Friends from Laos celebrate Hmong New Year

Hmong women in traditional dress.

Hmong women in traditional dress celebrate the New Year.

By Loie Mead

Each year during December, Portland Baha’is enjoy celebrating the Hmong New Year with friends from Laos. They have cherished memories of past celebrations with families who came from Laos in the early 1980’s. They were Hmong refugees who fought for freedom alongside the US military and they were families who survived the horrors of war. Many waited in the camps of Thailand praying to be united with fathers, sons and brothers. Survivors were eventually airlifted to safety in nations like France, Canada and the United States.

When families settled in Portland, Baha’is and people of religion began to meet their new neighbors and to assist them with housing, shopping, obtaining drivers’ licenses, filling out forms, learning English, helping children with homework and adjusting to a foreign land. The Hmong were uniquely resourceful, eager and efficient in caring for their families’ needs in this nation. At the same time, there was a great need for the rest of us to gain experience in working with our newly-made friends. In reality we will always be learning from our Hmong brothers and sisters, and it is hoped that they remain forever willing to strive with us, for the betterment of the world.  This has never been more urgent as all attest to in these present times.

Laotian and American friends celebrate together.

Long-time friends celebrate Hmong New Year.

Although celebration of the Hmong New Year has changed since the arrival of the friends in Portland, the spirit of the traditional Hmong New Year is ever present.  Historically it was “a time for rest from harvest and work, a time for getting together, a time for starting anew, a new year or a new beginning.”[1]  The common expression used at the celebration is “throw or wash away the old and bad and bring in the new and good.”  Evidences of the changed celebration over the years was experienced at the Nyob Zoo Kyoo Tshiab or Hmong New Year Banquet,[1]  on Saturday, December 4, in the Airport Holiday Inn’s banquet hall.

We were  warmly greeted by Mr. William B. Cha, President of the Hmong American Community of Oregon. We were a group of  12 Baha’is and friends from Portland and vicinity with cherished memories of serving with Hmong families in the Portland Baha’i Center (formerly the old St. Johns Post Office).  The banquet hall was a sea of over 400 friends of Hmong heritage, city officials and admirers of the Community.  The luminous colors of Hmong traditional dress moved throughout the hall.  Little children scampered about the large round tables as our hosts led us to seating for a sumptuous dinner.

Hmong New Year - "Qeej" performance

Steven Cha performs with the "Qeej", an instrument with highly spiritual significance.

Dianne Yongchu, Mistress of Ceremonies, opened the program. The New Year Opening Dance “Colorful Water Lillies” was performed by Nixhais Nplaim Dej.  Mr. William B. Cha graciously welcomed everyone with opening remarks.  Mr. and Mrs. Va Nou Cha presented the Hmong Traditional New Year Song with Mrs. Cha in a supportive role to her husband who chanted beautifully. Rousing ovations were accorded several persons of Hmong heritage who have excelled academically and served in meritorious ways in the larger community.  Then City officials gave their New Year messages: Eric Hendricks, Valang Khamsouk, Randy Shannon, and The Honorable Sam Adams as Mayor of Portland. Every message praised the Hmong friends and encouraged them to seek out increasing involvement in the larger community.

A Hmong Fashion Show delighted the crowd, and especially with a couple who danced the Hmong-American dance, in which the girl and boy clasped hands in a show of unity.  A Hmong New Year greeting from the Metro Baha’is was presented by Loie Mead who recalled a loving and close relationship with families, attributed unity building skills to the Hmong, and called for everyone to build a spiritual community in the City of Portland. Then Steven Cha, a former member of the ROSES After School Mentoring Project, offered the beautiful Hmong Qeej Performance. (The qeej, a magnificent instrument has highly spiritual significance and performance in public settings is becoming rare.)  The program closed with the Lucky Charms dancing a Hmong Dance and with appreciative remarks by Dr. Bruce Bliatout, Ph.D.

The warmth of greetings and hugs among longtime friends was enjoyed during the entire evening. Young adults and others poured out onto the open floor to dance to live music.  Further heartwarming developments occurred the following week when young adults contacted the Baha’i community requesting information about volunteering and core activities of the Baha’i Faith, specifically the Junior Youth Empowerment program.

“Bring in the new and good!”
(an ancient Hmong New Year phrase)

Preserving inherited cultural identities in harmony with principles of the Baha’i Faith
is an expression of unity in diversity.

“…Let the religions agree and make the nations one, so that they may see each other as one family and the whole earth as one home. May they all live together in perfect harmony.”
~ ‘Abdu’l-Baha

[1] “A Celebration of Hmong Heritage” program printed by the Hmong American Community of Oregon