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In holiday celebrations, Laotians adapt, adopt

Soom Chandaswang stands at a booth about her homeland of Laos during the Culture Corner holiday event Friday at Minnesota West. Chandaswang and her family have merged some of their Lao culture with Christian traditions like Christmas. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — When Soom Chandaswang and her family relocated to Worthington as refugees from Laos in 1989, she didn’t understand the English language, and American customs were simply confusing.

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Born and raised to age 8 in a refugee camp in Thailand, Chandaswang recalled being confused when she started school as a first-grader and her teacher told her they were going to have a gift exchange for Christmas.

“The whole idea of having Christmas was different — it was new to us,” she said. “People just told me I had to bring a gift. I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t understand.”

Chandaswang said her dad bought a gift and then, not knowing how to wrap it, covered it in paper and sealed it with duct tape.

She laughs about the memory now, recalling how difficult it was for the recipient to unwrap it.

“My brothers and I saw it on TV — what a gift was supposed to look like and how to wrap it,” Chandaswang said. “Ever since, we’ve adapted to the American culture.”

While the Lao traditions of her parents are still very much a part of her life — the family attends the Lao Buddhist Temple near Worthington — she said their culture’s greatest celebration is in April, with the coming of the Lao New Year.

“For the temple, they bring singers from different parts of the state and have a big show — a concert,” she explained.

The New Year’s celebration is on a Saturday, with vendors selling clothing, food and music all a part of the day. On Sunday, the Laotians gather for the religious celebration, offering food to the monks and conducting a ceremony.

This time of year, however, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Lao people celebrate Bun Pha Wet, a temple-oriented festival in which the jataka or birth-tale of Prince Vessantara, the Buddha’s penultimate life, is recited. In Laos, the celebration takes place on different days in each village.

“In Laos, since the weather is tropical … you have a celebration at the temple and do an offering to the monks,” Chandaswang said.

Other celebrations throughout the year in Laos are in honor of the country’s agricultural heritage. Festivals are conducted to celebrate rice harvest and also the planting of seeds.

Having spent her early years in the refugee camp, Chandaswang never had a chance to participate in such celebrations.

“At the refugee camp there was nothing,” she said. “It was more about survival. Living there wasn’t a good experience.”

In all, Chandaswang’s family lived in the Thailand refugee camp for 15 years. When they received refugee status, she joined her parents and four of her eight siblings on the journey to the United States. Her first experience in a temple was in the Philippines, where the family spent six months between refugee life and the move to America.

Prior to settling in Worthington, they spent three or four months in Sioux City, Iowa, where one of Chandaswang’s uncles resided.

Today, most of Chandaswang’s family is in Worthington. An older sister who married in the refugee camp was granted refugee status to come to the U.S. within a year after Chandaswang, while another older sister received refugee status in Canada, and remains there with her family.

On Thanksgiving, nearly 50 members of Chandaswang’s family gathered in celebration. Merging their Lao culture with American tradition, they served turkey, ham, sticky rice, hot sauce, noodle dishes and pumpkin pie.

Those traditions will again be merged on Dec. 25, when most Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth.

“We do a gift exchange, a big feast and get-together,” Chandaswang said. “We do all that, just not on the religious end of it. It’s the giving and the sharing.”

Just as Chandaswang’s family found a way to merge their culture and traditions with those of the U.S., so, too, did Chandaswang’s husband, Khunteuang, and his family.

“His family grew up the way we did — adapting to the traditions,” said Chandaswang, the integration program manager for Nobles County Integration Collaborative. “It was perfect when we got together — everybody was used to the same stuff.”

Incidentally, Chandaswang and her husband both were born and raised for a portion of their childhood in the refugee camps in Thailand. They didn’t know each other until meeting one day in Worthington.

Married for 10 years, they don’t have children. Chandaswang said if they do some day, she hopes the kids will put their own twist on the holiday celebrations.

“It’s always good to stick to your roots and know where you came from and how (traditions) are celebrated over there, and how we adapt to how it is done here,” she said.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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