Updated: Dec 23, 2020
“We should have conversations (with people outside your circle) to help us understand one other; and find the strength for stronger unity and relationships. I think that is very important for Malaysia - especially at this point of time and as we grow together.”- Dharrnesha Inbah Rajah
We had the wonderful opportunity to interview Ms. Dharrnesha Inbah Rajah, or as her close friends would call her, ‘Dharr’. Dharrnesha is a Kuala Lumpur native and had lived here for most of her life, except the time she left to the UK for her further studies.
She shared with us that she is part Tamil-Indian from her paternal side and part Punjabi with a slight Egyptian lineage from her maternal side. If you were to ask her what she would go for if she was thirsty, she would opt for any type of tea to quench her thirst, her favourite being Masala Tea and the Malaysian pride, Teh Tarik. She also enjoys cooking and her favourite Malaysian dish to cook is (a version of the) Hainanese Chicken Rice. For her, it is a complete meal made from one binding ingredient - chicken to suit the taste buds of her family, a uniquely Malaysian trait.
We interviewed her because we wanted to know more about her special friendship between Edika Amin & Bell Chan, however before we get there, we wanted to know what life was like back in her high school and how diverse her social circles were from a young age.
Could you share with us what your high school life was like?
I went to SMK Seri Bintang Utara, formerly known as Bukit Bintang Girls School.
I think high school was when probably I had the largest and most diverse social circle. High school was fun, intense, and full of life. Looking back at when we were 16 or 17 years old, we managed to balance between hours of classes and co-curricular activities. I was exposed to many different activities, some that I was terrible at and outside of my comfort zone, e.g. table tennis. But it was fun, as we were all in it together. You were not alone. My group of friends would also make it a point to spend some time together during the school holiday periods. 10 years ago, the cool (and perhaps only) places to hang out were mainly malls. We’d watch a movie, go for lunch, and karaoke (though none of us could sing very well). I’d say I had a pretty conventional high school life in urban KL.
So you mentioned you had a diverse group of friends and how you mix a lot with different races and ethnicities, so how did your parents react to that?
Yeah! It was never a point of concern or contention about my friends or any individual person itself. It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? On one end, a person’s race/ethnicity doesn’t define the relationships we have and on the other, I think we just somehow take it for granted, we take it as a given, like it was never like, ‘Ohh! This person is of a different ethnicity’.
So, let’s talk about your friendships, can you share with us any of your close friends and what makes your friendships special?
I’d like to talk about two friends of mine whom I’ve come to have known when I first joined the workforce 5 years ago. One is a Malay guy, his name is Edika Amin, and the other one is a Chinese girl, her name is Bell Chan. We met during our work onboarding or orientation session. Funny thing is that we didn’t hit it off at first go. It wasn’t friendship at first sight. A little bit of background about Edika. As a son of an ambassador, he's been living and moving around throughout his childhood. I remember thinking ‘How are you Malaysian? All you do is eat McDonald's.’ when I first met this guy with a pretty thick American accent. Edika is one of the kindest people that I know. Edika and I really hit it off during a department retreat (we were both placed in the same department) the week that I had just joined. I remember having teh o’ limau ais at a roadside Ramly burger stall in Pahang with Edika since that was the next best substitute for his McD diet! We just hung out for hours, in true Malaysian style, and really got to know each other.
Bell is this really sweet, kind and (just very) humble person. She reminds me of jasmine (the flower) and somehow I didn’t think we would become close friends. I’m glad I’m proven wrong. I was acquainted with Bell through a mutual friend from way back. Bell is one of the toughest people that I know. Bell and I grew closer to one another more organically towards the end of the work orientation session. She is also a really funny person especially when she doesn’t notice it, and always brightens up the room with her presence. Oh, and she has amazing handwriting that I’m envious of! We are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, we complement one another in our strengths and weaknesses. I also think that we should be featured in a Petronas ad for the festive sessions! It hasn’t happened but lobbying for it! Hehe….
So what language do you speak to each other?
Primarily English. But again, in true Malaysian fashion, we also speak a bit of 'Bahasa Malaysia’, ‘Manglish’ (Malaysian English), some odd words/phrases/etc in other languages e.g. Tamil, Mandarin and sometimes I teach them a bit of my Punjabi. But primarily, it’s English.
So, could you share funny or good memories you had with your friends?
Oh so many! But I think one of the few memories that I’ll cherish, was having Edika and Bell head to Bangkok with me as I had wanted to go for a Coldplay concert. I asked them if they wanted to come, and on a whim they said, “Yeah sure”. So we all just went to Bangkok for a weekend. Bell went to the concert with me, but Edika isn’t really much of a concert go-er so he literally was just there with us, and it was really fun because it was like us very clueless people sort of wandering around the streets of Bangkok, drinking lots of Thai Iced Tea. It was great. Bell and I had an adventure walking 55 blocks (post-concert) from the venue to our hotel as there weren’t any available cabs at that time. It was probably the most I’ve ever worked out in one go!
Another hilarious encounter was with a taxi driver in Phuket. As we were headed to the airport, he turned around and asked Edika, “Are you here for a holiday?”, and Edika said yes. The taxi driver then says “It’s really cool that you’re travelling with your wife and your sister!”, and we were like, “Whaaat!? Whaaat!?”
Bell and I turned to each other and were like, “I don't wanna be his wife”, and it turns out the taxi driver thought that I was his sister, and Bell was his wife. We still laugh about it till this day!
If you can swap lives with one of your friends for a week, who will it be and where is he/she from? And why?
It would be a good friend from my uni days. Her name is Megan Liardet and she’s French. It’s because, to me at least, I wonder how the perspective is from a traditionally coastal background. It would have been interesting to see how life would be from her perspective in terms of the language, the French are obviously very notorious in speaking and upholding the language and in terms of their passion for food. That is something we obviously share in common, as well as how accommodating and expressive they are with the sharing of food and culture... Yeah I think it’d be her.
