Meghan and Harry - when love is colour blind: We talk to Northern Ireland's mixed race couples
Meghan Markle's mixed race background has been a big talking point following her engagement to Prince Harry - but should that be anyone else's concern? Kerry McKittrick meets two couples from Northern Ireland whose relationships span different cultures
The engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is being hailed as a sign of the modernisation of the royal family.
Much has been made of the American actress's mixed race background, but she ticks nearly every box which not so long ago would have made her entry into the royal family a very unlikely and a controversial event.
She is American, a commoner, a divorcee and of mixed race, the first three of which contributed to the abdication crisis which saw the present Queen's father take the throne from his brother and subsequently led to the current record-breaking monarchy.
It can be argued that in today's world, even in the starchy protocol-bound life in the palaces, the only thing that matters in this engagement is that the couple are evidently happy with each other.
Harry, whose grandmother the Queen can trace her family tree back to Alfred the Great, King of England from 871-899, is fifth in line to the throne so there is little likelihood of him ever ascending to that seat. Even the most traditional of royalists will have little to rail against at his choice of wife-to-be.
For the couple the mixed race background is of little consequence. Meghan's mother, Doria Ragland, is African-American and her father, Thomas Markle, caucasian, but Meghan has said she has come to embrace her heritage and "voice my pride in being a strong, confident mixed race woman". But even among lesser mortals than the soon-to-be royal couple, the idea of mixed race relationships still cause raised eyebrows in some quarters.
We talk to two Northern Ireland couples who have dispensed with tradition and found that love conquers all.
Sunita Shaw (39) is a stay-at-home mum and lives in Lisburn with her husband David. They have two children, Jacob (6) and Jasmin (4). Sunita says:
I was born in Northern Ireland but my parents were both born in India. My dad was about two when he came over here and was raised in Omagh. Mum came to Northern Ireland when she married my dad.
My parents had someone in mind for me to marry and at around the age of 14 or 15 I met the person I would possibly be betrothed to.
However, he was from India and I was from Northern Ireland. We came from two very different worlds. I was also too young then to even consider marriage and as time went by I was just never ready so it never worked out.
It wasn't a big deal that I didn't marry this man. Mum would have really liked the arranged marriage to work out and a part of her was upset. However, she was really supportive of me when I was growing up. Her marriage to dad had been arranged, but she also realised that growing up here was very, very different from her upbringing.
I did have other boyfriends from Northern Ireland over the years and it was never a big deal - my mum made her peace with that a long time ago. She never had any issue with anyone from a different colour or religion walking through the door. As long as they were respectful to her and shared the same kind of morals she was happy. There was never an issue of me going out with a white guy.
I'm Christian but my mum is Hindu - most people in the Indian community are one or the other.
David and I actually met at a fancy dress party - I was Tinkerbell and he was a corpse groom.
There are quite a lot of my extended family in Northern Ireland. I was the eldest of three girls, but my cousin also brought home a guy who was not Hindu and not Indian.
I think our families were very supportive of us and in that we're very lucky I suppose. Dave seemed to fit in very well and mum and dad are very fond of him. Dave and dad are particularly close - I suppose it has something to do with dad having three daughters and no sons. For him, it was the best thing ever to have someone to talk about work with.
Dave asked my dad for permission before he proposed to me. It was actually on his birthday and we all went out for a family meal and he got down on one knee. I got a big cheer from the whole restaurant so it was very romantic. We had a big wedding with both Christian and Hindu ceremonies and about 450 guests. We had our church wedding in Drumbeg parish - it's the church I was baptised in and the church that Jacob has since been christened in. I wore a white dress and white gloves for that wedding ceremony.
The rest of the wedding was largely organised by my mum. It was supposed to be a small Indian ceremony but turned into a very big one.
I was in the traditional sari - I don't think people realise how heavy they are. Indian brides can be quite sombre but I kept smiling because I was so happy. Dave was in traditional Indian dress with a turban.
I think people from here really enjoyed the Indian wedding more because it was something completely different for them and the same applied to the people from India who witnessed our Christian ceremony.
I had a lovely day but it was so busy and I'm not sure we got around to greeting everybody.
Looking back, I wonder if we should have turned it into a three-day wedding to make it less hectic! We were pretty tired after the whole thing. However, to have the two cultures represented meant that everyone was catered for.
We have two kids and one is blonde and one is dark — people have to look very hard at my son Jacob to see anything of me in him. More than once people have seen the blonde hair and the blue/green eyes and thought I was babysitting him.
I’ve lived in Northern Ireland my whole life. Years ago there might have been the odd issue here and there but now I feel I am totally integrated into the community here. I think I’m quite lucky that way.
