Chinese New Year is taken quite seriously in Cambodia

Taking care of our ancestors are, from left, our new friend Barbara, the family's youngest, Mai, and me.

Honoring our ancestors are, from left, our new Canadian friend Barbara (whose husband was traveling for work), 17-year-old Mai (the family’s youngest) and me.

On the sidewalks outside stores and schools, in front of homes and in private settings, Cambodians of Chinese extraction paid tribute to their ancestors Thursday on the eve of the Chinese New Year.

Fires burned in small containers, and the pretty unpleasant odor of paper being consumed was inescapable in Phnom Penh.  To ensure that their dead parents, grandparents and all those who came before have wealth in the afterlife, they prayed and dropped wads of fake cash into the flames.

It is a touching ceremony that speaks to a strong Buddhist tradition here and a Chinese heritage that a friend estimates at 70 percent of the population, though I have no confidence in that number and am certain it varies from the cities to the farms.

To me, the difference is striking from my admittedly narrow impression of how Chinese New Year is celebrated in New York and undoubtedly other Chinatowns; I guess I wasn’t there at the right time.  Dancing, dragons and fireworks are an integral part of the holiday, but I didn’t happen to witness them here.

Chinese New Year 2

In any case, we spent the afternoon Thursday with the family 0f five we call “ours.”  They were insistent that we show up by lunchtime, where we were impressed by a lavish feast on the dining table, praying at an altar, offerings in a spirit house and that burning of money.

Much of the food has symbolic meaning, whether red-colored watermelon seeds or certain vegetables, said to bring luck, happiness or wealth or, presumably, all of them.

I was pleased to participate in the money ritual and also beyond moved to hear the family’s wife and mother say how much she appreciated my presence.  Leng is in her mid-40s, the lone survivor in her family of the Khmer Rouge.  Her mother died of starvation despite the daughter’s literally carrying her on an unforgivably long trek during the Pol Pot regime’s incomprehensible terror.

Chinese New Year 3

The family’s spirit house with New Year offerings.

My being there, Leng said, was the first time she had someone old — yep, her word in Cambodian — at the table, someone who took the place of the parents she had lost.  (As I write this, I confess to a tear of gratitude mixed with a sense of her grief.)

Traffic was notably lighter as the holiday approached Thursday, stores closed early and folks undertook to welcome the New Year with haircuts, new clothing and other activities of which I am ignorant.

There is a tradition of children heading home, even from far away, for this holiday.  So the family’s grown children will not be straying far from their parents today.  Maybe I’ll be able to witness the more raucous celebrations tomorrow.

But meantime. . .

Gong Hei Fat Choy


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