Forget mistletoe, ring in the Hmong New Year
Sacramento’s annual event mixes dating rituals with flag football and sticky rice
The winter holidays bring with them a strong connotation of family. It is a jolly celebration at times, a painful or smelly ordeal at others. But the one family matter that’s probably not on your list of concerns: finding a mate. (Okay, maybe for New Year’s Eve.)
At the Hmong New Years celebration that takes over Cal Expo’s fairgrounds every November, finding a spouse is clutch. Along with feasting, sharing intricate crafts and celebrating the year’s hard work, traditional New Year’s for the Hmong people meant a time for courtship.
After the last rice harvest of the year, the Hmong people scattered across Laos, China and Thailand would leave their isolated homes and come together for an extravaganza of sticky rice, singing and swapping handcrafted wares. Think Top Chef meets New York Fashion Week meets America’s Got Talent. For many Hmong, New Year’s was their only break from work and chance for pure socializing all year. It was also an excuse for both sexes to wear the intricate clothing they spent all year sewing, the cultural equivalent of splurging on Nike’s self-lacing sneakers to wear to Thanksgiving dinner.
“It is a reason, like Halloween or prom, to wear the outfits you have collected,” says Sonny Khang, the marketing co-director for Sacramento’s Hmong New Year.
For the unmarried partygoers, it was an opportunity to impress a forever mate.
“If you’re a good sewer, and fast enough, you have an outfit to wear for the courtship,” Khang says. He declined to say what happens if you’re not.
Traditional courtship started with a boy tossing a ball to a girl in what must have been the most-anticipated game of catch (pun intended) in any Hmong kid’s life. Assuming his strong arm and nimble fingers impressed the girl, she would toss it back and start a high-stakes game of catch where the loser had to serenade the winner, therefore breaking the ice and starting a dialogue between the future lovers.
“It is a typical Romeo and Juliet story,” Khang says.
Some things even time and distance cannot change. While Snapchat may have diminished the need for sewing skills in our datingsphere, even modern Hmong celebrations maintain the elaborate fashions, ball games and musicality of their ancestors. Of course, there are some notable exceptions, like the introduction of the Walkman in the ’90s for young people to play favorite hits rather than sing. Or the year a barbecue restaurant from Montana joined Sacramento’s festival, pushing the cultural envelope a bit.
“The new generation of [Hmong] Americans speak their own language,” Khang says. “Once you can’t speak the traditional language, you lose a bit of that history. The whole purpose of the festival is to preserve it.”
Sacramento, which is home to the second-highest concentration of Hmong people in the United States, also boasts one of the nation’s largest celebrations. For the past 12 years, Hmong families, culturally curious guests, vendors, artisans and sports teams have deluged the fairgrounds with an extravaganza that’s equal parts farmers market and Miss America pageant. It combines the collective culture of our city’s 18 Hmong clans into four days of sporting events like flag football, singing competitions, food carts heavy with sticky rice and barbequed meats, and a pageant to crown the next Miss Hmong California. If escaping tired-out traditions or finding one-of-a-kind gifts are your goals, this is your place.
Hmong New Year is open to the public and you could easily go just for the spicy papaya salad. But those considering a visit might benefit from insider advice from Khang: “Even if you love the food, it’s a little boring to sit and eat by yourself. Bring your family.”
It comes back to that: family. Hmong New Year isn’t too different from the mass-celebrated winter holidays after all the gifting conundrums, TSA lines, burnt Tofurkies and tense political discussions are stripped away.
“My favorite part is watching the families come in,” Khang says. “You can smell the food in the air and hear the folk songs. It brings the older people back to the time when they were younger.”
“At the end of the day, when everyone has to go home, the older people always want to stay and talk.”
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