A collage of Khmer community members sharing their stories over Zoom. Photo credit: Bunthay Cheam.

Covid-19 has had a major impact on the region, both socially and economically, upending people’s day to day in its wake. 

For the Khmer community, the quarantine has come during arguably their most important cultural celebration, Khmer New Year. Because of Gov. Inslee’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order, new year’s celebrations have been shuttered across the state’s half dozen or so Khmer Buddhist Temples.

The IE connected with several people from the Khmer community including small business owners, an educator, a monk, a student, a medical interpreter, community organizers and artists.  They reflect on their earliest memories celebrating new years, its importance to the culture, how they’re adapting, and their hopes for the culture. This is the first part of a two-part series.

Venerable Theavy Sok, 31, monk

I was nine years old… as lay person, I remember having my family come to the temple together…because in Cambodia [during that time] it’s also very busy with planting and [the] harvest. So whenever the new year comes, it always brings a smile to every family because they hope [it] to be a reunion…this memory always sticks in my mind.

The best part of [my] memories [are] the traditional games and the food, it’s like a potluck, you know, whenever the new year comes people gather and bring food and offerings to the temple. 

There are some differences [in the way Khmer people celebrate new years between Cambodia and the United States], in the United States some temples are small and to march, to have a procession with the four faces on the head of the Maha Brahma, we would have to ask for permission [permitting], but in Cambodia because new years becomes the spirit of all Khmers, everybody knows all activities that are related to new year are not even required to ask permission because everybody knows that this is the new year… so people can have freedom, to march to do whatever they want, you know, to celebrate their happiness and joy.

Venerable Theavy Sok shares the Dhamma at Ba Ba Brunch, a community storytelling event in January. Photo credit: Bunthay Cheam.

[People go] from place to place, travel around the country…from one temple to another across [different] provinces and they play along the streets, pouring water, spraying, at one another, they play by applying powder to each other’s face because they don’t mind each other during the new year, in their mind, they think that [during] new year, we commit to be new, we start new things, [a] new mind. And we let go of our attachments, of our discrimination and play together like a family, no matter if you know each other [or not]. But here in the United States we don’t see this. 

Our ancestors want to see our people have a chance to get together and share good smiles, share good things together by, binging foods, bringing offerings and do wholesome actions, you know, performing good deeds… our ancestor want to see that as Cambodians we follow the teachings of the Buddha. This culture [is] completely linked and connected with the teachings of the Buddha.

It is hard for all of us, especially the [laypeople] who always come to the temple in the time of Khmer New Year

This is the biggest traditional celebration of the year. And if they cannot come directly, they feel disappointed and they think that they cannot make offerings to the monk and dedicate merit to their departed persons.

We schedule online meetings where donors can arrange all their family members through live video on Facebook and hear monks chant and give Dhamma talks… that’s how people can still connect [to the temple].

Meritorious deeds are done through our volition… no matter where we are, no matter how far we are, if we have good volition, that is good karma and merit that happens in everyone’s mind.

Celistina Toeung, 17, high school student

I was probably around like 11 or 10. We always do big family parties… I guess around middle school is the earliest. I remember when we would go to the temple and we would bring food and we would pray and then [we] would come home from that and then have just a really big feast and we’d just be outside barbecuing and eating on the katiel (traditional Khmer mat) all night. 

Samlaw machou (Khmer sour soup) is definitely my favorite Khmer dish. I guess in our family it’s so personal and it’s really rare that my grandpa cooks it and when he does it’s just really nice. 

It’s one of the only times that we’d go [to the temple] out of the whole year. And so that’s pretty big and pretty important to my parents and my grandpa. My grandpa kind of forces us to go, but we still donate to the temple. In terms of what we’re doing in our home, we’re basically just having the after party. 

My mom just donated some money to help [the temple] out a little bit.

The monk called my mom and they just said a little blessing over the phone. So yeah, that’s pretty important that we support the temple. It’s a pretty good feeling. I think it was really sweet and my mom was very happy that they called and thanked us. 