Why is making friends of different races important to you?
I think one thing is that it really does build empathy without you even realising it because you are surrounded by different perspectives, ideologies, principles, and heritages. It informs the decisions that you make and your interaction styles. In Malaysia, we probably take for granted the fact that we are already in this environment so it would require the extra effort to learn to appreciate the rich and diverse cultural surroundings.
That's what is really important, and it makes you an informed person, it widens your horizon and makes you put in effort to be culturally sensitive, and to be more tolerant and also understand yourself, your limitations, and your thoughts on how you harmonize your views and others’ views.
So have you faced difficulties in understanding other people's ethnicity and did you face any cultural clashes along the way? How did you cope with it?
Yeah! Certainly, I think one thing that I've personally faced is the lack of understanding of the rojakness that we all are in our ethnicities. I am also guilty of this. I have made the mistake of assuming the ethnicities of my Chinese and Borneo friends. It’s like me saying to another Chinese person that everyone’s the same, the Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Foochow - it’s not. I have also been on the receiving end there isn’t an understanding of the difference between being an Indian and a Punjabi, the cultures are very different, but the comments that I would get would be but like, “It's the same thing, you know you trace your heritage to India so its the same thing, you all are Indians”, and I'm like, ‘Urghh... No.’
Another common occurrence is the language or medium of conversation. If you're the only person that does not speak the language in the situation, you do sometimes find yourself not understanding or following some parts of the conversation when it is in another native language, and so you’re thinking like, “Who’s gonna translate this to me, am I part of the conversation?”. Again, I am also guilty of this. It takes a conscious effort to be inclusive and it’s something to be inherently mindful of.
Could you share with us a moment of hardship you went through and how did you uphold / strengthen one another?
This is probably a common occurrence everywhere - favouritism. Some of my closest friends and I have also experienced those - may it be on gender, social standing or even skin colour. As younger kids or students, we took it personally. As a weakness in our abilities or character. I often thought that I’m never good enough. Having friends who have always been encouraging and forcing you not to dwell on the negatives made for a great support network. Separately, I remember the time back then, when both my friend and I had applied for public universities and not gotten into any unis despite obtaining decent results in our SPM - it felt like a major kick in the butt. Fast forward to today, my friend is now a wonderful English teacher in an International school and I’m in grad school. I think we’re doing okay...haha!
What are the strengths you felt in your friendship hailing from different backgrounds and heritages, and do you guys have anything you come together in?
Certainly. We have an open communication platform with no judgments. This has been great in breaking the stereotypes that I, personally had, growing up. One of it was that the Bumiputera folks would receive a ‘blanket’ benefit that the non-Bumiputera don’t receive. But the reality is much more intricate than that. Similarly, if I didn’t have the platform for conversations with friends from other ethnic groups, you’d miss out on the nuanced understanding. I think that has been the strength here - the fact that we can have this conversation openly.
What is the one thing that blows your mind away/shocked you that your friend told you about their culture?
Ah! So this was many moons ago, but I remember when a Buddhist friend mentioned that in practicing the religion, they were supposed to be vegetarian where they do not consume onions or garlic. That was a surprise!
So, if there’s something you wish that others knew about your friendship, what would it be?
Not all friendships are alike, and the nature of it really depends on how the friendships were formed and they remain dynamic.
I’ve lost friends and I've gained friends. My circle has gotten smaller but deeper and more valuable. We tend to associate negative connotation to losing friends, and I don't think you should see it that way, you see it in a way that you’ve grown because this person has been in your life at whatever point in time. I’m glad to have Edika and Bell in my life and hope that they will remain as significant components for years to come. We have grown and changed a fair bit in the past 5 years but I appreciate that they are still always one call away!
How do you think we can embrace one another despite our differences?
I believe that it’s important is to listen to one another, but to listen with the objective of understanding, not to listen so that you can respond, so it's like you’re listening in a way that you hear them out. It fundamentally starts with that, because if not then what’s the point of having conversations? This can be applied cross culturally, in social circles, in school, at work, etc. Being humble about knowing that you’re not all-knowing, and that you are not all right is important.
It’s really about listening and just having that great conversation - nothing beats that - especially over a cup of teh tarik.
What are your vision and hopes for Malaysia?
I would like us to be more unified, open and embracing of one another as we grow as a nation.
Malaysia’s a great place - one of the key southeast asian economies, our economy has (unrealised) potential, we have great local talent, rich cultural heritage, and the list goes on. But we also should be mindful of people who are outside of our circles and fortunes. Make a new friend and be connected to things outside of your circle. That’s you putting in an effort, because if you don’t put in effort, then who’s gonna put an effort for Malaysia?
Could you share with us some positive advice for people who do not have friends of different race(s), do you think they should too?
I think if there are Malaysians who don't have friends from different races, I would find that very hard to believe. That’s probably my environment biasing my views. So, it is likely possible that there are people with a monocultural social circle. I’d go back to putting in the effort to make a friend outside of your social circle in your environment. A neighbour, colleague, school/uni mate, etc. Starts with a “Hi”.
So it's about putting yourself outside of the comfort zone, challenging yourself to make a friend - someone you can have conversations with over a meal! You’d be able to see how much more your horizon is broadened and also how much more informed you will be.
___ Interviewer: Hussain Yunus Azeez Written by: David Leung (Indonesia), Hussain Yunus Azeez (Maldives) and Ang Zhe En Transcribed by: David Leung (Indonesia) Special thanks to those preparing the questions: Lim Sheng Feiyan (Faye), Hussain Yunus Azeez (Maldives) and David Leung (Indonesia)