Khmer New Year in America

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Altar at Khmer New Year celebration in Stockton, California.

When I lived in Phnom Penh, Khmer New Year was that time of year when everyone took off work for a week and all the businesses shut down. The normally traffic-besotted streets of Phnom Penh became quiet and empty during the holiday, and everyone who could scramble the vacation days (and that was most people) returned to their native village or headed over to the shore side to marinate in the sun for a bit.

I worked at the newspaper and we didn’t get the time off, the march of progress waiting for no one, and especially for no reporter. But the holiday was interesting: the Theraveda Buddhist temples choked with adherents paying their respects, the small sea of food dedicated to the monks as reverence for the harvest-time, the traditional games. People of all ages broke out small plastic shuttlecocks and kicked them to each other during the dim-yellow lights of the street at night, as I rode home on a motorbike: I did not know anyone well enough to get invited to a family celebration, but I liked to think of a time when I might.

Cambodian New Year has crossed the ocean, of course. This is Northern California, where a huge population of Southeast Asians moved after the bloody 1960s and 1970s and still resides. California is home to the biggest Khmer minority in the United States, with an estimated 86,244 — per US census data.

Khmer trinkets at the Stockton celebration.
Khmer trinkets at the Stockton celebration.

That Friday, last week, I’d been to a political event for the CNRP in Milipitas. Dozens of well-dressed, middle aged and elderly Cambodians streamed into a red-and-gold convention hall to hear Kem Sokha, second in command of the CNRP, and Yim Sovann, a party leader, talk. The mood in the air was thickly political, and images of Hun Sen portrayed as an animal and as a sock puppet of the Vietnamese flashed upon a television screen. This was the face of Cambodian-America deeply concerned with the home-country, and ready to donate both money and time to influence the situation.

I talk to old Cambodian-Americans and most harbor dreams of buying property back in Phnom Penh or in the countywide, of retiring there at least part of the year. But Hun Sen’s regime stands in their way, they say, this pervasive sense of uncertainty, of corruption.

monk alms

The politics was shed over the weekend. I attended a Khmer New Year celebration at one of San Jose’s three Khmer temples, Wat Khemara Rangsey.  The crowd numbered a couple hundred with an impressive array of ages. The women around the back hustled to make copious quantities of fried rice and curry with bamboo shoots and spring rolls. Before everyone ate, monks blessed the food inside the interior of the wat (a small converted house), as people streamed in and removed their shoes and streamed out again.

Then, everyone lined up outside the wat, and handed small scoops of rice to the monks in their saffron robes. Then, the feasting began – egg rolls vanishing first, great mounds of food in silver urns and white Styrofoam containers, and candy and chips for the kids, doled out outside. The air was familial: for an American with our provincial perspectives, approximately the same as Thanksgiving, but with more flavorful food.

lighting altar khmer new year

An old man in a white collared shirt hovered around the sand-filled urn for offerings. As people knelt to light incense, some unaware of what to do, he advised them, pointing here and there. “This way,” he said, in Khmer. When they got up to go, he adjusted the little sticks again, which had elaborately cut out sheets of white paper stuck to them, evocative of ghosts.

Playing music during Khmer New Year in Stockton.
Playing music during Khmer New Year in Stockton.

The next weekend, I went to Stockton, where something around 20,000 Cambodians reside. It has the biggest Khmer New Year celebration in Northern California, at the opulent Wat Dammanak temple. Huge plaster and fiberglass images of the Buddha, monks in a row, and a fountain resided over by spirits dot the grounds.

Families milled around and slapped sunscreen on each other. Most had spread out a blanket under a chosen patch of shade and consumed great quantities of rice and stuffed chicken wings and curries from home.

The monks came in a line through the grounds of the temple at least twice while I was there, guided at the helm by a small orchestra. An old man played an electric Chinese violin, which had an amp wheeled around in a shopping cart. The monks smiled and waved and squirted passer-by with aromatic perfume. They walked to the sand stupa near the back of the temple grounds, which was bedecked with fake flowers and ribbons, and had many sticks of burning incense in it. They lit incense, too.

Monks in Stockton.
Monks in Stockton.

Outside observers want to stick a Khmer Rouge narrative on essentially everything Cambodians do. I am prey to this. But that’s not the point here, as multiple Cambodians assured me.  There is a holiday for remembering the dead. That’s Pchum Ben, a 15 day religious festival when ancestors are fed rice, and when families venerate those who have passed.

But that is not what Khmer New Year is really about. Khmer New Year is a harvest rite, a time for fun, for gorging yourself on food and throwing shuttle-cocks at family members.  I am glad it is here, in the US — that you can drive down a dusty road in Stockton and make a right, and find yourself in a small outpost of Cambodia, one that is dotted with many US and Cambodian flags.

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