On a quiet stretch of land in Hallsville, Kirk Ouk watches from a distance as about a hundred people – men and women dressed in their regal best – sit in a field on colorful reed mats, all clasping a flower in their hands, which are held together as if in prayer. The silence is a stark contrast to the laughter that was heard just moments before. Now, the ear discerns only the chanting of the monk standing at the head of the group.
Ouk came to America in 1981 as a refugee from Cambodia. Today, some two decades later, Ouk – and many like him – has started his own family here. Vibol Path, president of the Cambodian Buddhist Society of Mid-Missouri, estimates that there are about a hundred Cambodian families in Missouri.
“I can’t assume (the figures),” Path said, “but I know it’s grown.”
The presence of a first generation of American-born and raised Cambodians, however, is not the only indicator of a community that is taking root here.
In 2005, Mey Savann became the spiritual leader for mid-Missouri’s Cambodian community. Savann, who immigrated to California in 2003, was planning to return to Cambodia, but after a couple of visits to Missouri, he chose to move here. His presence has been central in further uniting the Cambodian community in Missouri.
Ouk said that with Savann, “people get together, people trust each other.” Besides leadership, though, Savann has united the people in other ways.
According to Buddhist tradition, monks rely on lay people to supply their basic needs – food, medicine and cloth for robes, among other things. The local Cambodian community has developed a system in which each family is assigned a day to prepare food for Savann.
The greatest affirmation of the community’s solidarity, however, was how it eventually pooled enough money to buy 7.25 acres of land for Savann, who had been living in a trailer home on Clark Lane. The land offers Savann a peace and quiet that is more suited for meditation and his way of life.
Savann, through a translator, said that his happiness with this new place stems mainly from the fact that more people can now come together. Indeed, in buying the land, the Cambodian community had reached a point where the benefits of having a place of their own would far outweigh the costs of buying the land. Rental costs at the American Legion hall where they were meeting were rising. “It was starting to cost more and more and everybody realized that there’s enough people here (to buy a piece of land),” said Thy Peng, who came to Missouri 23 years ago. “Money is supposed to be put back into the community.”
Community members also lent a hand removing brush from the property, remodeling Savann’s kitchen and adding a deck to his trailer. Today, the property boasts a gathering hall, a storage shed, a couple of ceremonial angel houses, a play area and a half-completed administration building.
In mid-April, the property was the site of the annual Cambodian New Year. Families drove in from places such as St. Louis and Kansas City to join the three-day celebration, in which the people came together over food, fellowship, traditional games and dancing, and a sincere wish for a peaceful new year.
Beyond being just a meeting ground, however, the land, it is hoped, will continue to unite the community so that the next generation of Cambodians in Missouri will not lose their cultural roots.
“It’s a lot better because it’s your own,” Path said. “You feel a lot of pride in you.”