Dharrnesha Inbah Rajah

"I would definitely say make a friend, make an effort and you are able to see how much more your horizon is broadened, also how much smarter and informed you will be, so you don't give silly comments like some people do. I would also definitely say, it's such a waste if you don't make use of, and read the benefits of being in Malaysia, everywhere you go you see people of different cultures, ethnicities, different religions, and you see all these different people, so why limit yourself to being one-dimensional?" - Dharrnesha Inbah Rajah

We had the wonderful opportunity to interview Ms. Dharrnesha Inbah Rajah, or as her intimate 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 Hainanese Chicken Rice as for her, it is a full set meal where every side dish is made from chicken as just one main ingredient to suit the tongue 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 such a young age. ______

Could you share with us what your high school life was like?

So, 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 social circle and the most diverse social circle. I didn’t really have many Indian or Punjabi friends, I had more Chinese friends from Chinese backgrounds and it was intense back then. I think looking back at 16 or 17 years old on how we could do those hours of classes and those hours of having co-curricular activities, I tried so many different things that actually weren't really good, for example ping pong. I was terrible at it but I tried a lot of things outside my comfort zone. So I think high school was that experience for me trying something outside of my comfort zone but with people that would also be willing to do so, so you’re not alone, yeah…

So, I left high school about 10 years ago, so obviously things have changed now and would probably hang out in cooler places like cafes now. So, 10 years ago, like the cool place to hang out was malls, right? You have Pavilion, KLCC, then you make a plan, open up the date and, ‘OK guys and girls, let’s go!’, especially during school holidays where we’re going to make a full day out, go catch a movie, go for lunch at this place, karaoke... We love karaoke although none of us could sing well, then we went to Starbucks. 10 years ago that was the end thing to do. Yeah! It was really like the malls.

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, yeah!

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 different ethnicity’. So it never became a point of concern or worry or any other further thought about the person itself. From my parent’s point of view, it was really nothing.

There were from other parents point of view, which I don’t know, the other parents think they should comment on other kids There were certain elements and thoughts in the sense of like ‘Oh, she is an Indian girl’ and in Malaysia, your ethnicity follows your paternal side, so which on official documents, my race is Indian, so that's official. And people just take it per say. So there have been comments like ‘oh she’s an Indian girl why isn’t she hanging out with more Indian people?’ ‘why is her social circle mostly of Chinese friends’ so they will comment, not from my parents, more from other people’s parents.

So, let’s talk about your friendships, can you share with us any of your close friends and what makes your friendships special?

I want to talk about two friends 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, she’s of Cantonese background and her name is Bell Chan. So the three of us met when we had our onboarding session where they would try to assimilate you into the working world. Funny thing is that we didn’t start off at a point where we felt that we would come all the way here, like we are very different. A little bit of background about Edika, he is the son of an ambassador, so he's been living and moving around throughout his childhood. So he’s like a lost child who is a bit confused. There is this acronym of a lay guy with a thick American accent and only eats McDonald's, and I was like, ‘How are you Malaysian? All you do is eat McDonald's.’ And then Bell is someone who is really sweet, very kind and just very humble. She is just really sweet like a flower and I didn’t think we would probably become close friends. I got acquainted with Bell since I was talking to her through another person, a neutral friend who I have known from long back, and that’s how we started talking and that was also when I realized that she’s this very sweet person.

With Edika, we never really spoke to each other even during the onboarding session, which was for a month, we didn’t really talk. But what happened was when I first joined the same department as Edika, we were the two people from the same batch that joined for many years, and then from there he was really nice, and since he joined a bit earlier he was showing me the ropes, he taught me the things he’d learned so far, what to do and what not to do, and literally the weekend after I joined there was a department retreat which was really really weird since I barely knew anyone there. That retreat was when I remember having some lemon tea next to a roadside stall in Pahang with Edika and we had a really good conversation. The reason why we were at the roadside stall was because what was being served at the retreat was rice, and he doesn’t eat rice, he just eats his burger, and the best we could do was the Ramly Burger at the roadside. So that’s when I think we really connected, where we really spoke to each other for hours and after that we naturally started hanging out with each other even more. And with Bell, we actually eventually clicked and became friends towards the end of the orientation which was about a month and somehow we just combined, and the three of us started to hang out a lot and really realize that our differences made us closer to each other and how our differences sort of binded each other. We were like jigsaw puzzles, like whatever we were missing at this point, someone has that different point of view. We created a sense of humour and it has grown, they have grown to be my closest friends in a professional setting, it was difficult in my opinion to make friendship connections where you don't tag them as colleagues, but as friends. I tag them as friends, so I knew it was very genuine and it was hard to make such a connection early on.

