by Bill Keitel
It wafts through the air of my neighborhood and I start to search for its origins. I go from backyard to backyard. The sound I’m hearing could be likened to a bagpipe or harmonica, perhaps more pleasing than either. I find my Lao friend & he has a talent that I’ve never known about. Kampau is the elder of his family and he is playing an instrument called a khen. It’s an instrument that is made of many lengths of bamboo and a gourd located midsection. The khen is approximately three feet tall and it produces a sound that is completely ethereal. As I listen to his song I think of his journey and his flight from his homeland. I have glimmers of his harrowing experience as told through his children. His khen conjures up an image of a land far away. Eventually the music stops and he looks down from his porch and I politely applaud. He seems a bit uncomfortable with this adulation and goes back into his house. I never again see or hear him play the khen . It will be another twenty years before I am priviledged to hear him perform.
The twenty years have past and Kampau now is the grandfather, his children have grown and have families of their own. They have made a home for themselves on the east end of our community. Through out the year we have been invited to various celebrations including a traditional Lao wedding. Today we are attending a grandchild’s 7th birthday party. The families live close together and their backyards join each others, Kampau’s daughter smiles and tells me its just like “little Laos” .
Food is cooking , stews are stewing & salads fill large containers. Kampau’s son-in-law is grilling pork ribs or something of the sort. I ask him about the other things I’m seeing on the grill that I can’t identify. Though he is fluent in English….even after twenty five years in this country….he can’t quite come up with the word for what I am pointing to. Beef ribs?…no pork ribs? no…..then he smiles and grabs his cheek and and shakes it. I laugh…..the word he is searching for is ” hog jowls”! Ooooh, I graciously save them for the other party goers.
I brought a guitar and play a birthday tune for the party girl, they all seem quite entertained. Kampau then leaves and comes back a few minutes later with his khen. After a two decade absence, we are treated to his music. The air is filled with the sound of the khen. As he plays, I look about and see three generations that have flourished, far from their homeland. I recall stories of them fleeing Laos on elephant back,.. losing children along the way. They have created a new homeland of their own and have invited us to be apart of it.
A small community that was once the most homogeneous place in the mid west, is now home to dozens of different immigrants. My Lao friends show generosity and invite the Karen people to their party. The “Karen” are refugees from Burma and have recently arrived in our community.
We say “mengaliba” it means hello in Karen, we say “simbai dee ” in Laos, it means hello. It produces smiles on everyones faces. All of this means much much more…..it means we value them, it means we appreciate their presence in our community.
We witness ongoing generational assimilation of new peoples to our community. Most of the Karen still wear traditional dress. We will regret the day when they show up in blue jeans.