Many Cambodians arrived in America not long after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, one of history’s most brutal and ruthless regimes.
That was in 1979.
To this day, Cambodians continue to make an effort to keep many of their traditions and beliefs alive — far, far away from their homeland. This year, it’s no different for the people behind the Stockton Cambodian Buddhist Temple, or Wat Dhammararam in Khmer, the Cambodian language.
The temple, located at 3732 Carpenter Road in Stockton, will hold its annual Cambodian New Year celebration on April 15-17 that includes religious ceremonies and traditional customs, dances, games and foods. Expect the temple to stay open from dawn to dusk during those days.
Other temples across California and the U.S. will celebrate the holiday during the Year of the Monkey.
Traditionally, the three-day event marks the end of the harvesting season, when farmers enjoy the fruits of their labors before the rainy season begins. This year, worshipers believe a mythical angel known as Mondar Tevy will enter homes and temples at 8 p.m. April 13 to bring in the New Year.
Worshipers build temporary shrines filled with flowers, fruits, biscuits, incenses and candles to welcome her. Every year, it is believed that a different angel commences the holiday.
In America, however, Cambodians tend to celebrate the New Year on the weekends as a way to keep their heritage alive while having the younger Cambodians — who are usually American-born with limited knowledge of the upbringings of their parents and grandparents — experience it firsthand.
“We're trying to keep these traditions alive, definitely,” said Lee Inn, a member of the Wat Dhammararam Buddhist Association Inc. board. He is also the president of the temple’s advertising department. “If they don't continue or just don't have too much concern about it, you actually will fade out. That's my fear the most. Even the temple, I'm afraid it's going to fade out too.”
The Stockton temple — considered one of the largest in America — was established in 1982 to honor Theravada Buddhism, the more conservative of the two major branches in the religion that is practiced mainly in other Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, Burma/Myanmar and Laos.
Three years earlier, the Khmer Rouge regime fell in Cambodia. Headed by dictator Pol Pot, the regime is responsible for the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians through starvation, executions, torture and work exhaustion during a four-year period. Shortly after, large waves of Cambodians started arriving in America.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 276,000 Cambodians in America with most of them in California and Massachusetts. Stockton has the fifth-biggest population of Cambodians at about 12,500, while there are nearly 4,000 Cambodians in Modesto.
Many of them find refugee every year at the Stockton temple, which is known for its more than 90 colorful, larger-than-life jewel-encrusted statues that illustrate the life and times of the Cambodian Buddha. Those statues will be hard to miss for visitors of the temple during its New Year festivities, which include special dishes and traditional games.
Look out for a cake called kralan, which is made of steamed rice, beans, grated coconut and coconut milk and stuffed inside a slowly roasted bamboo stick at one of 80 food and merchandise vendors. Nearby, children might be seen playing Leak Kanseng (closest translation: Hide the Towel), which is similar to Duck, Duck, Goose expect that a child places a towel behind someone’s back and runs around the circle to the open spot before he or she is playfully tagged by the towel.
One New Year custom involves pouring a mixture of water and chalk power on elderly people for good luck.
These traditions, Inn said, seem to be fading as the older generations are dying and the younger people continue to become Americanized. He hopes Cambodian children and young adults can take the time to appreciate one of his culture’s biggest yearly celebrations; the other is Pchum Ben, a 15-day festival later in the year that honors deceased relatives.
“By attending ceremonies regularly, you will learn,” he said.