While Cambodians celebrated the 15-day Pchum Ben festival, which culminated this past Wednesday, their fellow nationals kept the tradition going around the globe. We heard the stories of two.
Much of life is very different for the Cambodians who have made their home in Lyon, France. But one Pchum Ben custom remains a constant: food, and conversation about it, in abundance.
Darasy Chukmol, one of the more than 200 Cambodians who took part in celebrations held in Lyon and organised by the local Khmer Association, said the best moment of the holiday was the Pchum Ben day meal.
“While we were eating, my neighbours never stopped asking: ‘Do you want some dessert?’; ‘You want to taste my soup?’; ‘I made the cakes myself, take some for your house,” said Chukmol, who has no family in the town apart from her husband, who is also Cambodian.
As is the tradition, Cambodians presented food to some gathered monks in hopes that the offerings would be shared with dead ancestors. The plenitude of dishes set before only three monks left some of the French guests a little bewildered.
“What’s the reason for? Is it a waste? They will have to understand that we have a different culture,” she added.
While she never misses the chance to celebrate Khmer New Year or Pchum Ben, Chukmol, who was born in Phnom Penh, worries that living so far from Cambodia means that some of the festival traditions will be lost.
“We can see that customs and traditions change step by step,” she said. “We respect less our own Buddhist customs – everyone has their own way of practising, more or less correct.”
“When I saw the whole ceremony, I missed my hometown and my family in Cambodia.”
San Jose, California
California is a long way from Cambodia, but Raksmey Seng and her family celebrate Pchum Ben in the city of San Jose in much the same way as they did before emigrating to the US a decade ago.
Every year, they prepare food and flowers to take to a pagoda as an offering to the monks and ancestors to bring good fortune to the family.
“[This week], my mom prepared food and rice cakes for the monks, and we woke up very early to pray for ghosts who have no family in the pagoda,” the 24-year-old said over the telephone from the US.
“Then we went to the pagoda. There are a few pagodas here, and three are close to our area, but we only went to one.
“In my pagoda, there are about 200 people and most of them are Cambodian.
“There are almost no foreigners, but there are a few Vietnamese who come to celebrate in the Khmer pagoda.”
Seng, who was born in Phnom Penh, said a lot of second-generation Cambodians – not just those born in Cambodia – carried on their parents’ traditions.
“They follow their parents to celebrate Khmer traditional ceremonies in the same way as people in Cambodia,” she said.
“The [first-generation] Cambodians celebrate most of the traditional ceremonies, and the young generations learn, follow and keep the culture and religion belief alive.
“The way we celebrate here is almost the same as in Cambodia, because they tried to bring as much materials as they did in Cambodia, so people in the States have a similar experience when they celebrate.”