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Water Festival offers good soaking of Burmese cultures

Buffalo’s Burmese New Year Water Festival on Saturday suffered from an excess of water, what with Mother Nature taking part in such a big way.

With rain pouring, there was no need, really, for the water balloons and water pistols and water rifles that the young – and young at heart – used to drench each other in a ritual that’s supposed to symbolize purification.

But of course, the downpour did nothing to drench the enthusiasm of the kids with the water balloons and water pistols and water rifles.

Nor did it dampen the spirits of the dancers and food vendors who commandeered a stretch of Grant Street to celebrate their cultures and introduce them to Buffalo residents who may not know that part of the West Side is filling up with refugees from Myanmar (also known as Burma).

That’s a fact, though, that Mayor Byron W. Brown knows well.

“I’m very pleased that so many Burmese people have come here,” Brown told the crowd of more than 200 people huddled under a tent to watch the performances. “You’re growing our community and becoming part of our community in Buffalo, and for that we are very grateful.”

The refugees from Burma and elsewhere can take credit for helping turn Grant Street from a drab stretch to a polyglot business district filled with Asian groceries and other refugee-owned businesses. The Burmese refugees can take credit, too, for introducing Buffalo to a unique cuisine that’s more savory and somewhat less fiery than those of neighboring countries.

And once a year, the refugees gather on Grant Street to celebrate, doing so two months after the traditional April water festival in Burma because, after all, they don’t want an April event that’s a slush festival.

“This is the best day in Buffalo,” said Kevin Lin, owner of the Sun Restaurant on Niagara Street. “We want to show our next generation who we are, and to show all of those from the U.S. who we are and what our culture is.”

More precisely, the refugees from Burma gather to show off what their cultures are. The nation features eight major ethnic groups, and that’s not all, as you could tell by the men in the white baker’s hats with the baby-blue trim that proudly announced they are Zomi, a smaller ethnic group whose territory straddles Burma and India.

All those ethnic groups don’t interact much except at the Water Festival, said Khin Maung Soe, the owner of the Lin Restaurant on Tonawanda Street.

“Everybody’s together here,” he said.

So there they were: the Burmese and the Karen and the Karenni and the Chin and so on, each with their own set of colorfully dressed dancers taking the stage while the water-dousing hijinks continued all around.

“From cleaning with water, we’re hoping we don’t carry all of those bad things that we had in the past year and start anew in the New Year,” said Ba Zan Lin of the Burmese Community Support Center.

As purification ceremonies go, this one was quite antic.

Small children taking aim with water pistols chased each other all around the tent.

Teens with water rifles struck with far damper shots.

And one young man, apparently hoping for purer journalism in the new year, threw his arm around a reporter in what seemed like a friendly gesture – until the young man dropped a water balloon down the front of the reporter’s shirt and burst it on his belly.