"Be strong, think, question, live”
It is Saturday the 4th March 2017. I am sat upstairs in Coffee #1 on Wellfield Road in Cardiff. The sun is shining brightly through the window, making it slightly uncomfortable to sit in the window seat provided. I have therefore positioned myself slightly away from the sun today. I am waiting to meet Zainah Zain-Ismail, a Malaysian-Welsh lady who has actively made herself politically visible in recent years. We plan to speak about this dual identity today and her families life in Wales. What Zainah does not know is that I was told the previous evening that I will soon be a father for the first time. I am slightly discombobulated during this interview and this will sadly delay the publication of this interview over the coming months.
When Zainah arrives, she proves herself to be both friendly and engaging. Her conversation, flowing freely between various subjects, makes her very personable. It is therefore surprising to hear that even she has been a victim of racial hatred in Wales. Zainah describes a recent incident in which she had been providing support to a vulnerable woman. She describes having been able to physically feel the hatred that the woman felt for her. Despite this experience Zainah asserts that she didn’t really feel any hatred in return. "I just felt really, really sorry for her", she says. "How her life must have brought her to this place where she is filled with so much hate". She exhibits this same compassion when discussing Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in America, and their connection to a rise in hate crime during the intervening months.
Zainah was not surprised by the outcome of either vote and connects the current political climate to her need to be politically active. During the latter months of 2016 and the early period of 2017 Zainah has been vocal on Twitter, where she engages with such wide ranging subjects as women's rights, political oppression and the current refugee crisis. “I have been feeling the shift. Even with Brexit, I really wasn’t shocked. I didn’t so much expect it from Wales, but I expected it from some parts of England. It’s been underlying and I think the media has really created monsters. My husband worries sometimes. He says: 'Think of your family, you’ve got kids'. So I think about it, and [sometimes] I change it. I can understand his concerns. So sometimes I will delete some things. I just feel if no-one says anything, then what’s going to happen? I mean I’ve had a good life, but I don’t know whether my children will have a nice Wales to live in.
That’s why I’m doing it, although a lot of people say: 'But it’s not your country, why bother'? But it’s like a cold, it’s infectious. Of course I believe in freedom of speech, but freedom of hatred? I don’t know. Because whatever or however I feel about Trump I don’t hate him. I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for his lack of compassion. Because they have so little compassion and so little love. And you know I’d rather be me than them. Anytime! Whatever the amount of money.
People will say: 'Oh, you’re like a keyboard warrior'. I hate that! What’s my other option? Am I going to run down the streets without clothes and go: 'Hey! Anti-racism!' I’m not a politician, but then again with politicians maybe they all start off quite good but then they have to 'play the game'. I can understand that. It’s annoying, but that’s the reality. [Keyboard Warriors] don’t have to balance anything”, she concludes with an enthusiastic smile.
A mother of two, Zainah first came to Wales from Malaysia at nineteen years of age to study law in Cardiff. It was at Cardiff University that she met her husband. Except for a period of seven years in Malaysia after their studies, Zainah and her family have been settled in Wales for almost two decades. She has in the past owned and managed her own Malaysian café, 'KL Canolog' in Roath, and has most recently been found actively involved in the anti-Trump rallies that took place in the capital city. When asked why she involves herself in this despite her husband's reservations, she explains simply that: "I feel it’s my duty. I do it for my children”.
Do you think that your being a migrant to Wales gives you a specific perspective on these issues?
Maybe my perspective as a migrant is a bit different because on the whole I’m living in a community where the migrants have been settled here for some time. There are few newly-arrived migrants. There will be some establishments where if I walk in with my children people will stare. There will be some that won’t. But you know I feel that this is my home. I’m in a good place, my children go to school here, they're involved in activities here. So you know, I kind of put that aside.
What I notice, maybe with some migrants, [which] I can understand if their English isn’t so good, they will tend to stick within their communities. Malaysians are a bit better off because English is our second language and everyone can speak a degree of English. If you are stuck in Malaysia, even in a village there will be someone who can understand what you (English speakers) are saying. It’s that sort of thing.
Is there a large Malaysian community in Wales?
There are a lot but, mainly students, and they don’t really live in this area, so we kind of took a risk [opening a Malaysian themed café where we did]. I think with students, they tend to sort of stick to themselves. I can understand that because they’ve got that support group and they’re all doing their Degrees or Masters/PHD. I think it’s because they support their own. In a way that’s a good thing. I mean we weren’t only targeting the Malaysians, we were really targeting the local community.
And how did that go? Did they take to Malaysian food?
Oh yes! In fact, there was not just Welsh people there. There were Mexicans, Russians, Japanese etc. Quite a lot of foreigners and diversity. The local people were quite happy to have a go and have a try and that felt quite good because my husband and I became good friends with quite a number of them.