I love seeing Harry and Meghan and how happy they are. That’s what it’s all about. We shouldn’t really see anything other than two people who are very happy and very in love.”
David Shaw (41) runs an IT and telecoms company. David says:
We met in 2007 and there was never any concern about the fact that Sunita is Indian — it never made any difference to me or my family.
There was no pressure when I met Sunita’s family but I did do something wrong when I first met them.
Sunita’s dad is called Vinod and her mum is Manju but I got the names mixed up and greeted Vinod as Manju. Thankfully they thought it was hilarious and burst out laughing.
Our wedding was a whole new experience and I was able to just sit there and take it all in.
As a family we all pitch in — there are all sorts of Indian festivals throughout the year and Sunita’s mum will organise celebrations for each of them. It is all about respect for each other and our traditions and that means we all can get on.
Jacob and Jasmin are raised Christian but they are also learning about their Indian culture from Sunita’s mum.
It’s nice that they get to learn both. In fact, the whole family are learning Hindi and Sunita says I can speak it better than she can.
I’ve never had any issue being out with the kids but I remember at the very start, when Jacob was a baby, Sunita’s parents could get funny looks when they were out with him. I can’t imagine falling in love with anyone else and I’m sure Prince Harry can’t either.
In this day and age who really cares? In Northern Ireland we’ve had enough with all the stuff we grew up with so let’s just all get along.
As long as you’re happy with who you are and who you’re with, just get on with it.”
Wai-fun Wong (39) is a nurse and lives in Dunmurry with her partner, James. She has a son, Jamie (15), from a previous relationship. Wai-fun says:
James and I met on a night out in the Aether and Echo bar in Belfast city centre. He was a friend of a friend, spied me and sat himself down. I had no interest at all initially, but he started chatting to me and asked me out for dinner.
When we went to dinner, he was really nervous. He told me that he had been using the internet to try to find out more about me. When I arrived at the restaurant I thought the staff had made a mistake and shown us to the wrong table.
However, they assured us there was no mistake and that the table was for a Chinese girl and a bald guy. It was covered in confetti, engagement balloons and a congratulations banner.
It was all a huge prank by his friends at work, but it could easily have backfired and ended the date right there. However, I thought it was funny and it actually helped to break the ice.
What I didn't know that night was that James had actually Googled the protocol for first dates with a Chinese girl, because he didn't want to do anything that offended me.
James has a daughter who is around the same age as my son, Jamie, so he understood my role as parent right from the beginning and since then the four of us have been to Hong Kong together.
I've only ever gone on dates with Northern Irish guys and it's never been an issue with my family, other than my granny. She was very traditional and was always trying to set people up together. As far as she was concerned, I spoiled things once I had Jamie out of wedlock.
Chinese people are very blunt, so a couple of times it was suggested I shouldn't be a bridesmaid for friends because it could be bad luck. It's quite common practice that you can't have a divorcee as a bridesmaid - they can be quite strict about that kind of thing.
My sister is married to an Irish man and I have cousins in mixed relationships as well. Only once have I heard any comment passed about our relationship. We were at a wedding and a guy made a crack to James about me being a mail-order bride. James confronted him about it and told him to tell me what he said. I think a lot of people were annoyed that he had said it - the guy denied the whole thing.
James spends a lot of time with my family and is very friendly with my two brothers and we all go out together. He's been to a lot of family weddings, so he's learned a lot about Chinese traditions.
One difference, which happens a lot now, is that the bride will wear a white dress down the aisle and then change into a red dress and have a tea ceremony in the evening.
I'm very pleased for Meghan and Prince Harry, although unfortunately the first thing anyone seems to say about her is that she's mixed race.
I think everyone struggles to find their identity at some point - I know I tried to deny my Chinese identity when I was a teenager. I didn't want to be different, but now I really embrace my background and Chinese culture. Being a single mother was also part of my identity and I never try to deny that."
James Fraser (34) is an insurance manager. He has a daughter, Cameron (16). James says:
I knew I liked Wai-fun the first time I saw her - it didn't matter what race or religion she was. It didn't matter to my family either, as they get along with anyone I like.
I don't notice people paying any particular heed to us when we're out, but it's made me more aware of any other mixed-race couples we might see. Before meeting Wai-fun, such relationships never really entered my mind.
I didn't realise how big the Chinese community is in Northern Ireland until I started going out with Wai-fun.
I've been to the big Chinese New Year events run by her family, where I was very much in the minority.
It made me consider other races and cultures that are here in a way I wouldn't have thought of before.
It was the same thing when we went to Hong Kong - it's a beautiful place, but it is a real culture shock to someone from Northern Ireland. I don't think mixed race couples are frowned upon, but I think when Prince Harry and Meghan marry it will certainly bring such relationships more into the mainstream and be more accepted, which can only be a good thing."