The week before Khmer New Year, I had the honor of traveling with Samnang, my language tutor turned friend, to her family’s home in Battambong to celebrate an ancient tradition. As I understand it, in a family where the parents are elderly and frail, each year before the New Year, the children must throw a party for their parents. This party is to celebrate the parents’ life, clean of the old year and wish the well in the coming year. Generally it takes place a week before the New Year and during the celebration the parents are sat outside the house and bathed by their children (see above photo).
The celebration started on Friday and because of work, I missed the first bit. But, mostly the day included washing the parents, eating, and having various monks come to the house to bless it and the parents. The party ended around sun down, and I spent the rest of the evening playing Go Fish with one of Samnang’s nieces. Everyone else was playing a gambling card game, but as I couldn’t figure out the rules or understand enough Khmer to have it explained—I decided that Go Fish with a 9 year was more up my ally.
I was awoken the next morning at a cheerful 5:30 am and told the monks were soon to arrive. True to my family nature, I went inside, found another bed with a fan and promptly feel back to sleep. The toddlers also slept in. I did, get up at around 7. I couldn’t find Samnang, but one of her nieces (the same one from the Go Fish night) told me that I should put on a skirt and go bow to the monks. Like any sensible foreigner, I figured that this kid had more sense than I did, so I followed her instructions.
When I went out to the front of the house, donning my brand new traditional sampot (Khmer shirt), I found a room filled with 4 monks having breakfast, a man chanting on a microphone, and a large group of people chanting back and bowing. They made room for me and Samnang’s 85 year old aunt (one of the four people being honored) made room for me next to her. So, sitting with both legs to the side, I tried my best to sit straight with my hands in prayer position. When others bowed forward and put their heads to the ground, I followed suit. Sadly, I learned a couple things in this. First, I should have practiced before doing it in public. Second, if my legs are to the side and my hands are not supporting me, I have a hard time staying straight. Third, if I am in that position and bow to the ground I naturally roll to the side like a polar bear and have great difficulty sitting up again. Needless to say, 86 year old great auntie thought this was terribly funny and it did continue for over 45 minutes with very little improvement!
A little before eight, I was spared from my position as white-girl-laughing-stock and invited to have breakfast which was scrumptious. From here, I am not quite sure about the progression of events. But sometime between breakfast and 12:30pm I ate another 3 meals (not including breakfast). And watched as numerous monks came, prayed, and went. Having learned my lesson, I watched this from a far.
By one pm the celebration was over. The place was being cleaned up. Samnang and I were getting on a bus for the long 5 hours ride home.
***Special Note*** As my parents do read this blog (Hi Mom and Dad), I would like to point out that Erin (I think I can speak for my sister) and I are not planning on throwing you this type of party to commemorate your lives and well wish you into the New Year. Before you start to complain, please remember that you do live in Wisconsin and New Year does come around in January. Erin and I fear (again, I haven’t checked with her but am confident she would share the fear) that if we were to commemorate your life in such a way, we might kill you and/ or give you a really really really bad case of pneumonia. Also, it might be illegal.