makchic Interviews: INNAI’s Izrin Ismail and Marcus Mikhail Low on Love, Life and Interracial Relationships

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There’s no denying that Izrin Ismail and Marcus Mikhail Low look good together. Sartorially blessed and often seen on KL’s social scene, Izrin, the founder of INNAI and INNAI Red and Marcus, its CEO (“Chief Everything Officer”) make a beautiful couple, sharing life, love and their two boys, Muiz Mateen Low, 10, and Mika Maleeq Low, 4.

Yet, little is known about their relationship, which harkens all the way back to 2003. Theirs is a journey of friendship and faith, as makchic learned when we sat down with them recently for Part 2 of our series this month on interracial relationships. From navigating often invasive questions, to balancing the nuances of their respective Malay and Chinese cultures, the couple share their personal and often poignant reflections, in our latest piece:

Hi Izrin and Marcus! Tell us about your story – how did the two of you meet?

We actually met through a mutual friend, whom I was casually seeing at that time. Funnily, Marcus and I hit it off, instead of the friend I was initially seeing. Marcus and I got close, as he was helping me out with my university application and preparation to head to Melbourne, back in 2003. He was familiar with the process, as he used to study in Melbourne too. I was immediately drawn to him, and we developed a strong friendship, which slowly evolved into a relationship.

Izrin, after Marcus popped the question.

We dated for five years before he proposed to me – a day before I was leaving to Milan for a course. He carefully selected a ring with my mum prior to that, and put it in a box filled with rose petals. He casually placed the box in the car, and said it was a “I’m-going-to- miss-you” gift as I was leaving the next day. It was such a chill moment, that I wasn’t expecting a proposal.

I remember opening the black box filled with rose petals in the car at Plaza Damas. He popped the question, and I said yes! The rest was history.

Did you have any concerns, upon entering into an interracial relationship? Did you experience any negative responses from family and friends (or from strangers), and if so, how did you manage to overcome this?

With Izrin and Marcus’ families, during their engagement in 2007.

We’re fortunate that both of our parents and families were very accepting and supportive of our relationship from the very beginning. Maybe it’s because of the way we were raised – being racially different never posed any major issues for us. While the older generations often had a stigma of dating other races, due to religion or cultural issues, we observed that the younger generation of Malaysians are more open to these ideologies.

At the end of the day, just like any other relationship, communication is key. Being able to clearly express from the beginning what we are or aren’t comfortable with, and as a couple coming to terms with that, is very important. We can’t expect others to change for us, no matter how long you’ve been together. Instead of choosing to hate the differences, we learn to appreciate the parts that make us different.

I do wish people would look beyond our skin colour and allow us the chance to know each other better. Comments or questions like “Suami you Cina?, You orang apa?, You tak suka kahwin orang Melayu?” should cease to exist.

Could you share a personal anecdote or story that reflects the differences between your two cultures, and how you’ve managed to work through this?

In the first few years of our marriage, during Chinese New Year (CNY), Marcus’ family and relatives would gather at his parent’s house, because their late grandmother was living with them. This was always an opportunity for us to unite my family and my in-laws, and take this time to learn each other’s culture and traditions.

For my in-laws, they don’t fully understand about the concern of halal. To them, non-halal is just pork and alcohol. They don’t understand the complexity of halal that extends to the slaughtering of the animal, the method and ways of cooking, and the utensils. Since we have my family over for CNY at my in-laws’ home, we made sure not to offend any parties with all these complexities. So, we got halal-certified caterers to supply us with the spread, so both parties could enjoy the food with peace of mind.

What, in your view, are the best things about your respective Malay and Chinese cultures that you enjoy in your relationship, or within your family?

The family in their festive best for Raya.

Of course, it would be celebrating all the festivities – Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, and everything in between. We get to dress up, cook up a storm of both traditional dishes or delicacies, and enjoy hosting these celebrations with family and friends.

The kids enjoy it the most, as they get double money-packets (Duit Raya and Angpau) in a year, which means they get to save more; but on the other hand, double celebration means double expenses. We’re still learning how to preserve the traditions our parents practise, and hope to impart that to our children in the future.

In your experience, what are some misconceptions or stereotypes that people may have about interracial relationships?

The couple during their solemnisation ceremony.

Unfortunately, some interracial couples still experience difficulties at times, by virtue of the fact that racism exists in our society on a deep level. There is stereotyping and questioning whether marrying one’s own race or faith is not good enough. The older generation would typically question: “Is he/she marrying out of love or for the love of the religion?”.

