For Japan-based Malaysian couple, Dr Azalia Zaharuddin and Ooi Kok Hin, both 29, love is in the small, everyday gestures and simple surprises that people often take for granted.
“Special nicknames for each other, affirmations, massages to lighten things up when stressed, knowing each other’s love languages, and even something as simple as saying ‘we will get through this together’, can be so meaningful, ” says Ooi, a Masters student at Waseda University, Saitama, Japan.
“The element of surprise is a big thing in our relationship. Both of us love planning surprises and it doesn’t have to be complicated, the simplest ones are the best.
“Also, we tend to get pretty caught up with work and research, so we try to schedule movie night once a week, ” says Azalia, a researcher at Utsunomiya University in Utsunomiya, Japan.
The couple have been married for two years and will be celebrating their anniversary next month.
On special occasions like Valentine’s Day, the couple reveal that they will usually dine out at their favourite restaurant because the Japanese government’s restrictions on movement during the pandemic are less strict than in Malaysia.
“People still can move around quite freely, though there are advisories not to go out except for essential purposes, and shops now close at 8pm. So, we’ll usually go out or perhaps prepare a nice meal at home.
“During the last holiday season, we set a budget, bought gifts (without the other knowing) which we exchanged on New Year’s eve. When we can afford it, we’ll also go for a weekend staycation, says Ooi who has been based in Japan for three years.
The couple believe that honest communication and giving each other the benefit of the doubt is crucial to having a strong relationship, even more so during the pandemic.
“I’m pretty straightforward when I need attention. If I’m going through difficulties but he’s busy finishing a paper, I’ll usually ask if I can have five minutes of his time, and he’ll sit down and listen to me share what’s bothering me.
“But when he is busy, he knows it’s ok to say so, and I won’t take it personally, and we can always talk later, ” says Azalia, who has been based in Japan for seven years and has recently completed her Doctorate degree.
“It’s important to always selalu bersangka baik or think well of your partner and always trust their good intentions, ” she adds.
“Also, understanding the important occasions for your partner, letting them shine and not undermining their spotlight, and encouraging them to fulfil their potential is important, ” says Ooi.
“Don’t take out your anxiety and frustration on each other, especially during this pandemic time when people may be struggling and most likely feeling anxious, so it’s even more crucial to be kind to each other, ” he adds.
Ooi and Azalia, who first met after a book project in 2016, at Kinokuniya KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, admit that just like any other couple, they’ve encountered challenges in their relationship.
“From the start, he knew that I would leave for Japan again to pursue my PhD, and I wasn’t keen on having a long-distance relationship, ” she says.
“But we managed to discuss where we were then and where we hoped to be in three years’ time, and plan out something that both of us would be happy with... and it turned out well, ” she adds. “You need to work hard in your relationships to make them work.”
Although interracial marriages can be faced with family objections due to differences in religion and culture, Ooi and Azalia are grateful that their families are both accepting and welcoming of their spouse.
“This is where mutual respect and tolerance is so important. It’s a continuous process of learning and should be done at one’s own pace. For example, Azalia wants to learn Hokkien to communicate with my family, and I’m learning to appreciate Tarawih (additional ritual prayers performed at night during Ramadan)," says Ooi.
There are also challenges having to go through the pandemic in a different country.
Since the pandemic, they are at home 90% of the time. The couple balance their work, studies and family life by scheduling their activities into “work/study time”, “me-time” and “we-time”.
“The houses here are small and have thin walls. So with online classes and meetings from home, we also have to arrange our schedules so as not to disturb each other,” says Azalia.
“She’s up early and works in the morning, we spend the afternoon together, and I do my coursework late at night,” says Ooi. “If one of us has a class or meeting on a particular day, the other will fix lunch or dinner. We go out to get groceries once a week, usually on weekdays when there are fewer people at the supermarket."
The couple admit that there was a lot of anxiety at the beginning because there isn’t a great deal of information available about the pandemic.
“Especially as a foreigner, I was really worried about how to handle things in case we got infected. All I knew was that there’s a number to call,” says Azalia.
“For me, the most difficult part is my concern for family back home. Our parents’ health and livelihood are at risk due to the pandemic, and we’re seven flight hours away from them and can’t be there with them,” says Ooi.