It’s definitely not really gonna feel like it’s new year’s. It’s also going to be kind of different because we’re not going to be able to have our entire family here. We have a pretty big family, but in terms of celebrating this year, it’s just going to be my parents and my siblings and I so it’s definitely going to be a lot smaller. It’s just going to feel like we’re having a big dinner so that kinda sucks. But we will probably celebrate, hopefully when all of this is over.

James Heng, 53, healthcare interpreter and Khmer nightlife promoter

As a young boy back home, growing up, all I know is that Khmer New Year was time to celebrate, to wear a nice outfit. I’d always wear shorts and didn’t have anything nice to wear, right?  But when it’s Khmer New Year, your parents will get you a new outfit and you show off to your friends and celebrate together. So that stuff was the memorable part when I was a young boy. 

After Khmer Rouge, I went back to my original village, Phum Jumnich (Kompong Cham), where I grew up, we have a big temple there, Wat Jumnich.

[I remember] all kinds of people wearing different kinds of outfits and different colors and the decoration inside the temple… the monks chanting and lots of people getting together and celebrating, sharing food at the temple. 

Before the Khmer Rouge, I don’t recall any good memory of Khmer New Year, but in the 1980s, that’s when [I start to] anticipate that time of year… 1980,1981 starting there… wearing new clothes and meeting up with friends and going out, playing traditional games; tug war and you get money to spend and just enjoy eating and hanging out with friends and visiting family. 

It’s cold over here. The first thing that’s different, right? [In] April, most of the time it’s cold in Seattle and it’s raining. So that’s the challenging part and you can’t really stay outdoors. Another challenging part is that the temple is always small, not big enough to accommodate everybody… that’s the difference.

But lately we have bands and performances, traditional dances, performances at the temple. So it’s a lot of improvement compared to 10, 20 years ago. So we’re catching up.

During the month of April, everybody, the singers, the performers, the bands; this is time, they are able to make money [new years celebrations], but this year, I have to tailor to the situation and don’t look at money [as] more important than safety right? So I’d rather give up those earnings for a while and be safe for now.

I decide to stay home and be safe. Rather  comply with the order and the guidance because we will always have new years come back. [You might] accidentally get infected with Covid-19 your life might be changed forever. So [I’d] rather stay  home, comply with the order, the guidance to be safe and we prepare to celebrate next year. 

James Heng, center, facilitates culturally responsive census workshop w/ the Khmer Census 2020 collective to community members in South Park. Photo courtesy of Bunthay Cheam.

Vesna, 31, artist/educator

I think of cars, crowdedness, crowded in the sense of like crowded tables…the kla klok area. I think about flags. I think about worn out buildings at the South Park temple… I think about gravel, I think about the smell of meat cooking, waffles, spices… I think it was like upper elementary, I want to say like fourth, fifth grade. I think about also, like the fun of it, right? Thinking about kids being able to do the shaving cream, you know, like running around doing the shaving cream with each other.

And I think of this wondering and wandering of like wondering what is this about and what everything means. It’s a time for us to get together for us to honor and celebrate our ancestors, it’s a time to celebrate us, to make us visible.

Even though our history is so horrific, there’s also beauty in the upcoming generations when it comes to art and music and food, our language. Even if I can’t contribute to our culture, I know that this is a space where I can feel automatically Khmer.

I have two Khmer kids in my classroom right now so in my class, I teach them some Khmer words, like I count one to five, transitions… and the kids, they love it, they want to know more. I met my student’s mom and she’s Khmer, and she goes, “You know, before she didn’t want to know about the Khmer language and now she wants to practice it with me. She wants to learn more.” And I just think it’s so great for representation for kids to see that spaces like teaching or whatever profession it is, these are spaces for them and for them to want to be in tune with our culture.

[For this new year celebration] I know on social media there’s some organizations that are doing lessons, some zoom meetings to learn more about the culture and our history so [I] definitely want to be a part of those things as well. 

I think we’re able to make it happen still even with what’s going on and everything. 

I’ll take some shots with my family over the phone. I’m going to pray at the altar that we have in our home and listen to some Khmer music. Maybe have my dad teach me the [Khmer] language. My sister… is going to come over here and we’re going to get some Khmer food and I think she’s going to hang out, you know, six feet away. 

Vesna shares poetry at Ba Ba Brunch, a community storytelling event in January. Photo credit: Bunthay Cheam.

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