By Samantha Pak
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Within the Puget Sound area’s Cambodian community, cultural events are typically held at local Buddhist temples.
Attendees are almost exclusively of Cambodian descent, with very few non-Cambodians in attendance (if any) without a direct connection to the community.
Tacoma City Councilmember Joe Bushnell grew up attending many of those community events at the temples in Tacoma, but he and others are hoping to expand the culture beyond the temples with the upcoming Khmer New Year event at Asia Pacific Cultural Center (APCC). The event will be from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on April 1—a couple weeks ahead of the actual Cambodian New Year, which is celebrated April 13-14—at APCC (4851 S. Tacoma Way in Tacoma).
Bushnell joined the event’s planning committee about six months ago when Dareth Pak, APCC’s program manager for cultural programs, approached him. In addition to his role on the committee, Bushnell said as a Tacoma city councilmember, he was also able to secure $10,000 for the event from a council contingency fund, which is allocated for council members to use toward special projects and outreach work that aren’t directly sponsored by the city.
Part of a bigger, strategic plan
The new year event is part of APCC’s strategic plan to host cultural days for all 47 Asian and Pacific nations the organization represents. Executive Director Faaluaina Pritchard said Saturday’s event kicks off things for 2023 and they have cultural days planned for six more countries: Vietnam (April 15), Korea (May 6), Thailand (June 3), Samoa (July 23-29), Philippines (Oct. 21), and India (Nov. 11). APCC will also host its annual Polynesian luau on Aug. 26, and a Korean ChuSeok Festival on Sept. 23 and 30.
While the goal is to host 47 cultural days, Pritchard said it’s up to each community to know when they are ready to organize such an event. And each cultural day looks different as members from those communities plan the events themselves and decide what activities to include.
Saturday’s event will include activities that hold cultural significance to the Cambodian community, such as a monks’ blessing. There will also be food booths for attendees to enjoy, retail vendors featuring Khmer small businesses, as well as karaoke/singing and bok la hong (papaya salad) contests.
Pritchard said this will be the first APCC cultural day for the Cambodian community. The Vietnamese and Indian communities will also hold their first cultural days this year.
A whole day to teach and learn
As an organization, APCC’s mission is to “bridge communities and generations through art, culture, education, and business.” Although they’re based in Tacoma, Pritchard said they serve the entire state—working in schools, government, businesses, the military, and more. But there’s only so much they can teach and educate others during short 15-30-minute sessions.
This is where the cultural days come in as they give people an entire day to teach and to learn. The goal is to teach folks—especially the younger generation—who they are, as well as for people outside of these communities to learn about other cultures.
“You can’t deal with me unless you know who I am,” Pritchard said, adding, “Lack of knowledge is dangerous.” She said this ignorance could lead to misconceptions, stereotypes, hatred, racism, and in some cases, violence.
More than one way to be Cambodian
For Bushnell, Saturday is also an opportunity to build up the community and support fellow Cambodians, as well as educate the broader population on the culture. He looks to other groups and communities doing this type of work in a more formal and organized fashion as inspiration.
“Of course we can do this, too,” he said about the Cambodian community.
In addition, Bushnell said he’s also looking forward to seeing the diversity of people. As someone who is mixed race, he said there is not just one way of being Cambodian. It’s important to think about the whole Cambodian diaspora. For example, he said, not all Cambodians can speak Khmer, but there are many other ways to connect with the community. And he hopes the Khmer New Year helps show this.
“[The community] needs something like this,” Bushnell said.