BHOONDI – “I converted to Buddhism after my near death experience… it only lasted til’ I got back to Australia…”

My friends call me Bhoondi. Originally it was because my Aussie mates thought I looked a bit like Buddha and my gorgeous niece couldn’t pronounce Buddha, she could only say Bhoondi… it stuck from there.

My family are originally from Burma (Myanmar). My mother’s side from Mandalay & my father’s side from Rangoon (Yangon).

My father’s parents both worked for the state controlled electrical company. Their employment in the British controlled utility allowed my dad to gain a British education & opened up opportunities for him within Burma. His name was Ronald Williams, his values & heritage were intrinsically affected by British culture.

My father served in the Royal Air Force when Burma was still under the umbrella of the British Empire. When the British withdrew from Burma & returned sovereignty to the Burmese, my father, under the orders of Burma’s new political establishment, was told to change his name to make it more Burmese. This was because the new government was trying to cleanse the military ties to the British legacy. He refused to do so & instead decided to bring his young family to Australia because of its political stability & because his mother had already started a life here. They lived in Perth. This was my playground as a kid.

Growing up in Perth, I was never interested in the culture of my parents nor my ancestry. We were the only Asian family on the block so I did all I could do to “fit in” and be just as “Australian” as the next kid in school. I truly neglected my culture and looking back now, I wished I hadn’t.

It has only in the past 7 years that I have undertaken my own journey, relocating from Perth to Melbourne, that I have started to think deeply of where my family came from & of my Burmese heritage.

This year I made my way to Yangon (Rangoon) for the first time to meet my fathers’ family that I have heard so much about all my life but have never met.

Yangon is a beautiful city with plenty of parks, lakes & pagodas. The main Pagoda is the Shwedagon Pagoda which is situated in the middle of the city & it sits on its highest point, you can see the Majestic Golden Glow from anywhere in Yangon. The city has some beautiful 50’s architecture stemming from the British influence just after WW-II & the bus drivers are still proud as punch driving their 1950’s Hino buses, but this romantic way of life is on the move, with the country opening up to the west, foreign investors & developers are changing the skyline of this intriguing city.

My father’s family still live in the same house my Great Grandfather built, to see the house & to walk the streets of my father, my grandfather & my great grandfather & all of my ancestors was such a spiritual & humbling experience. I remember walking down the street after a long day of sightseeing and as the house came into view, I started to tear up at the realisation that my father would  have done this a thousand times.

Meeting all my relatives I have always heard about but never met was a fantastic experience. It was like I belonged. The laughter, the noise, the food, the smiles and the interaction – It was like a Williams Family shin-dig in Australia! We were culturally different, the language barrier was slightly difficult, yet there was such a strong connection, all I could think & feel was that these people are me and I am them. It gave me an overwhelming sense of belonging.

I like to go for a run in every new place I visit, it’s the best way to get a feel of the city, going off the beaten track & finding things you normally wouldn’t see.

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On one particular night I visited the Shwedagon Pagoda with my uncle, who is a lecturer on Burmese history & was exiled from Burma under the military rule. Listening to his stories & his knowledge of the Pagoda made even the more interesting. Around the pagoda there are 14 stations, this represents your birth day of the week & whether you were born morning or afternoon. I went to my birth station, Wednesday afternoon. Tradition has it that you pour water over the Buddha’s head the same number of years you have been on earth, you then pray. I asked for a safe journey…

The following day I was crossing the road looking left, as I would in Australia, forgetting that they drive on the right side & I was also distracted by the majestic golden glow from the Shwedagon Pagoda. I bolted out thinking it was all clear, in the corner of my eye I saw a bus coming at around 70kmph, I tried to stop but I hit the side of the bus with an all mighty thud! It spun me around several times. I then fell to the ground, a car just missing my head. I got up & stumbled to the side of the road. All I heard was “Nei kaung la?, “Nei kaung la?” “how are you, how are you?”. The locals came around to see if I was fine, which I was, my injuries just being a grazed knee & a dented ego. A hundredth of a second earlier and I would have been part of a 1953 Hino bus & part of Shin Saw Pu road forever.

Praise be to Buddha, I never got run over. I converted to Buddhism after my near death experience. Mind you, it only lasted until I got back to Australia…

“Myanmar Beza Myoeyore Zarteet Ma Mai Thint” which translates to; “I am of Burmese heritage – This is who I am”.

Be proud of who you are – Never forget from where you came from.

 

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