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click to enlarge Ben Khounsinavong returns a katoke filled with offerings to the kitchen during the Lao New Year celebration.

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Ben Khounsinavong returns a katoke filled with offerings to the kitchen during the Lao New Year celebration.

There's a bit of a traffic jam at the wide doorway to the Humboldt Grange kitchen as men with traditional Lao checked sashes stop to talk — some on their way in to sample the buffet of home-cooked Lao dishes, others carrying full plates. A handful of women, some in bright silk sinh dresses, shift aluminum trays of tart laap salads, crispy fish heads and fried noodles, as children maneuver tongs against stacks of egg rolls and chase slippery coconut jellies with a serving spoon.

After two years of forgoing the annual gathering due to COVID-19, Humboldt's Lao community finally came back together on Saturday, June 4, to celebrate the New Year. While the April celebration is typically held in May in our county owing to the busy schedule of the nine Santa Rosa-based Buddhist monks who preside over the event, this year it came a bit later but, after the hiatus, a couple of weeks hardly seemed to matter.

A grin takes up Danny Sisombath's whole face as he tips his head up to watch the Humboldt County Lao Dancers perform — his daughter Leilani among them — their hand movements telling stories with the music. Like many Lao refugees, he came to the U.S. in the 1980s, later settling in Humboldt and opening the Lao Oriental Market in Henderson Center in 1995. He took on the rotating organizational chairperson role this year, though he stresses that all of the core 20 or so people who put on the event, along with other volunteers, are all equals. He says he's happy to finally have the celebration, which is open to everyone, back at the grange.

Sisombath says people were afraid to gather, even after some restrictions lifted, and hesitant to plan a big gathering amid the uncertainty. It was frustrating. "I felt like, 'COVID, come on. Go away.' I'm so happy today I can have a party." It's also a spiritual duty. "Because we believe in Buddha, we have to follow," he says. Some give their time and labor to make it happen, others donations of money and supplies.

The night before, Sisombath's wife, Kahmphouth, was up late cooking with about 30 others at their home, chopping, prepping and turning out 10 or more dishes of food. Kahmphouth, braving the grange kitchen in a white lace dress, packs up fish for someone at the back counter. "Did you eat? Please eat," she offers waving lightly at the buffet.

Ben Khounsinavong carries a short rattan table — a katoke — crowded with a little of everything. "Food for the Buddha," he says, explaining how the monks bless and eat the offerings. He has been coming every year the New Year celebration has been held, since the 1990s. "This is good. This is what makes me feel good," he says. "Everybody here is like family."

Tiffany Fahomkio stacks up to-go containers of nam kao, tangy fried rice with a mint and few sharp-looking chiles tossed on top. She drove 16 hours from Utah for the celebration. It was worth it, she says, to be together finally and take her 96-year-old grandmother to be blessed.

When the dance performance ends, the girls line up to receive gifts of flowers and cash from relatives and family friends. Later, over the phone, Ampha Mannorind, a Humboldt County Lao Dancers teacher and parent, explains, "Luckily, the girls were already practicing prior to finding out about the New Year," noting there wasn't as much lead time as previous years. Still, it was a relief to have the New Year event back, even if she herself was unable to attend due to COVID exposure. "Honestly, there was just no New Year celebration, at least not here."

Mannorind, who lost her mother in October of 2020, says her family was able to hold a very small funeral under county guidelines and still made food offerings for her on special occasions. But at the New Year celebration at the grange, families line up with their om, pedestal bowls filled with favorite foods and rice for loved ones. To see them all together, talking and shuffling forward for their turn, is to see at once the individuality and universality of loss, the restorative power of caring for one another even in death, and the broader family of a shared community.

"Normally, personal households will do their own practices and praying," says Mannorind. But the community Lao New Year is special, "It means getting together for ... prosperity, blessings. It's disappointing to miss, especially in a time when people needed each other."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal.

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