For Major Kalam Pie and Norzalifa Zainal Abidin, both 52, being part of a multicultural family is like having the best of both worlds.
Kalam, who served in the Royal Malaysian Air Force and is currently a licensed nature guide, is half Semelai and half Minangkabau, while his wife, Norzalifa, a lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia, is Malay.
Everybody may be different but we all have more in common than we think. It’s the same way in a multicultural family, the couple feel.
Both of them were high school mates at Maktab Rendah Sains Mara, Seremban in Negri Sembilan.
“I was his first love back when we were 16 years old, ” Norzalifa smiles.
But it wasn't until decades later that Kalam, who was born and grew up in Kampung Pasir Besar in Gemas, Negri Sembilan, and Norzalifa, who was born in Bukit Mertajam and grew up in a village in Alor Setar, Kedah, met again, fell in love and got married.
This is the second marriage for the couple who were both previously divorced.
“From 2008 until 2010, I suffered from a stroke and was in a coma. Kalam visited me and was always there for me when I was hospitalised, ” Norzalifa reminisced.
Love blossomed and they eventually got married in 2011.
The couple have children from their previous marriage.
Kalam has three sons, aged 27,25 and 19, from his previous marriage to a Dutch woman, while Norzalifa has four daughters, aged 26,22,20 and 14, from her first marriage.
Although from different backgrounds, all their children are involved in helping out with The Jungle School Gombak Malaysia (JSGM), an initiative which the couple started to help Orang Asli families in the area.
“Initially, it was like a hobby for us, then it became our calling because we saw the need of the Orang Asli families in Gombak where we live, ” Norzalifa says.
“My boys have lived in various parts of Malaysia such as Sarawak, Pahang, Selangor and Kedah, and travelled to almost all states from Perlis to Sabah. They probably have more knowledge about Malaysia and Orang Asli culture than most Malaysians do, ” Kalam says.
“My second son, Dayan, can even teach visitors (to JSGM) how to use the blowpipe, ” he beams proudly.
The couple feel that being a multicultural family makes life more interesting and there’s always something new to discover.
“When I got married to Kalam, I learnt so much about Orang Asli culture. We’ve always so many interesting things to talk about, ” Norzalifa enthuses.
“I come from an architectural and interior design background, and love the arts, and Kalam will always relate the tremendous traditional knowledge of the Orang Asli, sharing about his sweet childhood memories, his life in the military air force, how he loves the outdoors and extreme sports and was involved in the Ironman triathlon and Powerman duathlon, ” she adds.
“In fact, he helped me to recover from the paralysis caused by my stroke, ” she says.
The loving couple reveal that they spend a lot of time in nature because it is relaxing and healing. For Kalam and Norzalifa, there aren’t that many difficulties as a multicultural family because they have more things in common than different.
“For one thing, we’re all Muslims, and at home we speak English and Bahasa Malaysia to each other and also the children, and we celebrate the same festivals such as Hari Raya, ” Norzalifa says.
“We also celebrate some Orang Asli festivals such as Hari Moyang, a day to honour the ancestors, ” she adds.
“When we’re multicultural, it’s an advantage because it’s like a conversation starter: it’s easier to break the ice and talk to strangers, ” Kalam says, adding that this is especially helpful in his profession as a licensed nature guide.
The couple, who eat out often because of their busy schedule, reveal that they enjoy the same type of food - Negri Sembilan food - as well as Western and Japanese food.
“But during the MCO, we had more time to cook so we had our favourite meal - Masak Lemak Itik Salai - which is a popular dish in Negri Sembilan, ” Norzalifa says.
“We also enjoy bamboo rice and other food cooked in bamboo the Orang Asli way, ” she adds. “Even my daughters know how to make this, ” she beams proudly.
Being multicultural is part of being Malaysian, the couple concur.
“We have many friends from all the different cultures: Malays, Indians, Chinese, Orang Asli and even other nationalities. The most important thing is mutual respect and acceptance, ” Norzalifa says.
“We must embrace that multiculturalism is our strength as a Malaysian community and accept one another as true Malaysians, ” she concludes.
Best of both worlds
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