Between Two Worlds: Untold Stories of Lao Refugees
Sunday March 1, 2020 at the Richmond Museum of History & Culture
On Sunday, March 1, 2020, the Richmond Museum of History & Culture collaborated with the Center for Lao Studies of the traveling exhibit, “Between Two Worlds: Untold Stories of Lao Refugees”, to host an opening reception unlike any we’ve had. Despite a couple ominous rain clouds that loomed over the museum and gusty winds, the day was bright with a subtle buzz of excitement that connected all staff and volunteers during our final moments of preparations. This was a reception that embraced history and tradition; inviting guests to reflect on the past as a means to see towards the future.
It was not long before guests started to funnel in through our courtyard gates. All were greeted with a free reception bag and welcomed to enjoy refreshments, treats, and a plate (or two) of food from the numerous large platters of Lao cuisine generously donated by Champa Garden and the Center for Lao Studies.
Led by our master of ceremonies, Tony Phouanenavong, we officially started our program with a Baci Blessing ceremony; a practice used to call back the 52 different souls that the Lao believe are housed in each of our bodies. The absence of any one of these souls leads to illness, depression and many other ailements. Golden in color, a small altar stood on a mat in our courtyard. The altar was carefully prepared beforehand; dressed with greenery, dried marigolds and featured bundles of white yarn, fruit, and snacks. As ceremony leader, Mr. Jiangkhamhe approached the altar the audience suppressed their side conversations, bowing their heads in silence. A prayer hummed through all for a calm and still ten minutes. Now blessed and charged, pieces of white yarn from the altar were distributed among guests and tied around wrists. Three days, that’s how long the strings remained on our individual wrists; allowing ample time for all souls to return. The strings bound our newly returned souls to our bodies.
Representing a brave ancestral warrior, Mr. Alan Keosaeng followed the Baci ceremony with a traditional Khmu* Sword Dance, used to clear spaces of negative energies. With a sword in each hand, Keosaeng gracefully balanced them above and around him, dancing as he occasionally clashed the two. With the vibrations of each clash, he cleared negative energy through space. [*Lao ethnic group]
Guest speakers of the program included Melinda McCrary (Richmond Museum Executive Director), Dr. Phoumy Syavong (member of the Between Two Worlds curatorial team), Vinya Sysamouth (Center of Lao Studies Executive Director), and Richmond Khmu community member and Asian Pacific Environmental Network organizer (APEN), Torm Nompraseurt.
Mr. Nompraseurt’s speech which recounts his observations as experiences as Richmond’s first Lao refugee. It did not take Nompraseurt long after arriving in California in 1978 before he began dedicating any free time he had to invest back into his community, both in Lao and in America. Nompraseurt journey made it possible for many more Lao refugees to find a new home in Richmond, California. With decades of community, he is also a long time APEN community organizer working towards equity and environmental justice.
The Between Two Words: Untold Stories of Refugees from Laos (B2W) is a project of the Center for Lao Studies. It is made possible with the generous support from The McConnell Foundation, Turtle Bay Exploration Park, California Humanities, and Central Valley Community Foundation.