This month’s member focus is Soo Ling Howard. Indeed, her remarkable story is a true proof of karma — if something is meant to be, it will be! and true love will always find a way! Enjoy the story of a remarkable lady and one very lucky man from Clare! I think Soo Ling personifies the richness of the IWO and the friends who helped her find her way to join the group personify the raison d’être for our group: welcoming women from all over the world to our green patch of land here, helping the whole group gain from the richness of our differences and backgrounds and experiences! Enjoy her story!
WHEN EAST MEETS WEST : Our story began 42 years ago when Michael and I were pen-pals. In those days when the internet was virtually non-existent and the mobile phone unheard of, corresponding with penpals was all the craze.
That day when his first letter arrived from Ireland, I had just returned from watching a movie where the theme song was the Circle Game by Joni Mitchell. I was 16 and riding a bicycle and Mike was 19, had black hair and green eyes. I used the aerogramme and he used the letter pad. There was always an assortment of stamps on every envelope because he knew I collected stamps. Whenever the postman came on his trusty old bicycle, I would get all excited and wondered if there was a letter from Killaloe for me. A letter from Ireland to Malaysia would take about 10 days and so on the average, we would get about 2 letters per month.
It was worth the wait. We corresponded for seven years and among the little gifts that he sent me was a lock of hair which I still have today in my box of keepsakes. As with long distance friendship, the correspondence gradually petered out. Then in 2008, as I was driving home from work in Malaysia, I heard the Circle Game by Joni Mitchell on the air.
And the seasons, they go round and round…
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time….
We can’t return we can only look from where we came
And go round and round and round…….in the circle game.
Hearing the song again after all these years caused me to wonder how life had been for Michael and I decided to carry out a yahoo search on his name. Amazed by the number of possible Michaels in County Clare, I saw one entry that looked promising and wrote a short note to him, assuring him that I was no con-woman, I wrote:
Dear Mike, I’m from Malaysia and am wondering whether your dad, Mike Senior is the same person I corresponded with many years ago when I was a student. Thank you
Incredibly the reply came back after a few days
Yes, I’m Michael Senior’s son. Dad would love to hear from you…
So there was an onslaught of letters, emails, online-chats, and phone calls. I learnt that sadly Michael had lost his wife. The excitement between two long lost pen-pals was so intense that I found myself flying to Ireland for the first time in 2008. When we first reunited, it was as if we had known each other all our lives.
One day, as we were sitting on the banks of the river Shannon, I was treated to some old-fashioned vintage declaration of love with all its charm. Michael told me what he could offer as a husband – his strengths, his humility, his assets, his love. As I watched the ducks waddling on the river bank making webbed imprints in the mud, I knew that Michael had made imprints on my heart.
In 2009, Michael formerly proposed beneath the Petronas Twin Towers.
My sister asked me, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing? You were on holiday then. Reality can be very different’ My mum said, ‘ If I were you, I’ll remain single after the divorce.’ My New Zealand colleague who married a Malaysian told me ‘In the early years, if my family had sent me an air ticket to go home, I would have done so.’
The decision to marry Michael and move 6800 miles to Ireland was a life changing one. I had to leave Sonya (23) and Samuel (20) behind in Malaysia because Sonya was about to graduate then and Samuel was midway in his tertiary studies. Audrey (16) came to Ireland with us. It was very heart wrenching to leave my children behind because I had been both father and mother for the most part of their lives.
I also had to quit my job as an associate professor teaching English at the university.
I had no friends in Killaloe when I first arrived. Someone asked me whether I was the new kitchen help at the Chinese take-away on Main Street. A lady followed me through the aisles of Supervalu, wheeling her trolley all the way, just to look at the face of this new person. Even as recent as 2017, someone asked me whether I wanted to join a class to learn how to speak English.
It was in 2011 that I met Marea Mulqueen in a sewing class in Limerick. She introduced me to the International Women’s Organisation (IWO) and for the first time I felt I was in a safe place. I could vent my frustrations and there were so many lovely ladies who were talented and caring. I enjoyed the sessions very much.
I was the new person in an old set up. Michael’s grown up sons were still living in the house and his brothers and sister were all living nearby. Any woman would love her privacy, much more so a bride who had left her country, career and loved ones behind. Mike created a craft and tea
room specially for me where I found solace. I called it Howard’s End after E.M.Forster’s book. It also literally means the space where Soo Ling begins as my husband’s surname is Howard. I could finally invite the IWO ladies over for tea at Howard’s End.
Like myself, Audrey went through a difficult time . Back in Malaysia, she was a very popular student, a leader and performed very well academically. When she joined the school in Killaloe, she felt like an outcast. During break-time, the Irish students formed 2 circles and chatted. She could never be able to stand within the circle, and always had to be at the back. She tried to be helpful and friendly, but she received her fair share of hate mail and hurtful glances. Her school bag was rummaged during physical education class and her Spongebob pencil case was cut into 4 pieces and thrown into the bin. Her Math was way beyond the level of her class and the teacher felt ‘threatened’ when she used methods that were different! Her English teacher was offended when Audrey pronounced Middle Eastern and Asian names the way they should be pronounced in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
We frequently had hugging and crying sessions as we struggled to make sense of the country and its people. I told her she was made of more, to see the big picture and to aim for Trinity College. She gradually found a few good friends in her class and also found solace in the church youth group and scored 595/600 in her Leaving Cert (in a language that was not the medium of instruction in Malaysia) to secure a place in Trinity. Audrey graduated with First Class Honours just like Sonya did in medical college in Malaysia.
I have been in Ireland for 8 years now. Samuel is still working in Creative Media in Malaysia, Sonya is in Oncology in St James’s, Dublin and Audrey is in Operations with the Dublin Airport Authority. I still have my fortnightly Sunday column in the The New Straits Times, (Malaysia) writing about my life in Ireland. My circle of friends has widened greatly among the Irish.
I am with the Killaloe Community Garden group, the Scariff Community Garden group, The Limerick Lace group, the Abundant Life Christian Church in Limerick and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association in Castletroy. I teach crafts to Irish ladies and men, take up horse riding at Lough Derg Equestrian and am learning Irish at the Dun Muire - CONRADH NA GAEILGE In Nenagh. Our story was featured in a play called the River by Helena Enright and it was held on a barge behind the Hunt Museum in 2014. I have made many lovely friends - both Irish and non-Irish in Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, Dublin and even Co. Down.
We bring out the best and the worst in each other. Anam Cara, which means the soul of a true friend, is like a mirror. Michael and I renewed our wedding vows at the Wedding Chapel in Cana, Israel on 16 February 2018. It was the place where Jesus did his first miracle, turning water into wine for the wedding guests. Indeed our marriage and our lives in Ireland is nothing short of a miracle.
Our past is the mercy of God
Our present is the grace of God
Our future is the promise of God