This From the Field Feature is courtesy of New York Folklore Community Field Worker – Edgar Betelu. Since late 2021 he has been working with immigrant and refugee communities in the Capital Region.
New York’s Capital Region and upstate are home to an increasing number of Karen who have settled in the area since the 1990s. Commonly, as refugees escaping political violence and persecution in Myanmar, previously called Burma. Thanks to immigration and refugee organizations today it is estimated that around 5,000 Karens call Albany and the Capital Region home.
As part of my fieldwork in the region, I have had the opportunity to meet several members and artists of the Karen community. In August of 2021, I was invited to the Wrist Tying Ceremony, which is held annually in different cities of New York State. Last year the event took place in Rensselaer, New York, and was attended by members of large Karen communities from Utica, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse among others.
The annual Wrist Tying Ceremony is a centuries-old tradition that typically takes place in August. It is secular in nature and celebrates the cultural identity, tradition, and bonds within families and the Karen community. The ritual also serves as an expression and wish for the spiritual and physical well-being of a person.
During the event, elders of the community tie red and white threads around participants’ wrists and place cooked sticky rice, sugarcane, leaves and bananas in their hands while reciting words calling on the spirits to act graciously, bring good health and ward off evil.
Last year the event was a wonderful and festive social gathering held in the field behind the Gethsemane Karen Baptist Church in Rensselaer. It was a hot summer day and the rain threatened to spoil it, but fortunately only a few drops came down and the sun finally came out. There were lots of people. Entire families from grandparents and young children. Men and women walked around the grounds, sat to chat, laugh and eat. A group of men rolled betel nuts in leaves to chew. Everyone wore the traditional colorful longyi.
There was also lots of delicious food and cooking. Fish, vegetables and several soups. I had a delicious bamboo soup with vegetables on top and shrimp. There were also dance groups and young children performing traditional Karen dances alongside musicians. I had the opportunity to meet Pinya Aung, a Tenaku harp player and his wife Ehsue Aung who is a dancer. They are both very active in the community and one of the earliest families to arrive in the Capital region in the early 2000s. During the last two years, I have had the pleasure to continue to work with the community through presentations and workshops. In a couple of weeks, I have been invited to participate (literally) in a Karen Soccer tournament with teams from the Capital Region and other cities upstate. Happily, I was told I could participate with the elder teams. I am very much looking forward to the sporting event although I believe I will be found closer to the food stands.
This year the Wrist Tying Ceremony will take place in Syracuse on September 3rd.
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