The delicate dance movements of young girls dressed in traditional costumes symbolize the Laotians' commitment to peace, Chou Mounarath told spectators Saturday at the 11th Annual Asian Festival.
"Laotians are peaceful people, you can tell from the dance patterns. Violence was imposed upon us in 1975 when our country was lost to the Communists. Now, we teach our children to treasure and preserve peace by learning the ways of their forefathers," Mounarath said.The festival, held at the Salt Palace, featured the dance, food and customs of many unique Asian and Pacific Island cultures, including the Chinese, Philipinos, Laotians, Indonesians, Burmese, Japanese, Polynesians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Koreans, Hmongs and Thais.
More than a decade has passed since most of Utah's Laotians left their homeland, said Mounarath.
Like many others of Utah's Asian communities, the Laotians' older generation still experiences difficulty in adapting to American ways while the youngsters have assimilated more easily, the Laotian leader said.
"When our children speak English, they are American. But when we who are grown up speak English, we are like actors. Deep in our hearts the English language is not part of us yet. But for our children, it is part of them."
Mounarath was the first Laotian to leave his homeland and move to Utah in 1975.
It's important for the children to learn their ancestors' dance traditions and other customs to instill a sense of pride in their heritage.
Young Laotians are expressing an increased interest in participating in the Asian Festival dance performances, he said.
He advises young Laotians to avoid people who are prejudiced until those people learn to understand and accept "people who look different than they do."
"The youth realize that many people look at their traditional costumes and laugh, because they don't understand. Our children must learn that those who laugh aren't worth talking to. Our children should not feel sorry about who they are," he said.
In another decade, the Laotians and other Asians who fled during the Communist takeover of their countries will become a subculture of America - instead of a group of refugees in a new land, Mounarath predicts.
The merging of the new and old customs in the lives of teenage Laotians became apparent as the young girls, who had gracefully danced in native costumes, left the stage and changed into their Levi jackets, slogan t-shirts and tennis shoes.
Mounarath hopes future generations of Laotian-Americans who assimilate into mainstream America will remain like two pieces of wood stuck together.
"They will be a part of America as a whole, but you can tell they are a distinct piece," Mounarath said.
Besides helping Utahns understand their Asian population better, the goal of the Asian Festival, sponsored by the Asian Association of Utah, is "to help Asians assist each other rather than depend upon the government," he said. "We want to be a strong and proud community. We want to be accepted and honored for our unique heritage."