Cambodian New Year event exposes students to food, culture, tradition

Students were invited to celebrate the Cambodian New Year in Balfour Hood Atrium on Fri., Apr. 12. The event was complete with games, traditional food and blessings from Buddhist monks.

Organized by the student club Campaign for Cambodia, the event was designed “to bring Wheaton students, staff, faculty and residents in the community together” and to “introduce Cambodian culture” to the Wheaton campus.

Although the Western world celebrates the New Year on Jan. 1, Cambodian New Year takes place in April and signifies the end of the harvest season. According to Cambodian beliefs, it is a time when new deities come to Earth to replace the old ones and is closely related to the Buddhist faith.

As Pagna Donlevy ’13, native Cambodian and founder of Campaign for Cambodia, explained, the celebration “allows Cambodian people to relax, have fun and enjoy life.”

New Year festivities last three days. On the first day, people visit their local monastery to offer food to the monks and receive blessings. People wear new clothes and bless each other with water. On the second day, families pay their respect to their ancestors and may ask for blessings from monks for good luck or health for the coming year. On the third day, people bathe Buddha statues in water and children pay respect to their elders by bathing them and washing their feet.

At Wheaton, the celebrations started with Cambodian games. During the New Year in Cambodia, these games would be played by both adults and children in the monastery. Donlevy taught the game “Leak Kanseng.” The game is similar to the American version of “Duck, Duck, Goose” but played with a “kanseng,” or Cambodian towel.

Three monks from a Cambodian Buddhist temple in Rhode Island were also present to give blessings to those present. Students sat on the floor as the monks chanted over scented water and flicked the water over the audience to spread the blessings. Following the ceremony, the monks answered questions about Cambodian New Year and the Buddhist faith. They explained the basic teachings of the religion and the lifestyle they maintain as leaders of Buddhism. Maricielo Solis ’13 noted that she had never seen monks before and that it was “amazing to be able to learn and engage with the culture.”

Home-cooked traditional foods that would be served during a traditional New Year were provided. Rynath Suong, a local Cambodian woman from Attleboro, brought lo mein, stir-fry rice noodles, shrimp rolls, fried rice, curry chicken with sweet potato and chicken soup with bamboo. The meal finished with sweet dumplings in coconut milk. After eating, the monks tied blessing strings and students could wash a statue of Buddha, a practice that is said to bring long life, good luck, happiness and prosperity.

Campaign for Cambodia is a relatively new club on campus. It originated as a cluster theme in Beard Hall and now has 26 members. As a club, it raises money to help girls in Cambodia afford English classes and has recently begun shipping textbooks of all subjects to these girls. The Cambodian New Year event was the first of its kind, and although Donlevy will be graduating this year, she hopes that the future leaders of the club will host the event again