Malaysia Day Special: East and West Malaysian unity in a family

Peter and Maria in traditional Kenyah costumes at their wedding in Sarawak in 2005. Photo: Peter Luruthudass Annaniah

To Peter Luruthudass Annaniah, 51, Malaysia Day is all about unity and multicultural families reflect that unity.

“This special day commemorates unity between East and West Malaysia, and in a country with so many ethnicities and faiths, multicultural families are a way of uniting different cultures, ” says Peter who is in product development.

Peter and Maria doing the Ngajat dance. Photo: Peter Luruthudass AnnaniahPeter and Maria doing the Ngajat dance. Photo: Peter Luruthudass AnnaniahPeter and his wife Maria Kirau Lusat, 42, live in Bayan Lepas, Penang. Both of them come from very different cultures.

“My father is a typical Indian man – very strict and deeply religious – that’s why our names are all very Indian names, ” says Peter, who grew up in Tapah, Perak where his grandfather (originally from Tamil Nadu, India), used to practise Ayurvedic medicine.

“In English, my name is Lourdes, but in Tamil, it is Luruthu, with the name Dass tagged onto it, while Peter is my Christian name, ” he explains.

His wife, Maria is from Kampung Long Moh in Ulu Baram, Miri, Sarawak. She is Kenyah (an indigenous people from East Malaysian).

They have been married for 15 years and just celebrated their wedding anniversary last month.

The couple reveal that in the early stages of their relationship, they had to learn to adapt to each other’s different cultural ways.

“I come from an Indian family and work for a German company where everything must be precise and on the dot, ” Peter says.

“Then, I met Maria, and it was a whole different world. In Sarawak, life is more relaxed, people tend to ‘take it easy’.

“So, when I come back from work, I have to change my paradigm because at home, everything moves at a more laid back pace, ” he says.

“That’s why having an attitude of mutual respect and tolerance towards each other is so important in a multicultural family, ” Maria adds.

Communication can be challenging, especially with family members who don’t speak any common languages. But it can also have its funny moments.

“When I went to see Maria’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage, I remember talking to her mother and wondering: Why is she not replying? Is there anything wrong? Is she objecting?” Peter recalls.

But it was because she didn’t understand English and his wife had forgotten to inform him!

“My mother only speaks Kenyah, so it’s difficult for my husband to communicate with her... as the idiom goes, it’s ‘like a chicken and duck talking’, ” Maria says.

In the end, Maria’s father, who speaks good English, had to be their interpreter.

At Peter's brother's wedding to a Sarawakian in Miri. Photo: Peter Luruthudass AnnaniahAt Peter's brother's wedding to a Sarawakian in Miri. Photo: Peter Luruthudass Annaniah

Not just their immediate family is multicultural. Peter, who is the youngest of three brothers and a sister, reveals that even from his father’s generation, an uncle married Punjabi-Chinese. And, his elder brother is also married to a Chinese.

“So, when I introduced Maria to my parents, there were no objections as the path had already been cleared, ” Peter says.

The children celebrating Chinese New Year at Maria's sister (who is married to a Chinese)'s house. Photo: Peter Luruthudass AnnaniahThe children celebrating Chinese New Year at Maria's sister (who is married to a Chinese)'s house. Photo: Peter Luruthudass Annaniah

Maria, who is seventh out of nine siblings, reveals that two of her sisters are married to Chinese, while the rest, to Iban, other Kenyah, other Orang Asli, and Indians.

Peter speaks Malay, English, Tamil and German, and he picked up Kenyah from his wife, and also Cantonese in Tapah where he grew up. Maria speaks Malay, English and Kenyah.

At home, they speak English, Malay and a bit of Kenyah to their children.Peter and Maria with their son and daughter. Photo: Peter Luruthudass AnnaniahPeter and Maria with their son and daughter. Photo: Peter Luruthudass AnnaniahTheir two children – a daughter, 14, and a son, 12 – have mixed reactions about being a multicultural family.

“Our daughter says that although it’s difficult having to adapt to two different cultures, she feels unique and blessed being mixed, ” Peter says.

Then, he feigns shock when revealing that his son prefers his wife’s Kenyah culture over his Indian culture.

Being a multicultural family means celebrating festivals in a more unique way.

Peter and Maria usually spend Christmas in Sarawak.

“On Christmas eve, we’ll celebrate as one big family, feasting and drinking tuak, ” says Maria.

“After the reunion dinner, we’ll sing and do the Ngajat (cultural dance) that everyone takes part in, ” adds Peter.

“There’s also “ngabang” or visits to relatives’ homes, followed by more drinking and dancing, ” says Maria.

Peter feels that being part of a multicultural family is like having the best of both worlds.

“I love Kenyah culture - their Sape (traditional lute) music, Tuai (harvest) festival, Ngajat dance, and how they celebrate festivals such as Christmas and New Year.

“I also like Maria’s kampung in Miri, it’s very deep inside the interior of Sarawak with a clean environment and beautiful rivers, ” he says.

“The nice thing about being from a multicultural family is... the food. We get to taste and make different types of food from other cultures, ” Maria says.

She makes traditional Kenyah dishes such as Ayam Pansuh (chicken cooked inside bamboo), Adut (glutinous rice dumplings), Anyeh (glutinous rice cookies), Kerumet (baked cassava cake with chicken inside), and grilled chicken Kenyah style.

“Maria is an excellent cook! She can cook Indian food like restaurant quality. She also cooks Chinese, Malay and of course, Kenyah food, ” Peter enthuses.

She makes great curries - mutton, chicken, fish and fish head, dhal – as well as tossei, chapati, idli, murukku and vadai, he beams.

“I learnt how to cook Indian food from my mother-in-law, and Chinese food because my two sisters are married to Chinese and learnt from their in-laws too, ” she says.

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