This article is fourth in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of Southeast Asian refugees in the United States. Material for this article about the Khmhu* from Laos came from reports submitted by Rev. Donald MacKinnon, CSSR of the Khmmu* Catholic Ministry in Oakland, California and by Catechist Alex B. Panhguay of The Lao Communities' Center in Seattle, Washington. Rev. Jerry Orsino, OMI, a missionary to Indochinese people for over thirty years, also contributed to this article.
The Khmhu are native mountain people from northern Laos; they are descendents of the Mon-Khmer peoples who migrated to Asia from the islands of the Pacific. They spread throughout Thailand, Vietnam, and south China, with the main concentration in northern Laos, where they number one-third of the poulation. There, they were oppressed and used as slaves by the majority culture of Lao, and were forbidden educational opportunities. As a result, the Khmhu did not develop their own written language; their spoken language resembles that of the Cambodians.
Most Khmhu in Laos practice animism; however, approximately 5,000 or five percent of the population is Catholic. When a child is born, the Khmhu believe that there is a strong magical force that protects the child and the family. After one month, the child is considered a human being--no longer an angel--and a party is held to celebrate this stage in development. The month-old infant is given a necklace, blessed by a shaman, which will protect the child from evil spirits. Many gifts (usually clothing) are given by friends and relatives at the party and at other times. There is usually no birthday celebration in following years.
Some Khmhu Americans arrange marriages for their children, but most parents permit the young people to choose their own partners. In Laos, the wedding ceremony may be held only after the New Year's harvesting in the fall or before spring arrives. The shaman or elder of the community leads the wedding ceremony consisting of the tying of the bride's and groom's hands. This signifies the couple's being bound together for life and being bound to the community. Once the ceremony is complete, the groom moves into the bride's family house, and stays with the parents until the first two or three children are born, when they may be able to start their own home. In America, newlyweds can choose to move out on their own because they do not have to rely on their parents.
In Laos, when death occurs, the body is placed in the home for several days to be viewed by family and villagers. People eat and play games to keep the family awake to protect them and the deceased body from evil ghosts. In the United States, Khmhu hold a two- or three-day ceremony during which the family stays awake with food and games. Traditionally, when a person dies and is ready to be buried, the body is carried out the door feet first. The dead are buried with all their belongings, or they are gotten rid of so the family will not be reminded of the dead. In a marriage, when one or other of the couple dies, the remaining spouse moves out and finds a new place to live. After one month and for every year following, the family goes to the cemetery with flowers and food. It is believed that the dead have a connection to God, so if the family has problems they go to the cemetery to pray and ask the dead person's spirit to help.
Since 1976, almost 2,000 Khmhu have come to the United States by way of refugee camps in Thailand with the other Southeast Asian political refugees fleeing the Communist regime. It is estimated that half of these are Catholic, although some have lost their faith since they came to this country, converting instead to Protestant sects.
When the Khmhu landed in the United States, it was as if they had traveled in a time machine. One day they were in the fields; the next day they were in the most modern civilization. In order to survive in America, they had to adapt to the new culture, language, and lifestyle. What Americans value--aggressiveness, individualism, independence, and education--are in sharp contrast with the Khmhu traditions. The Khmhu are generally passive people, simple and family-oriented including their extended family. One can only imagine the turmoil and commotion each family faces , along with the loss of the defined family structure, in coming to the United States.
The largest concentrations of Khmhu in the United States live in Oakland and Stockton, California (where Rev. Donald MacKinnon and Sister Diane Smith respectively minister), in Seattle, Washington (where Catechist Panhguay ministers), and in Ft. Worth, Texas (where Catechist Kham Set ministers). There are also scattered communities in other parts of the country.
Despite the hardships endured in recent years and the difficulties caused by their relocation to the United States, the Khmhu continue to nurture and maintain their language, music, arts and crafts, and traditional folklife. At the same time, respect and appreciation for their culture and traditions strengthen them as a community and as individuals. They understand that in order to make the United States truly their home, they must assimilate to the new culture, adopting the good aspects of the lifestyle here. They are committed to empowering and educating themselves and their children to live a life of responsibility, integrity and hope.
For further information, or for religious materials suitable for Khmhu, contact Rev. Donald MacKinnon, CSSR, Khmmu Catholic Ministry, P.O. Box 5007, Oakland, CA 94605, phone: (510) 653-6342; or Catechist Alex B. Panhguay, The Lao Communities' Center, 1531 Bradner Place South, Seattle, WA 98144, phone: (206) 328-2644.
* Various spellings are prevalent in this country: Khmhu, Khmmu, Kammu.