When guest contributor Ilaina Khairulzaman, a public engagement professional, moved from Malaysia to Ireland, she was surprised how easily she adapted to the Irish way of life. Here she draws the similarities between the two countries that she calls home…
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I moved to Ireland from Malaysia six years ago. Specifically, from Kuala Lumpur to Carlow. I know, two places couldn’t be more different, right? It was a massive culture shock to come from the land of the Petronas Twin Towers to the singular wall we call Carlow Castle but, somehow, I took to Ireland like a duck to water. After immersing myself into Irish culture while never forgetting my Malaysian roots, I’ve developed a theory that Ireland is the Malaysia of Europe. Here’s why.
Ireland is known for its friendliness, the land of a thousand welcomes. When I moved to my second home in Dublin, the neighbours came out and offered to help carry my things in. Malaysians are much the same; a friendly people, always ready to give a helping hand. But we both share another common trait in our self-deprecating humour! I feel like that’s what really helped me settle in. I understood the way Irish people bonded, through mutual hatred for themselves, in both a funny and sad way.
Emotional constipation was something I noticed – in men here, particularly – from the get-go. A sense of familiarity from recognising it in my father, brothers, friends. Our men don’t talk, unless it’s for craic or banter. Our men don’t talk and it kills them. Eight in 10 suicides in Ireland are men, and in Malaysia, men outnumber women three to one when it comes to suicide.
We’re literally on other sides of the world but the similarities freaked me out when I first learned about Irish folklore, so much that I even checked to see if Ireland and Malaysia were paralleled on the map and they are! There’s the wonderful banshee in Ireland, a shrieking woman with long hair and red eyes, which is very similar to the pontianak in Malaysia, a shrieking woman with long hair and red eyes.
Ireland has faeries and the land of fae, Malaysians have orang bunian. It is believed that orang bunian generally live amongst trees and if you were to disturb their space, they will kidnap you into their land. Not dissimilar to faerie forts and the land of fae, no? Finally, there’s the púca. A menacing creature of mischief. The púca shares characteristics with the Malaysian toyol, a child-like mischievous creature. Although to conjure a toyol, the embalmed body of an aborted baby is used, which is admittedly more terrifying than the púca.
The (lack of) separation between religion and state
In the same way Malaysia is heavily influenced by Islam, Ireland has been – and still is – under the influence of the Catholic Church.
You know how many Catholics here abhor the way the Church has acted? It’s similar to how many Muslims disagree with the way the Islamic authorities have acted in Malaysia.
Both countries are so progressive in certain ways yet so backwards in others, and the common thread that causes that is religion in a cultural sense. This need to out-Catholic, out-Muslim other countries. I always think Malaysia is where Ireland was 20 years ago. Malaysia might have legalised divorce in 1982 but its LGBTQ+ community still suffers greatly at the hands of a state that refuses to acknowledge their rights.
Ireland, you weren’t so from this a couple of decades ago.
For a long time I couldn’t understand why Ireland felt like home so instantly. Through the years, it’s become more and more apparent. I’m scared of the same ghosts, be that the mythical, social or cultural ones. I’m wracked by Catholic guilt, in the Muslim sense, and I’m once again the emotional crutch for men who were never taught differently.
The parallels are so close that it feels like fate that I moved here on a random whim. I wonder if I’d find these similarities if I moved to America or the UK, like I could have, but I don’t think so. My soul is bonded to Ireland the way it is to Malaysia, I want to make this country better the way I want to for Malaysia. I feel the need to protect Ireland the way I would for Malaysia.
Sure, we both have our problems – the same ruling parties since the inception of both countries, failing its women constantly and urban poverty, to name a few – but I think the most important similarity of all is the passion that exists in both countries to make things kinder, brighter, fairer. And for that I am extremely proud to call myself Malaysian-Irish and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.