Currently I’m doing my Masters, Bell is still with the workplace and Edika has since moved on but that didn’t stop or break our relationship. Sometimes we don't always keep up that momentum, but whenever we come back and regroup, it's like nothing has changed except for you know humorous discussion, so yeah, they have been really great and the fact that we come from very different cultural backgrounds as well, I always like to say, “You should go and see me in a Petronas ad for Hari Raya”, because Petronas always put these ads about cross cultural sentiments, I mean it hasn’t happen but lobbying for it! Hehe….

So what language do you speak to each other?

Primarily, it’s English, but we also speak a bit of 'Bahasa Malaysia’, ‘Manglish’ (Malaysian English), some loan words in other languages you have your 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?

We had a lot, I think one of the few memories that I’ll cherish, was this role play I really wanted to see, and they came down to Singapore, but the tickets were sold out so I managed to get tickets to see them at Bangkok instead, and I told to them that I got the tickets and 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 a concert person so he literally was just there with us, and it was really fun because it was like us very clueless people sort of driving on the streets of Bangkok and being ‘touristy’, while all we did was drink lots of Thai Ice Tea. That was pretty much all we did, I didn’t care about my sugar level or my blood pressure at that time, and it was great.

I think it was really cool because we travelled quite a bit after that trip, we went to Phuket, we kept going to Thailand, and they are also people whom I could always turn to and ask anything if I needed them.

So there was this one thing that was funny, when we were in Phuket there was this taxi driver who, as we went to the airport, turned and asked Edika, in trying to make small talk with him like, “Oh so are you here for holiday”, and Edika said yes, we were there for a holiday and went to the concert and the driver went,“Ooh cool!”.

“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! I didn’t know which one was worse and we couldn’t shake it off, even now we still can’t shake it off. That was a really funny experience with them.

And everytime we went for a meal in the early days, it was pretty tough just because of Edika’s very limited food intake menu, and so Bell and I will end up having to finish his food. So, we were like the local city council always having unfinished food and making sure that we’re getting the utter embarrassment itself by doing really these really weird high pitch noises. It’s funny how we still do all these silly things today, and these are some of the few people that I can still do that with, people that I met at work, that I could do that with.

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 really close friend of mine that I met in University, who is currently residing in Paris, and she’s French. It wouldn’t be in correlation to the current moment, since everyone is stuck at home, but if I could, it would be her. Her name is Megan Earle, and the reason why I chose her is because she, I think, and the French in general, are very... French, and very one-dimensional, but not with a negative connotation. But instead, they’re very pure like very, one-dimensional pure breeds. 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 French even if they are fantastic in any other language, language comprehension as well, right? And also in terms of food. That is something we obviously share in common, as well as how passionate they are about food and how accommodating and expansive they are with the sharing of food... 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 help you build empathy without you even knowing, it subconsciously helps you build empathy because you see people from different perspectives, different ideologies, different principles, different heritages, and it informs in the decisions that you make, even things as simple as what sort of cookies that they like, or what sort of food that they enjoy more, something as simple as that, to some more existential questions obviously, but I think that's something that everyone has intricately in them, people are just given the social circle and interactions but people just don’t realize. Especially being a Malaysian, being in this context we take it for granted because we are in this environment already, so you feel like you don’t need to go out to learn to appreciate it, and it may take a while to do so, or you just may not.

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 between your views and their views. It's really interesting because all of this just comes down to even when you’re a kid, right? When we start in kindergarten, and school, and carry on till whenever and wherever. I think for me that's what's really important, you get to assimilate better, no matter which part of the world you travel to you get to assimilate better, you just appreciate culture, and I think the best way we do that is through food.

