Hmong New Year

photo courtesy of Krista Tani

Enjoying the Hmong New Year

| published December 14, 2015 |

By Krista Tani, Thursday Review contributor

There are people crammed into every nook and cranny. Most are decked out in their best Hmong outfit, so the whole place is alive with color. Parents are having trouble keeping elaborate hats on their kids’ heads as they migrate between the carnival-like game tents and the snack tents. Everyone is taking pictures of everyone else and there are smiles everywhere. It’s Hmong New Year.

Laos is an incredibly diverse place, being home to over one hundred ethnic groups. The Lao ethnic group composes the majority and the Hmong ethnic group is one of the next largest (Hmong people can also be found in Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and other countries). I teach English and many of my students belong to ethnic minorities. For them, English is usually their third or fourth language. My Hmong students are incredibly proud of their heritage and they love trying to teach me words in the Hmong language. Its sounds and its alphabet are completely different from the Lao language and it’s so fun to hear them switch seamlessly between Hmong, Lao and English.
Hmong New Year

In the week leading up to Hmong New Year, just about every Hmong person I talked with said something like, “Okay, so we will go celebrate Hmong New Year together, right?” I love how much they love sharing their culture and how much they wanted me to be a part of it too. I was disappointed that I couldn’t actually go with all of them, but I shouldn’t have worried—with the number of people milling around at the festival, I ended up running into them anyways.

Hmong New Year is celebrated sometime in December, with each village choosing their own dates. On Thursday night, families gather for a special dinner that features a chicken that has been ceremoniously killed and prepared. The festival takes place over the weekend and the whole village shows up to play games, eat food, take pictures…and toss balls.

During the festival, young people line up in two long rows and toss a small, tennis-sized ball back and forth with a partner. Traditionally, they use this as a chance to flirt with the guy or girl that catches their eye. I’m confused about whether you’re supposed to toss the ball with the person you’re interested in, or if you’re supposed to toss it with your friend and stand next to the person you’re interested in, but either way it’s fun to watch. There are also plenty of people who aren’t looking for a date and just toss it with their friends. Supposedly if you drop the ball, you’re supposed to sing a song, but I’ve yet to see that threat actually carried out.

After tossing the ball a few times with my friends, they whisked me off to a photo booth where you can also rent Hmong outfits and insisted that I don a bright yellow one complete with jingly coin belts and an intricate silver necklace. I was already taller than a majority of the people there, and with my huge, yellow, bead-encrusted headdress, I looked and felt a little like Big Bird. I spent the next two hours being gawked at.

Every few minutes, a random stranger stopped to get a photo with the tall, gangly foreigner dressed up in a Hmong outfit. It was entertaining at first, then exhausting. But in the end, it was more than worth it to see the huge smiles on my Hmong friends’ faces as they walked around and showed me off. I love that I get to see so much diversity on a daily basis and I’m thankful for my friends who wanted to share their culture with me.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Tad Sae Waterfall, Tuk Tuks, Boats & Elephants; Krista Tani; Thursday Review; October 11, 2015.

That Time I Locked a Student in My House; Krista Tani; Thursday Review; June 7, 2015.