Hi! Let me introduce myself to you. I am Agnes Mary Toner, a short, stout woman of European descent. I was born in Toronto, Canada and raised by my Scottish father and Hungarian mother. My childhood proved to be an interesting start to an even more interesting life. Having been the youngest of five children, I lacked an independent and adventurous spirit in my earlier years. However, as I grew, a certain aspect of my character started to emerge – the part of me that was crying out, “Hey, I want to experience other cultures!” And thus began my cross-cultural experiences. Throughout my teenage years I got to know many immigrants in my neighbourhood. I think the only people I didn’t get to know were the Canadians! Then I went to university where I met many Malaysians. I fell in love with one of those Malaysians – Thomas Balan Bang.
And after going steady for four years we wed in 1988, in Malaysia, where we have now been living for the past sixteen years. We have four lovely children: Rebekah, 15 years, Bethany, 13 years, Daniella, 12 years, and Nethaniel, 10 years, all of whom speak Bahasa Malaysia fluently. I am very proud of my children because they have been able to embrace both the Malaysian and Western cultures.
So, as I look at my family life now, I would say Thomas and I have successfully brought together two cultures and have established our family on a foundation of love and acceptance. Now, strong foundations take time and effort to build. And likewise, the foundation of our marriage has taken time and effort to establish. There have been times of pain, anger, fear, misunderstandings and sorrow because of our cultural differences. Yet through it all we’ve learned the power of love and forgiveness. Malaysian culture differs from Canadian culture especially in the area of ‘family culture’. In Canada, women are encouraged to be more independent and ‘equal’ to their husbands.
However, in Malaysia, women are expected to submit to their husbands and not give their opinions quite so freely. In Canada families are very private regarding their space, time and property. Yet, in Malaysian culture, especially Orang Ulu culture, space, time and property are shared. My first experience of clashing cultures occurred when my belongings had arrived in boxes from Canada three months after my marriage. My husband and I were living in a house with many of his relatives. As soon as the boxes had arrived, all the relatives began to open them up and claim certain articles for themselves! I was in shock! As one of the old ladies was rummaging through a box, she found a silk, down-filled jacket (the one my sister had given to me as a parting gift). I looked at my husband, hoping he’d tell her not to take it. Instead, he said to me, “Let her have it”. So I slipped away to my bedroom to cry and pray. I did not leave that bedroom until I had learned an important lesson: It is fine for me to possess things, but I can’t let things possess me.
One other experience I had in my second year of marriage shows the vast difference between Orang Ulu and Canadian cultures. My husband arranged with his brother, Bilong, to adopt one of Bilong’s children. After a few weeks of persuasion, Bilong’s wife, Utan, agreed to let Thomas and I adopt her child. When I realized that Utan was giving me her baby girl, I felt sadness for her. I thought, “She has only known me for one year and she’s willing to let me take her baby and raise her as my own?” But after a time of crying and praying (again!) I agreed to adopt that baby. She is my eldest child, Rebekah. I’m glad we adopted her because I love her so much and without her our family would not be complete.
But this story doesn’t end there! As the years went by, Utan started saying to me that if I had a baby boy I could give him to her! I was terrified! Every time I became pregnant, I prayed for a girl because I knew I could never give a baby of my own up for adoption. I prayed also for Utan to have a baby boy! And that’s why my last child is a boy! And yes Utan did eventually have a boy of her own.
Of course I’ve mentioned only a few of the many experiences I have had in Malaysia. I love this country and I know I have been firmly established in this land. Malaysia is home base for me. I also know that there are other places and cultures for me to experience and which I will experience when the time is right. Upon reflection, I would have to say that cross-cultural experiences are not for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to be willing to change and grow through conflict, and I’ve learned to become that kind of person