People are often intrigued about how Marcus converted, and how his parents accepted his conversion to Islam. The most common question we get is: “How did you get Marcus to convert?”. There’s a lot of compromising, learning, accepting and adapting with an open mind. Relationships are a two-way street, and the agreement between couples is more important than any opinion others hold, especially with regards to religion.

Could you share a little about what this conversion journey was like for Marcus, and how you’ve both navigated this important aspect (particularly in regards to the raising of your kids)?

Marcus’ conversion was pretty smooth and caught me by surprise. His fond interest in Islam has always been there since he was in high school, before I knew him. His good friends are mostly of the Muslim faith, and he had been following them to the mosque for their Friday prayers, waiting for them to complete their prayers. At that time, he had very basic understanding of Islam, and learned it deeper when we were courting long-distance.

After three years of grasping knowledge of the faith, in 2006, Marcus was ready to convert with the assistance of my family. This was before we had any plans of getting married. My family hosted a small event, and I was pleasantly surprised that he made the conversion without my knowledge, as I was studying abroad at that time.

A year later, in 2007, Marcus asked for my hand in marriage, and we were engaged for a year, before getting married in 2008. We had five solid years of marriage before we had kids. During that time, Marcus as a revert, had the opportunity to learn the religion and obtain a good foundation. He even went for his pilgrimage, and performed his Hajj prior to having kids.

We prepared ourselves during this period in our marriage, so that when we were blessed with kids, we were able to nurture them with a foundation of faith, and guide them accordingly. We try to take a subtle approach in educating our children about religion and explaining to them why things are done a certain way – prayers, learning the Quran, fasting, history and the ways of living as a good Muslim at a very young age.

The family at Makkah.

It is important for us as parents to be practising it too, because the “see and do” factor is what gets them motivated and helps them understand the need for it. So, we bring them to the mosque and to majlis once in a while, and introduce them to learning Arabic at a tender age. We even brought the kids to Makkah, when Muiz was 6 years old and Mika was just 9 months old, to expose them.

How are you helping your children embrace their racial identities, and how do you handle tough conversations surrounding race?

Children with interracial identities have an extra layer of complexity. There was a point when my eldest son was confused about his racial identity – whether he’s Malay or Chinese, and which race box he should tick in application forms. He was also confused as to why Marcus is Chinese, but of a Muslim faith, and why his grandparents on Marcus’ side are non-Muslim. And knowing kids, when you provide them with an explanation, you get 100 more questions on top of that.

Some conversations are tough, but Marcus and I try our level best to have simple conversations with our kids to help them understand and appreciate their mixed identity, and by providing them with positive stories of both of our family’s cultures and histories.

Interracial relationships broaden their views, and ours, in so many ways. At first, it might seem like a challenge. But instead of fleeing at the idea of anything foreign, it helped us to see things from a different perspective, which inadvertently helped us in many other aspects of our lives.

What’s been the best part about raising your children to embrace both sides of their heritage? How are you helping your children maintain important cultural traditions and stay connected to their heritage, as well as to their extended families?

Bridging two cultures.
Bridging two cultures.

We provide them with positive stories of both of our families’ histories. The major difference is really on how we celebrate and carry out our religious duties and celebrate traditions. It’s not difficult, but just different. We take the time to celebrate both traditions, Malay and Chinese, and respect them.

The difficult part is always the expectation from extended families. I guess each family likes its values and traditions to survive the generations to come. Maybe some people see having a partner from a different race and culture as a threat to the survival of their values and traditions. But we like to believe it’s an opportunity for enrichment.

What are some of the unique benefits or advantages that you believe your children gain from growing up in an interracial family?

I feel that my children are more exposed to two different cultures and perspectives from a young age. This helps them to be more tolerant and understanding of people from different backgrounds. I also feel that they would have a stronger sense of identity, as they feel like they belong to two worlds – and this can give them a unique perspective on the community they live in. Raising children in an interracial family is a rewarding experience, and I hope they appreciate it when they’re older.

What specific challenges have you faced along the way as an interracial family? Could you share some tips or words of advice for other families on a similar path?

It’s gratifying to explore and expose yourself to a different culture. Don’t let our differences divide us. Let us recognise, acknowledge, and embrace them. Over time, we learn that we’re actually more similar and less different from one another. Look beyond the opinion of others and realise that ultimately, your relationship with each other matters more.

*The contents of this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.

By Kimberly Lee

All photos from the personal collection of Izrin Ismail and Marcus Mikhail Low. 

Catch Part 1 of our series on interracial relationships, featuring our interview with Logesh and Rachel of the Kumaar Family. 

From our team of purposeful, multi-faceted mummies. For editorial or general enquiries, email to us at hello@makchic.com.