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 when people aren’t really understanding, and it becomes a point of frustration as well when people don’t really understand 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.’ It’s like me saying to another Chinese person that everyone’s the same, the Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Foochow, like... it’s not. I think it’s really about that.

There also have been, and I keep on going back to food cause it’s just a very easy example to illustrate. In my case, I don’t eat pork or beef, beef is because of religious reasons, and pork is because generally we stopped eating it a long time ago when there was the swine flu outbreak, it just became a thing. But people don't understand that because I do consume alcohol, and they are like, “Hmm… I don't really understand this”.

Likewise with friends of other ethnicities, one thing that also comes about is the language. If you're the only person that is not from the same ethnicity and you're in that group, some social circles tend to just revert back to the language that they are comfortable speaking in, and so you’re thinking like, “Who’s gonna translate this to me, am I part of the conversation?”, “Or are you all saying something really rude about me in front of me''. Sometimes you need some contact right? So that has been a point of disagreement I guess when I was younger, but not so much these days, which I think is a pity these days because we just speak in English, we could speak in Malay, that’s our national language, but we don't, we mostly speak in English. I think that those language bits still stick with me cause it really hurts me, not just me, but a lot of people out there, so taking that as a learning you try not to do that to other people. I know this because one of my closest two friends are also Indian, and I have dated someone who's not of the same ethnicity, so whenever he used to be around, we tried to make it a point to speak in a language that he would understand. It's really about learning that as well.

Could you share with us a moment of hardship you went through and how did you uphold / strengthen one another?

So here in Malaysia unfortunately we still have a quota system, race-based quota system, ‘favouritism action’ and that means that the Bumiputera friends enjoy certain privileges and one of the things that when we were a bit younger, was everyone competing for entrance into public universities and scholarships. I come from a working class family, so my parents were very clinged with me and said, “Look if you want to pursue your studies abroad, we can't afford to pay for you and you need to try to find a scholarship or something”. With my friend, she had applied to public universities, I had applied to public universities too, but interestingly, because we had applied to really competitive programmes, there was a certain level of Bumiputera quota, and therefore, we didn’t get into any of the universities we applied to although our results were pretty good, but still we didn’t get into any of the universities, so that feels like a kick in the butt.

Even with scholarships, you can see it was a bit difficult in the sense that you probably had like less than 5% for minority Indians to get the scholarships, so it was pretty tough in the sense that we would think back and wonder why we put all this effort in when its overturned by the institution, we were pretty bummed, but we took it in a way like, ok… let’s try to prove these institutions and ourself that this is not us. because it can be very easy to take it personally and say, “Oh, I am not good enough”, and it's very easy to say that in the terms of affordability of home loans, car loans, our Bumiputera friends have certain privileges, and certain discounts so that they can own the same property for much lesser. We made it a point to make sure that we work hard and find our ways eventually, but also to remind each other that it's nothing to do with us, because we did our best.

So fast forward to today and my friend is now an English teacher in an International school, she made it work out, and I’m in grad school now.

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, I think it's about understanding. So one view that I had when I was much younger was, it’s a ‘blanket’ sort of benefit that our Bumiputera friends had, and non-Bumiputera friends get whatever they get. But as you grow older and you have conversations with people who are a bit more open, and who are willing to have that conversation, and understand things from your point of view and vice versa. You realize that not everyone benefits from it. Not everyone of our Bumiputera friends actually benefits from it. The people who are supposed to benefit, they don’t, they lose out as well, and that comes into the policy issue, but let’s just put that aside. I wouldn’t have had this understanding or realization, if I didn’t have this conversation with friends that are not from my minority circle, but with other ethnic groups, because you don’t know exactly what they are going through, what are they feeling, or whatever they're facing if you don't talk, and put yourself in their shoes. I think that has been the strength here, the fact that we can have this conversation openly to a certain extent, and of course it depends on who you are talking to, but we can have these conversations that help us understand each other, and find strength and unity, because you build stronger relationships, and that is very important for me and Malaysia especially at this point in time.

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 my Buddhist friend told me that actually in proper Buddhist culture, we are all supposed to be vegetarian, and I was like, ‘What!?’ I remember having that reaction because I've never known any Buddhist who’s an actual vegetarian, like a proper vegetarian wherein you wouldn’t consume onions and garlics as well. Like What??! Hehe, so yeah!