I suppose it was because we were very open and very welcoming. That was the whole idea. It wasn’t just a business. Of course you’ve got to make ends-meet but it was more than that for us. It was a way of giving back. I felt I was giving back through our food. At that point there wasn’t any other way where I thought we could give back to our new home where we have felt welcomed. My husband could have gone anywhere to do his Masters but we chose Cardiff because we had our two little kids and we had very fond memories of Roath Park. When we went back [to Malaysia] in 1995, we even took an Argos catalogue home. Each! We would sometimes go through it together before bed and think: 'Ooh, lets get this or that etc'.
So you’d formed an emotional attachment to Cardiff?
Definitely! So we came back here again.
As the conversation ebbs and flows I note that Zainah speaks consistently of a love of Wales. She speaks of her frustration at the manner her children are ineffectively taught Welsh and draws negative comparisons between the education of two languages over here and in her native Malaysia. In Malaysia English is the second language, and is openly spoken on a daily basis by large numbers of the population. Zainah also speaks positively of the Welsh national anthem giving her goosebumps.
"Patriotism doesn’t always have to be negative. It doesn’t mean you are not accepting of somebody else. It just means: 'hey I’m very comfortable with who I am, where I am from and I’m comfortable in who you are and where you are from. Welcome to Wales!’. It’s like when you welcome someone to your house. Come over and have some Bara Brith".
So as someone who has migrated to Wales and then raised a family here, how do you balance that issue of national identity that has become so central to U.K. politics since the referendum?
I would say I am Malaysian-Welsh. I’m Malaysian by citizenship and I’m Welsh for the reason that I live here now. My children see themselves as Welsh but they are Malaysian as well. So, we embrace both and it is possible to embrace both.
Maybe it’s easier because we are so far away, the two countries, with different socioeconomic issues. I’m a warrior for Malaysian rights too. In fact I’m not sure I will be let in again because there was this march that I went for all the way in London. Time Magazine quoted me. So my husband was like: 'Argh! What have you done? You’re going be stopped at immigration. They won’t let you in'. Not letting me in isn’t too bad. I’m afraid they won’t let me out. I just feel that if I don’t, you know...my children...I have family in Malaysia. I’ve got roots everywhere so, I thought that I’d do my bit. I feel that there’s a need to give voice...a need to do what is right, what is fair.
It sounds like your future is in Wales for now then?
I’ve got a daughter in sixth form and I’ve told her to try and go to university away from Cardiff. I came from so far away and when you come from a place that’s far away, you value where you come from and you then also value where you are. Because where you are now is not a given. Not everyone will accept you with open arms. So you’ve got to work at it, you’ve got to educate yourself, you’ve got to assimilate yourself into the system, to the culture. At the same time because you are from that place which you miss, you keep those traits and culture. Then you are left with both cultures which enriches your life and perhaps even the people near to you.
My children have said they will always want to come back to Cardiff. I can appreciate this because wherever they are in the future, this place will always be everything to them because this is where they grew up and have had many wonderful memories. It’s exactly how I feel about Malaysia.
I see myself here in Cardiff. I’m really trying to get my husband to move to the outskirts of Wales. When we went to West Wales, I’d say: 'look at that cottage, we could live there'. My husband’s reply would be: ‘No, I couldn’t live in a place where it’s far too quiet’.
Family is clearly central to Zainah's thoughts and she wonders how she can teach her own children such values. She describes having to explain to her daughter what communism is recently. In principle, Zainah feels that communism's ideal of everyone having an equal share of everything is a good one, but not realistic. She alludes to recent events in the European Parliament when Polish MEP, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, stated: “Of course women must earn less than men because they are weaker, they are smaller and they are less intelligent, they must earn less”.
Do you think such positions can be counteracted in Wales at such politically fraught times?
If we are run by machines then perhaps, because machines will just put in the formula and they are not going care who we are. I think we can always mitigate things [though]. Even with discrimination there will always be people out there who are racist and who will continue being racist. It is important that the government of the day fight this, because otherwise we will end up like America. So I don’t know. I guess it’s an onward fight isn’t it?
It is now Saturday the 20th of May 2017 and my partner is now 17 weeks pregnant. During this period Zainah has returned to Malaysia and has thankfully returned with none of the problems she and her husband had feared. Tragically, Zainah’s father had passed away and she had returned to Malaysia to spend time with her family. We have had continued communication during this time and she has spoken of her father with great respect, advising me that he had taught her “to be strong, to think, to question and to live”. Zainah also describes her father as having been less willing to ‘play the game’ than she is. This leads to me to have two thoughts. Firstly, I hope that my child suffers the same problem and has the same values. Secondly, I think that if Zainah’s father was less willing to 'play the game’ than she is then he must have been a force to reckon with. I am very lucky to have met his daughter.
If you are interested in being interviewed for this series then you can contact me via the website, or else on Twitter @WalesBLOGlet. I want to meet people from throughout Wales and I'm happy to travel.