My guest this week is Thein Aung who is an old friend I’ve known since childhood. We both grew up in the North West UK as children of Burmese immigrants.
Thein currently lives on The Gold Coast, Australia and works as an optician and part-time streetdancer.
He shares stories about growing up in Liverpool, exploring the mind through meditation and visiting Myanmar with his cousin Soe Thu, who happens to be one of the most famous singers in the country.
We speak half the show in English, and the other half in Burmese.
Listen to the full conversation (Part 1 in English and Part 2 in Burmese) or read a selected excerpt below.
➤ Can you tell us where are you right now exactly?
I’m in Caloundra. It’s a small town on the south tip of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, about an hour and a half from Brisbane.
➤ Nice! So it’s called The Sunshine Coast. Does it live up to its name?
The Sunshine Coast, oh yeah, the weather’s pretty good, I have to say. Normally it gets close to 20, 25 degrees generally.
➤ Me and you go way back but I’m going to ask you to describe your childhood, so you were born in Burma. Take us through leaving Burma at what age and where did you go?
Right so I was born in Burma in 1979 and we left in 1980. I was only nine months old when I arrived in the UK.
➤ You were born in Rangoon?
No I was born in Taungoo, which is like – well when I first visited Burma in ‘88 it was about a 6 hour drive from Yangon but now it’s about 3.
➤ Let’s get back to moving to UK at nine months old. Which city in the UK did you move to?
Liverpool. It’s a city in the northwest of the UK. Historically it used to have a lot of money and then it lost a lot of money during the ‘90s. It’s one of those cities with a lot of history and a lot of culture.
➤ I think most people when they think of Liverpool, they’re going to think of The Beatles and football.
Yeah I mean they’re the famous things from Liverpool but there’s a lot more than just that.
➤ You arrived in Liverpool in 1979 and the next time you left the country was 1988 you said. Do you have any memories of that first trip?
Oh for sure yeah. I remember I had a good time. It was very new. Things were very new. We were treated really well by everyone you know.
➤ Did you speak the language?
No I didn’t. I understood everything but it wasn’t until later on that I started speaking more Burmese.
➤ That’s interesting because I know how your Burmese is and I had no idea you learned it late because I think you speak quite well.
Actually you know what? It was actually hanging out with you when we were younger that helped me a lot with my Burmese.
➤ So tell me about that first trip to Burma.
Well okay, so that first trip to Burma it was in April ‘88. I went with my family obviously. My father hadn’t seen my grandmother in about nine years. You know this was the age when there was like no internet, no Zoom or wi-fi or WhatsApp or any of that stuff. Once you’re out there, you’re there you know?
So it was quite an emotional time. My grandmother started to cry, I still remember. She started crying when we first walked into the house and she didn’t even know who we were! Someone obviously explained who we were and she started crying straight away.
And we had to do the whole thing in Burma where you were robed as a monk, stay in a monastery …
Yeah we had to do all that stuff. I didn’t know what was going on, as a kid you just do what you’re told. I just went with it, you know. And so we did that and then I was there for a week actually. Quite interesting experience.
And straight after that it was Thingyan. It was the water festival and that was crazy. I didn’t know what was going on. And then obviously visiting relatives and you know meeting all these people I’d never met before and saying, ‘Oh wow I’ve got such a huge family!.’ Because obviously in the UK, it’s just me, my brother, my parents and that’s it!
But yeah that trip was really enjoyable and it gave me a bit of a understanding of where I came from, you know? When people showed me, ‘You were born in this hospital,’ -because if you see Taungoo, compared to where I was living in the UK it was worlds apart.
➤ How many more trips did you make after? How regularly did you go?
So the next trip I made was when I was 16.
➤ What do you remember about that trip? Because you’re old enough then to really..
Yeah it was crazy. The thing is on my mother’s side of the family, certain people have a lot of wealth. I was seeing things like – they’d have all these maids and servants and stuff. And I still remember one time, some guy actually came to tie my shoes and I was like, ‘What are you doing? Like really.. what are you doing?’ (Laughs)
So yeah, that was strange but it was a good fun. But I mean, the thing is, my visits to Burma you can’t really compare with other people’s…
➤ I remember you guys telling me about experiences at Thingyan and being on the stage in VIP areas.
I mean, look that’s because of our cousin. Our cousin was, you know, famous over there.
➤ Should we say who he is?
If you want. It’s fine. His name Soe Thu.
➤ Yeah only like the Burmese Elvis or well …no, the Burmese Elvis is Win Oo.
I say he’s more like the Burmese Bon Jovi.
➤ Oh the Burmese Jon Bon Jovi! Nice! So what was it like rolling with Soe Thu in those times?
It was crazy, you know? He had the life of a prince over there. He could pretty much do whatever he wanted but the thing is, me and my brother knew that this was just one country in this entire world.
➤ And at that time people in Burma could not go out of here, so to them that’s the world, there is nothing else outside.
Exactly, so he was there and he had all this stuff and he’s had this crazy life but me and my brother already knew that there’s way more than just this. But at the same time we had a great experience with being on stage with him when he was doing shows and stuff and meeting all these actors and actresses and stuff.
When you’re a teenager from Liverpool all of a sudden you’re with the celebrities of the country, it’s like hanging out in Oldham and all of a sudden going to a party in LA with Leonardo DiCaprio. It was worlds apart, you know? It was an interesting experience.
➤ And did the girls associate you with Soe Thu? How did they…
Not so much me. They more associated my brother with Soe Thu because he looks like him. So you know my brother would be lapping it up, he’d be loving it! People asking him to sign autographs and whatever for no reason apart from looking like his cousin and he was just like, ‘All right then I’ll sign autographs!’ It was just an interesting time.
