“The old-timers say it’s good luck that it’s raining. A good start for the Year of the Water Dragon!” said my friend Ratha Kim, who is one of the coordinators of this year’s Cambodian New Year Festival in San Francisco.
(left to right: Ratha Kim and Jenny Chea-Vaing)
Indeed after a particularly sunny winter, we had an uncharacteristically rainy Saturday this March 31, in time for the Cambodian New Year celebration at the Tenderloin Children’s Playground. I hope that it is indeed a blessing from the water dragon, or water Naga –the giant mythological snake that is the ancient protector of Cambodia.
This year’s festival started with a blessing bestowed by orange-robed monks from the Nagara Dhamma Temple of San Francisco and King Monks Maha Ghosananda Temple of Oakland. After they chanted New Year’s blessings, people lined up to give the monks the delicious food they’d prepared for the celebration.
As the monks dined on separate gold-colored floor mats, the rest of us sat down on mats and rugs and ate the delectable Cambodian dishes prepared by members of the San Francisco Bay Area Cambodian community.
I loved the delicious ginger-and-lemongrass spiced chicken, curries, and silver thread translucent noodles!
This year’s festival had to be moved indoors because of the rain. Last year more than 400 people attended the day-long festivities which included band after band, dancing, food booths galore and vendors selling Cambodian-themed clothing. This year’s celebration was much smaller but had a nice family feel as most of the participants were from the Tenderloin.
A highlight was the Fashion Show. I managed to tape part of the rehearsal, which features students from Bay Area schools including San Francisco State University, CSU-Fresno, and the California Culinary Academy. (Ratha Kim is shown emceeing in the video:)
And of course there was lovely live music by local Cambodian singers. Here is a sample:
I was pleased to meet one of the organizers, Jenny Chea-Vaing, who has been volunteering to help put together the community New Year celebration for the past 10 years.
Jenny’s own story is quite remarkable. She moved to the Tenderloin as a child in the 1980s when her family was sponsored to come to America after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand. “Our sponsors were in Utah, but when we got off the plane, they weren’t there!” Jenny’s family was forced by officials to spend the night in the airport. Eventually they discovered their sponsors had sold their house and were in fact in the process of leaving Utah, so Jenny and her family were not allowed to stay. Instead her father sold everything of value– including the new clothes they’d bought to wear in America and her step-mother’s wedding ring–so that they could all buy Greyhound bus tickets to California where he had a relative. Jenny and her family ended up in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.
“We lived with four or five families in one studio [on Leavenworth and Eddy],” she said. At night they slept on mats on the floor, head to toe, practically no space in the single room they all shared.
She grew up in San Francisco, attended Galileo High, worked in donut shops to earn money, and had an arranged marriage at age 16. She went on to graduate, study medical training, and now works in the insurance industry.
As a teenager, her oldest son, Jimmy, twice spent his summers as an apprentice monk so that he could earn merit for his family.
Jenny's son Jimmy (in the middle)
Jenny says she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had in America. Having survived Pol Pot’s reign of terror and the violence and extreme poverty that followed the Vietnamese military takeover of Cambodia in 1979 (toppling the Khmer Rouge), she has seen incredible hardship in her young life. Her older sister rescued her from marauding soldiers by hiding her under dead bodies during the daytime. Her sister then hid herself under bodies nearby. “I could hear the soldiers come and kill people who cried out, ‘I’m a civilian! Don’t kill me!’ I knew I couldn’t make a noise or they’d kill me too.”
At night they walked on foot through the jungle, trying to find the rest of their family. “My older sister picked young leaves for us to eat. She’d always try them first to make sure they were safe. She saved my life. That’s why I was always grateful to her, I never fought with her [in America], I always honored her.”
Even after the Pol Pot-regime fell, Jenny and her sister were not safe. Their mother had died, their father fled to Thailand to try to make a better life for them, and they were put in the care of relatives who treated them as slaves. One day Jenny witnessed them trying to kill her older sister, taking her out on a canoe and hitting her repeatedly over the head with an oar. Jenny had climbed up a tall tree and could see everything. She called out for help as loudly as she could and an old fisherman finally heard her and helped the sister, throwing a log into the river so that girl could float to the bank to safety.
Finally her father was able to bring them to Thailand where they lived in the Khao I Dang refugee camp from 1980-1982 then two other camps for 3-6 months each before they were sponsored to come to America.
Despite this incredibly hard life, Jenny is a cheerful and kind person.
“That’s why I try to give back,” Jenny says of her life experiences. “That’s why I’m grateful today. I’m thankful. I had many people help me along the way.” She volunteers every month around the city as well as for AIDS Walk and cancer charities.
I think Jenny is an incredible person. She also embodies some of the loveliest qualities of Cambodian culture that extreme hardship have not managed to destroy including a warmth and graciousness that is hard to define. Despite the hell almost every Cambodian refugee in America has gone through, Cambodians can be some of the most warmly welcoming people I’ve ever met.
Because of the hard work of community volunteers like Jenny Chea-Vaing and her entire family (including her kids, husband, step-mother, mother-in-law, and nieces!), Ratha Kim, and the cheerful student volunteers from SFSU, CSU-Fresno, and other Bay Area schools, the Cambodian New Year Festival is a wonderful celebration of Cambodian culture in America.
I am hoping the New Year of the Water Naga is a good one!
The official New Year is celebrated world-wide April 13-15. Other area events this coming month include:
New Year Festival at the Oakland Branch of International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center (King Monks Maha Ghosananda): 633 Douglas Avenue, Oakland, CA: April 13–chanting for the New Year; April 14-food, music, and dancing from 8:30 am to night; April 15-final ceremony. (call 510-924-7189 for more information)
New Year Festival at the Stockton Cambodian Temple: the weekend of April 13-15, when 1000s of California-based Cambodians gather for larger-scale musical performances and dances. Food stands will be open to provide many kinds of Cambodian dishes.
Members of the public are welcome to attend.
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