New to the Parish: When a shy young woman moved from Kuala Lumpur to Dublin to study, she had to push herself to socialise beyond her Malaysian circle – and it paid off
Frisha Ishak has always considered herself a shy person and says she struggles to make new friends. Moving to a city thousands of miles from her home in Kuala Lumpur was a daunting prospect for a young woman who had never lived abroad and did not even know how to cook.
However, upon arriving in Ireland in 2012, she was determined to meet people outside the group of 20 Malaysian students who had also travelled here to study accounting. The 24-year-old built up the courage to join college societies, including the drama group, where she met plenty of Irish people.
“Some of my Malaysian friends didn’t want to branch out and experience the full student culture,” she says. “They stuck to their own, basically. I felt that was a shame, because we were given this great opportunity to travel. I guess I was eager to experience new things.”
She had decided to move to Ireland after an opportunity arose to complete the final year of her accounting degree in Dublin. She had always planned to study medicine but decided to pursue a career in accounting after she received her high-school exam results.
“Medicine was one of those things that’s drilled into you as a kid,” she says. “You’re either going to be a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer. But when the equivalent of the Leaving Cert results came out, I took one look and realised: you can’t be a doctor, you’re going to be an accountant.”
Despite the initial nerves of leaving her parents and sisters behind in Malaysia, she was excited about studying in Dublin. Her father had lived in Australia as a teenager and always encouraged his youngest daughter to travel abroad and learn about different cultures.
“I was half nervous and half excited, because it felt like my dreams were finally coming true,” she says. “Ever since I was a little girl I had always wanted to travel around the world. I didn’t want to stay in Malaysia forever. I just couldn’t wait to finish school and go to college somewhere else.
“My parents were happy for me. Well, my dad was sad that I didn’t want to go to Australia. But I was like, ‘No, it’s too close.’ ”
She spent her first week in a hostel in Temple Bar before finding a place to live. She loved the independence of living abroad.
“My parents were always very strict, but in a good way. They wanted me to focus on my studies, and it paid off in the end. But, growing up, I didn’t do the whole staying out late until the wee hours of the morning thing.”
She was also pleased to learn that the patron saint of her new home had, according to legend, driven all the snakes from Irish shores. “I didn’t know there were no snakes in Ireland and had never heard the legend of St Patrick banishing them until I came here. I thought, This is great because I hate snakes. There are lots of poisonous ones back home. I remember seeing a baby cobra in our living room once.”
After completing her degree, she sat her professional accounting exams and was subsequently offered a job on a graduate programme with the Dublin accounting firm RSM. While many of her fellow Malaysians returned home after their studies, Ishak decided to remain in Ireland.
“Some of the others were really homesick and went home every six months, but I guess I just took on the challenge; it was part of life. Ireland is very far away from home, but when I finished studying my dad did say ‘Don’t come back just yet’. He encouraged me to just live abroad in my 20s and 30s and to experience life.”
Although Ishak made new friends in college, she found it difficult to meet people after completing her studies. When her flatmate suggested she join GirlCrew (a social platform for women to make new friends), she immediately signed up to the Facebook page.
Since joining, she has gone on coffee crawls, seen concerts, visited different parts of Ireland and had chats over numerous cups of tea with women from around the world. Like Ishak, these women have struggled to make friends in a fast-paced society that increasingly favours communication through social media and technology over face-to-face interaction.
“I was very shy at first and didn’t post much on the Facebook group. But over time I went for a few meet-ups and felt more relaxed. The majority are Irish women, but there are other foreign nationals who have moved to Ireland. There’s more than 9,500 of us in Dublin, but there are other groups around the country.
“If there’s 9,500 women, you’re bound to find someone who wants to hang out and do the same thing as you.”
She has visited Malaysia twice since moving to Ireland and hopes her family will make the trip to Ireland later this year.
“I’ve been to almost every county in Ireland – Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Cork . . . My sister wants to go to Kerry because of Star Wars and she wants to catch the Northern Lights, so we might go to Donegal as well.”
She feels “more respected” as a woman in her new Irish home. “I’m not saying all of Malaysia views women as second class, but there are people who think we’re not equal, that we should be seen and not heard.”
She also feels a sense of liberation living in a city where her life is no longer dictated by the conservative cultural norms of Malaysia.
“Malaysia is still very much a conservative country, and you have to put up many fronts to be socially accepted,” she says. “Back home you don’t want to be too open about who you are. The one reason I love Ireland is that I do not have to hide who I really am here. ”