In the past, the Lao New Year, or Phi Mai Lao, marked the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. This upcoming weekend, many of the 20,000+ Lao Minnesotans will be celebrating at the Crystal Community Center just outside of Minneapolis. By the traditional Lao calendar, it will be the year 2555, a Year of the Dragon, or Nak, the traditional guardians of knowledge and wisdom in Lao society.
So, nearing closer to 40 years since the end of the war for Laos, and the beginning of a winding journey for nearly 400,000 Laotians, what have we learned, and where are we going? Can we look back at 2554 with a sense of accomplishment and progress? I think so.
In the traditional beliefs, we are exiting a rabbit year, a year to catch your breath and calm yourself. It is usually seen as a time for negotiation, and a year where we would be wise not to force particular issues if we didn’t want to experience failure. It is believed rabbit years require focus on home, family, and our relationships with others. Peacefulness and relaxation.
Although this year’s celebration in Minnesota is only one day and night, in a traditional Lao New Year, you have at least a three-day celebration. The first day is Sangkhan Long, to commemorate the last day of the year, and in this time, most people will spend it cleaning their homes both figuratively and metaphorically to prepare for the next year. Grievances are settled and forgiven, and it’s a time for reflection.
On the second day, Mueu Nao, Lao observe the transition between the old and new year. Generally it’s recommended to stay home and rest, because it’s considered a day when bad luck can happen eaily because the spirit of the Old Year has left and the spirit of the New Year is still on its way.
On the third day, Sangkhan Kheun, the spirit of the New Year has arrived and it is time to celebrate. People will often celebrate by going to their temples with offerings of flowers, food and water to build spiritual merit. The festivities are lively throughout the day once the key ceremonies have been performed. Among the most notable of these is Boun Haut Nam, when people will be found throwing water at each other as a symbol of cleansing the body of bad karma and preparing to receive good fortune, karma and luck for the New Year ahead.
For Lao in Minnesota, 2554 was a very good year. In this last year, we saw our elders and innovators honored: Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong won an Asian Pacific Leadership Award in Education from the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans for his work to found Naiku, a technology company to assist teachers. Bounxou Chanthraphone was honored for her lifelong contribution to the arts and preserving Lao traditional weaving by the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
Painter Mali Kouanchao was honored with a Next Step Grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, while our elder, Khao Insixiengmay, a veteran of the Royal Lao Army and former executive director of the Lao Advancement Organization, was honored for his service by Senator Linda Higgins in the Minnesota Senate.
2554 was a good year for Lao arts. Weaver Ladda Insixiengmay received an Artist’s Initiative Award from the Minnesota State Arts Board and this month, with her mother, will be exhibiting their work with traditional Lao textiles at Metro State University. Lao American writer Saymoukda Vongsay was recognized as a Changemaker by Intermedia Arts. We also had exhibits and performances of modern and traditional Lao art and culture at Harrison Park, The Hennepin County Libraries, and the Loft Literary Center.
We saw the start of new blogs like Little Laos on the Prairie, to capture the voices of Lao Minnesotans, including a resurgence to reconnect Lao professionals, youth and elders with one another to explore all of the good that they can do in the community.
By the end of this upcoming year, the Lao Assistance Center will be celebrating 30 years of helping Lao help others, which is a wonderful milestone to reach. There are many other exciting plans already in the works from what everyone has been telling me.
I’ve said in the past there aren’t many people who really seem to understand who the Lao are as a community. For over 600 years, we’ve tried to embrace of tradition of diversity, harmony and a love of knowledge and wisdom. Others call Laos a tiny, land-locked nation, a pristine Eden or Shangri-La, but we’re also just about the same size as Minnesota and Great Britain.
We try to hear and understand the voices of over 160 different ethnicities in Laos. This includes Khmu, Tai Dam, Mien, Hmong, and so many others, even as war and conflict has left more Lao living outside of Laos than within it. In the 20th century, more tons of bombs were dropped on Laos than on all of Europe in World War 2. This contaminates nearly 1/3 of our country with unexploded ordnance that persist to this day. But we are rebuilding, both preserving and moving forward. And in that, I think there is true beauty, the stories worth passing on to our next generations.
A Year of the Nak, or Dragon, is a year of great fortune in the Lao community, but it will also be one of great changes. Thanks to everyone who has helped us along the way so far, and here’s to celebrating the moments yet ahead!
Painting by Lao Minnesotan painter, Kinnary Phimpadubsee, used with permission