Pii Mai Lao, which is how we say “Lao New Year” in my language, marks the new year that begins in mid-April, generally between the 15th and 17th. Khmer New Year is also celebrated during this time, so April is a very festive month for many of us Southeast Asians.
During Pii Mai Lao, houses are thoroughly cleaned, people put on their best clothes, and Buddha statues are washed with sacred water. The community gathers at the Buddhist temple to receive blessings, make offerings of fruits and flowers at various altars, and eat traditional Lao dishes — my favorite being my mom’s spicy green papaya salad. She makes the best tam maak-hung ever.
After, people take the festivities outside to playfully douse one another with water. I’m unsure what this tradition represents or its origins, but I imagine it has something to do with a symbolic cleansing of the soul. Quite frankly, it could’ve also just been a fun way to cool off since April is usually the hottest month of the year in Laos. Many great traditions are created out of necessity.
When I was a kid, Lao New Year at the Buddhist temple was like going to Disneyland. Now, don’t get it twisted, my family was barely able to afford a fun day at the Seattle Center, let alone ever taking a magical trip to Disneyland. Nevertheless, my adolescent imagination didn’t know the difference and at that age, it didn’t even matter.
I can close my eyes and still remember the hypnotizing sounds of Lao music mixed with genuine laughter. The unmistakable smell of fresh khao niaw and different variations of laap, two staple dishes of Lao cuisine. My clothes soaked from the water, my knees scraped from a few innocent tumbles here and there. The fun was worth every tear.
Most of all, I remember feeling safe just being with my community.
During Pii Mai Lao, it didn’t matter knowing how poor we were. Our blessings came from sharing what we had. It didn’t hurt as much knowing the white kids at my school made fun of me for being in ESL. English wasn’t needed. It didn’t scare me remembering being jumped earlier that week for wearing the wrong color. The temple was safe. It didn’t cut as deep grieving my Uncle Roy, taken from us too soon. Alcohol was a blessing and curse for my father and uncles.
Pii Mai Lao was a time to be free from all the daily heartaches and stresses of the year together, even if that freedom was short-lived.
I’ve been incarcerated since 2010, so I celebrate Pii Mai Lao differently these days. But it’s still a time that’s special for me and many of my brothers serving time in these concrete cages.
For years, through our organizing with the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG), we’ve been able to replicate some sort of celebratory space at various prison facilities during Pii Mai Lao in an event we named “Asian New Year” to incorporate the many different cultures that make up the APICAG who celebrate during April.
In the past, we’ve invited members of the Black Prisoners Caucus, Nuestro Grupo Cultural, and Indo-European Cultural Group to celebrate with us and learn a little more about our culture. At these events, members would give speeches about what their culture meant to them, talk about their goals and dreams, unpack trauma and grief, play traditional games that were played at the temples as kids, and members of other cultural groups would share their rich traditions as well.
While it’s impossible in a prison to ever fully replicate the atmosphere of a Buddhist temple during Pii Mai Lao, one thing has been universal during the Asian New Year celebration. Participants felt safe just being in community with their peers. A small slice of home…
For many of us Southeast Asians in prison, memories of home are what continue to fuel our hope and survival. Our hope is what keeps us alive in this human warehouse called a prison.
Although the APICAG Asian New Year has been a tremendous success and a safe space for community throughout the years, the APICAG has unfortunately been denied by the Department of Corrections the opportunity to host the Asian New Year event this year at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center with no official reason given.
While many of our members speculate that this is further retaliation for our advocacy work, it’s understood that administration can never take away our hope and joy during this very special time of year… and they will never strip us of our desire to feel safe with our community.
Though we won’t be able to celebrate with one another physically this year, we will continue to honor our traditions in spirit, love, and resistance. We hope our community will continue to do the same. So from all of us on the inside: Happy New Year!
Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, 191 Constantine Way, Aberdeen, WA 98520.