So, if there’s something you wish that others knew about your friendship, what would it be?

All friendships are different, not all friendships are alike, and the nature of it really depends on what basis the friendship was made, you can’t really think to say, “Ohh… It’s on this basis”, and how the context of it is. It’s not a competition, that’s something really important for people to know, friendships aren’t a competition and they change along the years as we grow.

I’ve lost friends and I've gained friends, obviously the loss is greater than the gain, but it's something that I can deal with because as you grow older your ‘so called’ friends get smaller but become deeper and it gets more valuable. It’s something that we need to be mindful of, each other and yourself, and it's something that we remind ourselves, because you tend to get a lot of negativity as you lose 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. It’s not an easy mindset to have, it's something that you need to tell yourself, because even to me, when I lose some friends I am like, “What did I do?”, you know? But it's not so much that, but instead it's just that sometimes people just aren’t meant to stay, or they are just there to teach you a lesson, for you to grow, then that’s it, you drift apart, but it's really about the effort that you need to put in.

How do you think we can embrace one another despite our differences?

I think what's really important is to listen to one another, but to listen with the objective of understanding, not to listen so 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, during work, whatever it is, It’s about that, and then it's also about being humble about knowing that you’re not all knowing, and that you are not all right. You are valuable in terms of contributing a certain point of view, certain ideologies, certain principles, certain morals, but there are also other views out there so you’re not always right.

It's really about being humble, which was really tough for me when I was younger because, In Malaysia we have a term of being ‘kiasu’ (fear of losing out), and I was definitely the definition of what a kiasu student was when I was back in high school, so I must point it out that I was super kiasu, and kiasu is basically like a cannot die attitude, and when you translate it to being student it's a,I must get an A, I must score better than you attitude. I was a horrible person to be friends with, unless you also had that kiasu attitude as well. We would really get along really well unless it was exam results week. I think that experience was really important for me, because if I hadn’t been as kiasu sure, some good things would come out of it, but I did really well in school, but also then, as you grow a bit older when you’re like a bit more chill, a bit more calmer, we realize that life is a lot more than just your A’s, and there are so many things that enriches it. You have a benchmark or you have a baseline like an anecdote. That was definitely something that I did, which was a bit extreme, I probably should've dialed that down a little. and you take that, and say, ‘I am not going to repeat this’.

It's also a great way to connect with the younger people. My sister is 17 years old, and still in high school now, and I can connect to her a bit better because I can tell her like, “Hey! School is not all about this, like you don't have to chase the A’s’ and what not, there's a lot more enriching experiences for a student”, and I can relate by giving examples of what I did as a student, and tell her to do, and not to do this. Obviously this is just a suggestion.

Once again, yeah, being humble is really important, but it's something you need to build over the years, and yeah, it's easier said than done, and probably easier as you get older because, and ok, I'm going to be a bit pessimistic here, but life really puts you down, and makes you realize that you're not all knowing, but you take it all in good stride. it’s about really listening, to hear people out, and through that you learn really incredible things about people, especially from those unexpected conversations and what not, right? So just things like the amazing gems that you get, and really about being humble and staying open minded, as that is really important especially when you're dealing with different cultures, because, cultures are really something quite sensitive, and also something people hold deeply into themselves dearly, even though they may not be super close to it, or they may not have that very strong heritage relationship, and I don't necessarily have the strongest connection, or relationship with my heritage on both sides, but it’s my identity, and now I am at this point where it makes me who I am, and I want to embrace it, but for me that doesn't mean that I am going around and shouting around telling people, this and that. Although like I mentioned before, it irks me a lot, and I have local Malaysian friends who get irked as well, and they also tell me, “eh Indian, Punjabi, same thing, like Tamil Punjabi are the same because you are all Indians”, and I am like huh...ok. It was especially more annoying when it comes from my local Malaysian friends, but if it’s coming from someone who's a foreigner, I can empathize, and understand a little to make that effort to tell you and educate you, but when it's someone local and they’re like, to begin with Punjabis don't have their formal forms of ethnicity, and they just come under ‘others’, but Indians have their own, for example, box to tick, and I have another issue with all of that to begin with, but we’ll put that aside.

