Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chin National Day and ‘American Family’ Values

Ever go to an event hosted by a culture different from your own but feel out of place because of the way people looked (or didn’t look) at you? Well, the Chin National Day celebration is definitely not one of those events. Chin National Day (CND) is an annual holiday among the Chin people from Burma and Burmese-Americans that celebrates democracy, unity and cultural identity. As I understand it, CND initially focused solely on the political aspect of the Chin people but over the years has broadened to emphasize the cultural aspect of being Chin.

The CND celebration I attended was marked by prayer, commentary, entertainment and lots of food. It’s a family-oriented affair attended by young and old alike. The evening’s festivities were simple in production yet culturally rich and colorful – with many folks dressed in traditional Chin attire. Think ‘family reunion’ with a fashion theme, except that several hundred folks you don’t even know are there. As an outsider, it was enlightening to observe the ethnic traditions presented in the form of music, dancing and other performances.

Despite the large audience, the event held a uniquely intimate feel. Since I arrived late and theater seating was limited, I made my way to the rear of the auditorium where dining tables were set up. The atmosphere back there was less formal and from where I sat, not only could I enjoy the program on stage, I was able to immerse myself in the Burmese-American community. What I took away from it all was most instructive.

For instance, you know how gatherings comprised of relatives that relaxed and comfortable feeling (that is, before the black sheep of the family arrives), and how even the smallest kids roam wild and free and parents tend not to fret about where they are or what they’re doing? That same spirit was present at CND. Adults watched over and interacted with youngsters doing their high-energy thing. Not out of control; just exploring and discovering.

As I observed the warm and inclusive scene, absent was that, ‘keep-your-distance-I-don’t-know-you’ posture found at other social affairs. In its place was more of a, ‘you felt our culture was significant enough to be here? Thanks for coming!’.

As one might expect, some of the teenagers were brash and rambunctious. There also were the obligatory babies crying. Still, the underpinnings of the event were rooted along a common thread of unity – among human beings as much as Burmese-Americans in harmony. This is not to suggest these particular folks lead a quixotic existence. Far from it. I am told that, as with most communities, Burmese-Americans are steeped in their share of internal discord. But all of it was absent (at least from an outsider perspective) from this event, and it felt nourishing to be a part of this festive and engaging energy.

By contrast, more than a few local events I go to tend to be standoffish – including some that I am host to. And although most participating folks work hard to be polite, a person still can come away feeling like an outsider. It’s as if folks are avoiding really getting to know each other by ironically being as polite as possible.

After experiencing the good will ‘family’ feeling associated with the CND celebration, I wonder what’s happened to those of us born here to have acquired or adopted a posture in which we tend to regard each other with such suspicion these days. Or has it always been like this?

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