Laotian New Year comes to U campus

Ryan Dionne

After being born in a concentration camp, Nome Xaphakdy, president of the Lao Student Association, immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 5 years old.

Her family fled communist-controlled Laos to live in a crowded refugee camp for two years before moving to the United States, she said.

But even after living in the United States for 18 years, Xaphakdy said, she still has a strong tie to her Laotian heritage.

It is important to preserve our Laotian identity, she said, and that’s why the Lao Student Association organized a New Year celebration.

The 14th annual Lao New Year celebration took place Sunday in Coffman Union’s Great Hall.

Approximately 150 students and community members attended the celebration.

The celebration usually takes place in mid-April, lasting three days, said Vira Xaphakdy, a University alumna and one of the association’s past presidents.

Though the exact dates vary every year – depending on the lunar calendar – this year’s celebration took place Thursday through Saturday, she said.

On the first day, Laotians often sprinkle water on one another and clean their Buddhist statues with perfumes to bless them, Vira Xaphakdy said.

“(It’s) to get rid of the old sins from the previous year,” she said, and to cast good luck on the coming year.

The second day, families usually make offerings to monks at temples, and children give gifts to their elders to show respect, she said.

The third day of the festival is spent eating, dancing and celebrating, Vira Xaphakdy said.

Sunday night’s celebration started with a traditional “baci” ceremony, in which people tie white string around a friend or family member’s wrist to bless them.

It’s a way of wishing someone luck for the coming year, Vira Xaphakdy said.

After that, traditional food, such as pad thai, chicken stir fry, red curry, squid salad, rice and shrimp chips were served.

People performed Laotian dances, and a fashion show displayed customary clothes.

Nome Xaphakdy said Laotian students are very underrepresented.

“We want to share our culture with everyone else too,” she said.

This year, organizers added a hip-hop show and featured a student rap artist.

For first-time attendees such as Augsburg College sophomore Jenny Saycocie, the event was a learning opportunity.

Saycocie said she hasn’t learned a lot of the Laotian cultural traditions from her parents, so attending events like the Lao New Year celebration is fun.

Unlike some Laotian students, Saycocie was born in the United States and is “Americanized,” she said.

“I think it’s important to know where you come from,” she said.