For American immigrants, living in a country far away from home implies the adaptation to foreign environments and often leads to the loss of cultural practices. Holidays, in particular, become less festive as America seems to go on without realizing the cultural significance of day like Choul Chnam Thmey, Pi Mai, Songkran and Thingyan. For Portland, this started to change five years ago.On Satday, April 27, Glenhaven Park, Portland had its fifth annual New Year in the Park celebration. For the last five years, the organization has set up a large event for a chance to bring together the Cambodian, Lao, Thai and Burmese cultures as they all celebrate the same New Year.
The all-day event was filled with long lines of people eagerly awaiting try various Southeast Asian cuisines, ranging from coconut curry cooked in banana leaves to grilled chicken with sticky rice. Women could be spotted wearing vibrant silk garments while men showcased their traditional Salong (Lao for “big pants”). Children could be seen running around, coins dangling from their Hmong embroidered hats clinking together, complementing the subtle Ching of finger cymbals from a distant performer.
Although the four Southeast Asian countries share the same Buddhist New Year, their respective communities are generally accustomed to celebrating it amongst themselves. With relatively small populations in Oregon, however, a divided celebration often means that the cultural festivities fall below the public’s radar. This leaves little room for people outside the community to appreciate and cultivate an understanding of Southeast Asian cultures and often threatens to diminish traditions.
“Everyone celebrates their own culture in their own community,” New Year in the Park’s co-chair Coua Xiong said. “There wasn’t really a place we could come to celebrate together. We just didn’t understand why you can’t do that. We all celebrate the same New Year anyway.”Xiong is a University of Oregon alumni, former vice president of the UO Southeast Asian Student Alliance and current NYP co-chair. Like many other attendees, she was drawn to the way in which the event brought people together, even those who don’t technically celebrate the Buddhist New Year.
The Hmong people, an ethnicity that is often overlooked, are members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Although they have a different new year, NYP is a chance for them to showcase their culture through dance and fashion.
“These kinds of events are super important,” Alex Tang, an attendee, said. “Especially in a place like Oregon, where a majority of the population is white. You have to work really hard to cultivate a community and pull it together.”
By themselves, these individual communities might not have been able to draw as much attention to their cultural events. Combined, on the other hand, the event yielded over 8500 attendees.Beyond creating opportunities for cultures to be seen, co-chair Stefan Saing believes that the event could help deal with problems within the communities.
“It’s an opportunity to bridge a lot of gaps that we have within our communities,” he said, “If you look back to our grandparents’ or even our parents’ generation, there was a lot of animosity toward other cultures within Southeast Asia.”
An Oregon State University alumni and former vice president of the Cambodian Student Association, Saing has always advocated for unity of Southeast Asian communities and NYP aims to do just that.
“I think we have a unique opportunity here to define what it means to be Hmong-American, Khmer-American, Lao-American, Thai-American,” he said. “We can either hold those old grudges or come together and celebrate. We get to decide what we want to be in this country.”
Editor’s note: The caption on the photo of four Oregon State University students has been corrected. The students are from Myanmar, not Laos as originally stated.