In less than an hour, the quiet stillness of Hartford Public Library fills with local Karen, preparing for the New Year celebration later that morning. Girls draped in colorful woven skirts and scarves shuffle quickly in and out of the women’s room in groups to check their outfits and talk. In the venue, the Center for Contemporary Culture a group of Karen young men practice, dressed in traditional native Karen clothing. One plays the electric guitar while another plays a modern drum kit. The music they play sounds more like modern rock music and I nod my head in both surprise and appreciation.
When I look around, the room itself has been transformed overnight and now, along the front of the room hangs a massive banner announcing this year’s Karen New Year celebration. It is multi-colored and impressive, taking up the whole length of the wall, with large letters cut out, spelling out the celebration in two languages. The room gradually gets busier and busier.
Members of the Karen community come in carrying large containers of rice, soup, and other traditional foods. Soon the air fills with the smells of foods that seem oddly familiar to me yet a little exotic. One after another, like an organized assembly line, the food is set up in a buffet-style fashion in the American Place. I peek at the foods, mostly shades of green and browns- and it’s hard to figure out what the food is and as a vegetarian, I feel wary to try them. There is no one around tell me the ingredients so I stay safe with sweet brown rice wrapped in banana leaves.
It is here that I spy Shinning. Sitting quietly to the left of the eating area on a library stool, she reads a picture book. It seems as if the library shelves are swallowing her, I think. I ask if I can take her picture and Shinning (pronounced “shining”, this could not be a mistake!) looks up from her book, smiles shyly at first, then broadly, and nods yes. I ask her to keep reading, explaining that I want to capture her reading, maybe for the website, I say. I snap away for several minutes, taking pictures of this little girl from various angles as she continues to read the book I will later find out is about colonists coming to settle in America. These are the kinds of books you find in this part of the library. She doesn’t quite understand this so I explain what the American Place space is all about, what people use the space for, and why these books are here. I think she gets it but I don’t know if she’s learned about the colonists in school, so she doesn’t exactly see the connection with colonists and being American. I guess we’ll save that lesson for another day.
Shinning is seven years old. She is, as most of the people visiting the library here on this New Year’s Day celebration, a Karen refugee. She came to the United States when she was just a year old with two older brothers, her mother, grandmother, and some other family members. You can see that she has benefited from her American education. I ask her about school and she beams proudly that she loves school, especially math. “I want to be a doctor,” she says confidently and I can’t help but believe this will become true.
Later, we walk around together and she tells me how she her mother and grandmother don’t speak English at all and she often has to speak for them. I nod that I understand and ask how she feels about that; she replies that she does her best. It’s all that she knows so there is nothing to think about. It’s then that we are interrupted with the beginning of the celebration. At the entryway to the Center, I see a group of young Karen holding flags, waiting to walk proudly in a flag procession. I try to shuffle Shinning towards the Center but she doesn’t want to go. Why? I ask her. She wants to go read her book.
I leave her as I inside to watch the Karen celebrate the first day of their New Year, beginning with a blessing from a local Karen minister and the singing of the Karen flag song. As I watch the traditional dances, the reenactments of various rituals, I keep thinking about Shinning who is so happy to be taking advantage of a little quiet time to read. I sneak out a few times and every time I walk by her, she has her head in a book. She seems unfazed by the celebration going on around her, and though I’m thrilled to see a budding book worm, in this great library nonetheless, I wonder if I should I feel sadness that she’s rejecting an important cultural celebration. Later, when I leave the event, I say good bye to her and remind her to come visit the library as often as she can. I tell her I am so happy to have met her and that I hope she continues to love school and math and she smiles at me. Her mom and grandmother are at her side and I say thank you to them and smile, wondering if they see the same little girl I have just met.