I mean, that attention of being his cousin – I didn’t really care because I knew it wasn’t my world, you know. I was just there very briefly and I was out leaving again, you know. In my mind it was more a case of, ‘If I’m a known person I’d rather be known for something I did, rather than just being related to someone,’ you know. That was my mentality. My brother has a different personality to me. That asian life – he really loved the attention.
➤ Tell me what did you like about life outside of Soe Thu. Just general Burmese life because this was your first real trip to Burma as as a grown-up.
Well, a lot of things I saw with a lot of the people -a lot of the things they were doing would match what my parents did in the UK. I was like, ‘All right! Okay, so that’s where they get it.’
For example, my mum – like if I would go on a journey somewhere she’d be doing a week’s preparation of food and clothing. She’d prepare all these things before you go on this trip. In Burma the people say, ‘You got to make sure you have the water bottles etc,’ all this stuff whereas look at us now, we want to go, we just get a suitcase, throw a few things in and just go you know. And when you’re in a cafe, take more tissues than you need so you can keep them in your bag, you know, so you can keep the tissues. Keep them in your bag just in case you need some tissue, just things like that. My mum did stuff like that all the time and now I see why, because people in Burma were all doing it.
There’s just a lot of stuff – a lot of stuff I can’t put into words all the time because there’s just so much. You’re going from a western culture to an eastern one and you’re a teenager and you’re like trying to work out everything.
I could see a lot of poverty as well that was quite difficult because obviously coming from the UK, you don’t see as much poverty. And when peasants and stuff are asking you for money and your initial reaction is you want to give them some. And my aunty said, ‘Look if you’re going to be giving to charity here you’ll have no money left.’ Because it was endless – it was still a dictatorship. It wasn’t like it is now.
But you know in terms of the culture, the religion, I felt like this is my origin, you know. This is where I’m from.
➤ Did it feel like home? Because you left at nine months.
Yeah true but my parents, obviously being first generation in the UK, they always tried to instill a lot of heritage on me and my brother, like, ‘You are not from here, you’re from Burma.’ They always try to instill and I understand why. It’s important because to know your heritage, to know your history is to know you, to know part of who you are. So in my mind you should know about it.
➤ Give me some positive memories. You know you had the poverty, you had the crazy tissue things; What were the nice things you noticed – like, ‘Wow this is nicer than in England. This we don’t have in England’?
Families were far tighter knit in Myanmar. If someone was your relative they go a long way to look after you, this sort of thing. But a lot of that, I don’t know whether it’s because I was a visitor. So I don’t know but that’s what I saw. Families were very close. People looked out for each other. And people generally are very polite in Myanmar. The culture is very -you know, rudeness is not tolerated compared to the western society. And I think there’s good things to take from that.
➤ So you grew up in Liverpool. How did you end up in The Sunshine Coast?
So basically, I studied optometry in London and then once I qualified I decided to move back to Liverpool. And then years down the line I get a text from one of my friends – a Burmese ophthalmologist and he said, ‘Do you know where I can advertise for jobs in Australia for someone?’ He was looking for an optometrist to work in Australia and I was like, ‘Well, try this agency or this one or this one,’ he’s like, ‘Do you want to do it?’ I’m like ‘Do what? You haven’t told me anything.’
So he goes, ‘Look, just send me your cv.’ And I sent it. Next thing you know I’ve got an email from some surgeon in Australia saying he wanted to give me a Skype interview. So I interviewed and he said, ‘I want to give you a job,’ and then I did all the immigration process malarky and all that stuff and then once that was done, I started.
And I was working for that surgeon up in Cairns which is northwest Queensland. I was there for about two and a half years and then I met a different surgeon there who moved here and I moved with him. So that’s how I ended up here. So I moved to Australia in 2018.
➤ Excellent! So that goes with what you just said earlier: it’s about Burmese community looking out for each other.
Yeah the thing is I wasn’t even looking to travel to Australia. I wasn’t like pursuing it or anything, it just happened and I thought if this opportunity has just landed in my lap then I should take it and see where it leads, you know? Nearly been three years I’m still here.
➤ Have you met any Burmese people there? What’s the Burmese community like?
I’ve met the Burmese community but it’s not as big [as the community in UK] obviously. I first met a lot of Burmese up in Cairns but they were like refugees from Ne Win era. They were cool. They were a little bit from a different world to me because when I went to visit them they gave me some food and I’m used to eating with a spoon and fork if I’m eating rice and they gave me no cutlery because they eat with their hands. And I was like, ‘So everyone eats with their hands here?’ and they were confused that I was even asking the question. That’s how Burmese they were.
➤ But even in Rangoon nobody eats with their hands anymore.
The thing, this was here. They were refugees and they’ve been here for years.
➤ And they haven’t adapted?
Well it’s funny you say that because if you look at like my dad for instance, okay, he’s culturally very Burmese. He left back in 1980. He moved to the UK with those Burmese cultures and then kept them. Whereas obviously Burma had it’s changes and so on. Now you could argue that the way my dad thinks is more Burmese than the people in Burma. You see what I mean? Burma evolves in its own way but my dad’s memory is from 1980. So in a way, his mentality is even more Burmese than Burmese people.
➤ Well it depends on what you define as Burmese. He can’t be more Burmese than Burmese people but what you mean is he’s more connected to Burmese traditions than modern Burmese people.
Exactly, yeah that’s what I’d say.