It’s really to listen, and to hear people out, be humble, and just have that great conversation, nothing beats that, especially over a cup of teh tarik.

What are your vision and hopes for Malaysia?

Well firstly we must have political stability, because right now, whatever that is happening is an actual sh*tshow, it's a sh*tshow for me, and us who are living in this generation where people are driving the economy, and the country now, but it's going to be a bigger sh*tshow for the future generation. I'm afraid for my sister, my sister is still a student and she's going to the real world in maybe 5 or 6 years down the road, I can't even begin to imagine how Malaysia’s gonna look like then, but I know how I would like Malaysia to look like.

I would like us to be more unified, which is happening in a way now, because everyone is unified against the government, but how we were in 2018 when we had that general election, in which a whole good new government came up for the first time. Then look back at what happened towards the end of 2018 & early 2019, the religious perspective was blown out of proportion every single time anything that was flawed, or any wrong decisions, or moves that happened, people disagreed with what the government did, it was brought from a religious perspective. And you begin to wonder what happens to that Malaysian, and the Malaysian unity we saw that voted in for a new government, because when that common cause is taken away, we fall back to our ethnicities, we fall back to our differences and religions, and we argued over what was better, and I feel that we need to move beyond that, and I think fundamentally, we need to have a stronger unifying factor like sentiment, and that is to truly understand one another, not to just tolerate each other, but to embrace one another.

And I know you will question ‘how do we embrace one another?’ ‘what do we do?’ and again, I will really go back to say conversations, and maybe you could say, ‘what if I am interacting with people who don't want to have this conversation?’, people who are just completely shut off. Then you start where you can, you start with your circles , you start with your friends, you start with the least sensitive topics like food, but food can be super sensitive sometimes as well. Relationships can be broken because of that, but you know you can start with food, you can start with talking about festivities, you can start with educating your friends about the slight differences in Indian and Punjabis. I tried to explain to people in a calm way, but the person that ‘kena’ was like probably this person who asked me 5 times so they got the brunt of it.

For me like Malaysia’s a great place, like it is one of the drivers of the Southeast Asian economy, our economy has amazing potential, the people here we contribute to that, and to the diversity and culture, but we also should be mindful of people who are a bit less fortunate, like those who are in poverty, and you can’t do that if you're still in your circle, so make a friend, make a new friend, that would be a thing, make a new friend outside of your circle, and it might be very uncomfortable, but that's you putting in an effort, because if you don’t put in effort, then who’s gonna put an effort for Malaysia? If it’s not you? I would definitely say that, I am getting older so I hope the younger ones are going to do that. (laughing)

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 and they don't have friends from different races, I would find that very hard to believe, but it’s possible as you grow older that your social circles get even smaller, but if you go to any school you would have people you would at least know right? But then, who you choose to put in your social circle, who you want to be close friends with, yeah… that could change. I would repeat what I’ve said earlier, make a friend outside of your social circle, go say, “Hi”. Like for example, how I met my best friend was really, really, weird. I was eleven, at school, and I would go to school really early in the morning, at around… like 6:40, I would be ready to go to school, I was sitting in the common space, and then a weird girl came to me and said, “Hi, I’m Pavitra! What is your name?”, and I wasn’t even awake yet. She moved schools, and that is how we met, and I was like,”Who is this girl”, “Ugh you’re so weird”. That was my first thought, but you know we are still friends till now.

So it's about putting yourself outside of the comfort zone, challenging yourself to make a friend, it does not have to be a best friend, it could just be like someone who is an acquaintance, or someone you can have conversation with. You can ask questions and maybe you can go to their house for festivities, or open houses, or whatever, it is. I would definitely say make a friend, make an effort and you are able to see how much more your horizon is broadened, also how much smarter and informed you will be, so you don't give silly comments like some people do. I would also definitely say, it's such a waste if you don't make use of, and read the benefits of being in Malaysia, everywhere you go you see people of different cultures, ethnicities, different religions, and you see all these different people, so why limit yourself to being one-dimensional? ___ 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)

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