go. My husband is actually more worried about me being out late at night, but I am comforted knowing there are policemen everywhere.
People are so accommodating and welcoming. Coming from a culture where people are super friendly, super expressive, I don’t feel like I don’t belong here. There is a sense of belonging, and I love it. One of my dreams is to explore each and every state, especially all the beautiful beaches and good food!
'Igat' Cuzario: I love Malaysia because it’s my hometown. Back home in Kuching, people are pretty chill and we accept each other as they are. For instance, I can hangout at my friend’s house at any time. Because it’s a small city, people tend to know each other pretty well. Even though they’re not so close, they know their faces and names, who they are, and whose family they belong to.
Like Bernice said, Malaysia is a diverse country and that’s why I think we live in harmony because as much as we are different, we are also the same. And of course the food. No matter where I go, let’s say if I go to South Africa for a month or so, I will miss Malaysian food - especially the mamak!
Can you share a funny or a good memory you had with fellow Malaysians?
'Ousus' Bernice: In 2017, my parents came over to Malaysia when my eldest one was delivered. While my dad was here, we made a trip to Kuching because we wanted to show Cuzario’s hometown. We went to his grandmother’s house and we had a barbecue. It was something that we would do in South Africa, and my dad just felt so ‘at home’. He just instantly bonded with everyone to the point where he actually stayed behind with Cuzario’s family and they continued the party. The next day he couldn't stop talking about how nice it was, so I think that’s probably a huge highlight, when it comes to experiences that we have had here.
How can we embrace one another better as a nation?
'Ousus' Bernice: If we judge less, accept people for who they are, practise equality and treat everyone the same way, there would be less misunderstanding. As a community, we shouldn’t make assumptions because we don’t know what other people are going through. People put on facades, showing that they have it all, but they might be hurting inside, feeling unappreciated or insecured.
From my experience in a local school as well, I realised that parents sometimes put so much pressure on children to excel in school, but don’t teach them emotional intelligence. We should teach our children about ethics and empathy because these are values they will carry forward.
'Igat' Cuzario: My hope is for people to actually care for one another even more. For example, I had an incident in my apartment, where my hand got stuck in an elevator for about a minute or so. One hand was carrying the baby, while the other hand that got stuck was carrying some groceries. When I freed my hand, I had to let go of the stuff I was carrying in the elevator. A few minutes later, someone found it and was trying to return it, where I found him making his way to the admin office. I told him what happened - my hand got stuck, and I couldn't reach the button since my hands were full - and he actually scolded me like, “next time, do not carry too many things. You have a baby, why don’t you use a stroller?” They don’t even ask if you’re okay or not, they scold you first and then run along. I wish we can be more empathetic and to show kindness to each other. You don’t know what people go through, so it’s not wrong to ask how they are. People go through different things every single day, so a simple greeting could mean a lot to some people. That’s why most of the time, especially these days, I try to greet strangers, as much as I can.
It made me feel proud as a Malaysian when I heard Bernice say Malaysians made her feel welcomed and accepted. However, young inter-racial couples are still facing difficulties due to misconceptions that still exist in our society. We are a multicultural society made up of different ethnic groups and this is what made us unique. Learning how to accept each other’s culture helps us to form a more harmonious society.
Love comes in different forms and it should not be a taboo to marry someone from a different race or nationality. Hearing Bernice and Cuzario’s story was inspirational, and I hope as Malaysians, we can be more understanding and accepting towards one another. ^ Igat = Iban term for older brother or someone 20 years older.
^ Ousus = African term for older sister or someone 20 years older.
___ Interviewer: Liew Kang Xuen & Lim Yuan Theng, supported by Faye Lim, Ramisha Adil and Alex Oi Written by: Liew Kang Xuen & Lim Yuan Theng Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza