Sharing a week of cultural education, music, stories and more to usher in the Year of the Horse.
If you're at all new in the community, you may have wondered just how it is that so many Southeast Asian people came to live and work in Storm Lake and Iowa through the years.
This week brings several opportunities to hear the stories, listen to the music, experience the dances and games, taste the food and sample the fun that are all part of the culture of the Tai Dam, Lao and other Southeast Asians here.
All the events Tuesday through Saturday are free and open to the public in celebration of the traditional Chinese New Year.
"We would like to invite all our friends in the community and others who want to know more about our history and culture," said Xuyen Lovan, who is coordinator this year for the Tai Dam Traditional New Year Committee.
"We've organized a variety of events to explain who we are and how we came here," she continued. "These are stories that are important even for our own children to hear. They're growing up as American as all the other kids in town and don't really know a lot of these things."
There are 20 to 25 Tai Dam families in Storm Lake. Their homeland was in an area of what today is in northwest Vietnam. There are Southeast Asians here from a half-dozen other countries, with a total population of Asian people in the Storm Lake near 1,500.
The most festive part of the week-long celebration will be the New Year's dinner, party and dance from 5 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, March 2, at the Knights of Columbus Hall, with dancing to the New Moon Band from Des Moines.
There is no charge Saturday night, but donations will be accepted. There are free door prizes and raffle tickets are being sold for merchandise, meals and opportunities given by Storm Lake businesses.
A special guest will be Rose Vasquez, director of the Iowa Department of Human Rights, who has long been a fan of multi-cultural activities in Storm Lake.
Earlier in the week, there will be a series of "Community Conversations" at 7 p.m.on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and at 3 p.m. on Saturday, all at the Southeast Asian Community Christian Church at 815 E. Fifth Street.
Chuck Offenburger, a journalist living in Storm Lake, will serve as moderator for those hour-long conversations, with free tea and coffee being served during and afterward.
"I'll just be helping draw out some stories from our Southeast Asian people that I think are important for everybody to know," Offenburger said. "From the friends I've made in our minority communities, I've heard some of the most inspiring stories of what people will do to live in freedom that I've ever heard anywhere.
"It will be a chance for all of us to get to know some of our Southeast Asian neighbors better, and we'll encourage people in the audience to ask all the questions they've had."
Offenburger said the discussions will cover "where the people came from, how they got here and how their lives are changing now in America. There's a lot to talk about because we have, or have had people here who are Tai Dam, Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, Thai, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and maybe others."
He said he hopes similar discussions can eventually be set up with Storm Lakers of Latino heritages in conjunction some celebration of their culture and traditions. But next week, the focus will be on those who've come here from Southeast Asia.
The line-up for Q&A
On Tuesday evening, the conversation will be with Rev. Barry Thongvanh, pastor of the Southeast Asian church, and Long Baccam, who works at Bil-Mar Foods and is a leader in the Tai Dam community.
Wednesday evening will feature Dep Ung, an instructional assistant in the Storm Lake Community Schools, and Xuyen Lovan, who is a victims advocate with the Council Against Domestic Abuse/Sexual Assault, talking especially about the evolving roles of women in the Southeast Asian culture. Ung and Lovan are also Tai Dam.
Thursday evening, the visit will be with three leaders in the Lao community. They are Khammanh Manivong, chairperson of the local Buddhist Temple, along with Wes Bourommovong and Mountha Boulommavong, both of them assistant chairpersons at the temple. The three have also worked together at IBP Inc. for more than 10 years. They will talk about their people's culture and traditions, and how they compare and contrast with those of Tai Sam and other Southeast Asian people.
Saturday afternoon's 3 p.m. session at the church will tell the story of one of the greatest acts of humanitarianism in Iowa history, and this program may last more than an hour.
First, Calvin Baccam of Des Moines will draw upon his studies at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University to discuss the cultural and political situation in Southeast Asia leading up to the middle 1970s.
The 42-year-old Baccam, who is Tai Dam and has relatives in Storm Lake, will tell about coming to America when he was 16 and at first settling in Denison with his parents. They moved on to Des Moines where he graduated from North High School before earning his bachelor degree at the U of I in political science and history, and then a master's in public administration from ISU.
"The Tai Dam people are 'professional refugees' because we left our country in 1954 to Laos, and later in 1975 to Thailand," said Baccam, who works today as a mediator for the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. "Then we moved on to America, France, Canada, Australia and many other countries as well."
He noted that "Iowa is the capital of Tai Dam who live in the U.S., with 90 percent of our people who are in America living here in this state.
"The reason so many live here," Baccam said, "is because of the compassion and vision of Governor Ray and the generosity of all Iowans."
One of Iowa's finest hours
He is referring to former Governor Robert D. Ray, who in 1975 asked Iowans to accept thousands of Southeast Asian refugees who were fleeing almost certain death in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
More than 3,500 came initially, many more in later years. By the turn of the century, the total number of Southeast Asian refugees in the state was about 16,000.
Ray was assisted in that effort by Kenneth Quinn, a Dubuque native who was then on loan to the governor's staff from the U.S. State Department and who eventually became a U.S. Ambassador. They set up the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, and asked state employee Colleen Shearer to head it.
All three are today regarded as genuine heroes by the Tai Dam and other Southeast Asian people here. And the three have been invited to attend the New Year events Saturday afternoon and evening.
Ray is now semi-retired in Des Moines but still active in public affairs. Quinn now heads the World Food Prize Foundation based in Des Moines. Shearer is retired and living outside St. Paul, Minn.
Ray shared some commentary with the Storm Lake organizers that will be presented as part of the celebration. He and wife Billie cannot attend, as they are already committed that day as honorary chairs of the Variety Club Easter Seals Telethon in Des Moines.
Former ambassador Quinn is waiting for word on a potential call out of the state on March 2, and indicates that he will attend the Storm Lake event if that trip is not necessary.
Shearer will be an honored guest at the Storm Lake celebration. The first director of the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services now resides outside St. Paul, Minn. She also plans to take part in the Saturday afternoon event at the Southeast Asian church.
The final part of the program that afternoon will be a conversation with Storm Lakers Rev. Duane Queen, pastor of Lakeside Presbyterian Church, and Paul Havens, an attorney, who were very active in Storm Lake's resettlement effort for the refugees in the mid and late 1970s. They helped find jobs, homes and other assistance for the Khounlos, the Thongvanhs and many others who came later.
Interpreters for both Lao- and Spanish-speaking people will be present at all of the "Community Conversations," which will be conducted in English.
Saturday night events
Saturday night's dinner, party and dance at the Knights of Columbus Hall will feature the nine-member New Moon Band, of Des Moines. Events get underway at 5 p.m.
"We are a Tai Dam band, but we also have some people who are Lao playing with us, too," said Jimmi Vanluong, 33, who has led this band for 10 years and began playing in other bands in 1985.
"We play music ranging from Tai Dam to Lao to a variety of American and Chinese songs," he said. "We do some of the traditional Tai Dam music, but if you think about it, the very traditional music was done only with flutes and 2-string guitars. We've modernized that to fit our band. But basically, we play contemporary music that is very danceable."
The group gets together every week to rehearse, and they have 11 performances scheduled this spring and summer all over Iowa. Their CD released in January is titled, "Heaven, My Homeland." They feature American pop classics, dance music, and contemporary Tai Dam and Lao music, both in the native languages and English.
They feature two keyboards, rhythm guitar, bass, drums and five vocalists - three women and two men. All work in the Des Moines area. Vanluong is in graphics production for Principal Financial.
All of this week's events in Storm Lake have been organized by the Tai Dam Traditional New Year Committee of volunteers. That includes coordinator Lovan, as well as Ung, Thongvanh, Long Baccam, Marilyn Monson, Dolores Cullen and Offenburger.
Financial support and other assistance has come from Humanities Iowa, the Storm Lake Arts Council and the Chamber of Commerce.
The Chinese New Year actually was Feb. 12 this year, setting off several days of celebrations throughout the Asian world. For Southeast Asian people who have resettled in the U.S., most move their annual celebrations to weekends after the New Year date. The observance in Des Moines is being held Saturday, Feb. 23.
Among the Southeast Asians, the Chinese New Year is celebrated by the Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mongols, Koreans and Tai Dam. Those who are traditionally Buddhists - the Lao, Thai, Cambodians and others - celebrate a different New Year, this year in April. But in Storm Lake, all the different groups have generally joined each other's celebrations, as they will this week.
The tradition is that each New Year features an animal.
And thus we start the "Year of the Horse."