Tag Archives: Loung Ung

Sisters in the Cambodian holocaust, one of whom left, one of whom stayed

For anyone like me who had a happy childhood and a conventionally middle-American angst-ridden adolescence, it is difficult to think of anyone who was in Phnom Penh in 1975 when Angkar (known in the west as the Khmer Rouge—the Maoist Cambodian) emptied it as having been lucky. Having read Loung Ung‘s first book, First They Killed My Father I knew what she meant before beginning Lucky Child. She was a happy and privileged 5-year-old in 1975. She survived the horrors of being a suspiciously (to the Angkar cadres) light-skinned urbanite through remarkable tenacity and cunning, as the previous book details in chilling detail. There were close calls of starvation, bullets, and her family background, so some luck was involved in reaching the age of ten.

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Then, there was the luck of being chosen by her eldest brother Meng to be the one to accompany him as he tried to get to the United States (through Vietnam and Thailand—yes, I know they are in opposite directions from Cambodia; read the first book to find out about this very dangerous zigzag, complete with pirates). He chose her in part because she was the youngest and most likely to adjust more easily to a(nother) new culture. She was also tougher than her surviving sister Chou.

Chou probably would have been even more lost in Vermont than Loung was, but life in America was still far from easy for Loung. Among other things, she chafed at the demands of her Elder Brother’s wife that she be demure. Having been a soldier at the age of 9 so that she could eat, demure is not how Loung survived in Cambodia. Moreover, her skin was again different from that of the majority in Essex Junction, Vermont, so that she was still suspiciously “other.” She was terrified of ghosts, carefully following Cambodian/Chinese folk remedies for warding them off. And, like many other survivors of bombings and gun-battles, frightened by Fourth-of-July fireworks.

And bearing a crushing load of survivor guilt—not just in relation to her parents and the sister who starved during the Khmer Rouge economic devolution and widespread slaughter (particularly of nonpeasants, and among them, particularly of those who looked like they have Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry), not just in relation to the million or two who died in the four years of Khmer Rouge despotism, but of her siblings who were left behind, Chou in particular.

The book alternates Loung Ung’s first-person memoirs with chapters in the third person about Chou’s experience half a world away in the village in which aunts and uncles lived. (They were “base people” to the Khmer Rouge, presumed to have supported the revolution before April 17, 1975, in contrast to those driven out of Cambodia’s cities.)

I had to wait a long ways into the book to find out what happened to Third Brother Kim, who had become the “man of the house” desperately trying to protect his mother, Loung, and Chou, and to get food for them at age nine, and who had to swallow vast quantities of bitterness and humiliation. Loung was luckier than he was in many ways, but after some more harrowing “adventures,” he, too, got to the US.

The two siblings who survived and remained in Cambodia produced five and six children, so there are many nephews and nieces in Cambodia, and the Cambodian American Ungs have been able first to help and then to visit the Cambodian ones.

As the contrast in titles already strongly suggests, Lucky Child has happier stories to tell than First They Killed My Father did. Readers of the first book can find relief in the second one and be happy for the characters. The narrative is less gripping because there are relatively mundane problems instead of nearly unimaginable horrors in the second book.

Both books have some fracturing of perspective. The first has imagined scenes—plausible conjectures about how Loung thought her family members’ ends went. The second one has the alternation between Loung and Chou. The author is more certain in telling her own story than in telling her sister’s. Loung is—and seemingly was from an early age—more introspective than Chou, and more purposeful. Chou was more passive (and a model of demureness) and is not all that interesting a character. Moreover, Loung is hard on herself and very, very gentle in writing about her sister. This is totally understandable in human terms, and I admire Loung for treating her sister well. But “kid-glove” treatment doesn’t make for as riveting reading as the self-critical narration of Loung’s own experience.

Probably it says something about the sadism and voyeurism of readers that we often find kind characters boring (and often find villains interesting and even sympathetic). I don’t think it’s just me! And I think she is too hard on herself, so am not a total sadist…

Loung Ung’s pair of memoirs, like those of Pascal Khoo Thew (From the Land of Green Ghosts) and T. C. Hou(‘s autobiographical novels A Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles) provide terrifying portraits of confused youngsters escaping brutal Southeast Asian genocidal/ethnocidal regimes in Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. They (and the accounts of leaving and returning to Vietnam in Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, Noel Alumit’s of leaving the Philippines after Marcos goons kill his father in Letters to Montgomery Clift, and leaving Afghanistan in Tamim Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York) make my adolescent unhappinesses seem very petty in comparison. These often poignant books may induce survivor guilt, along with telling about the lost seeming paradises of childhoods cruelly snatched away—an experience that is altogether too widespread!

 

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Harrowing memoir of Khmer Rouge genocide

The best-known portrayal of Angkar (usually called “Khmer Rouge” in the west) horrors focus on an American (“The Killing Fields). Angkar exterminated educated Cambodians and sought to eradicate anyone who spoke languages other than Khmer or who looked to be of non-Khmer descent (especially lighter-skinned Vietnamese and Chinese, even though Angkar was supported by the PRC). There were literate survivors of the Nazi holocaust (Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi), the Soviet gulags (Solzhenitsyn), the cultural revolution (Shen Fan), and the ongoing Burmese junta (Pacal Kew Thwe) but very few cosmopolitan Cambodians survived the starvation and executions of Angkar ethnic and social cleansing.

The “classless” Angkar dystopia was very stratified, as Loung Ung’s memoir makes clear: the Angkar cadres had the most food, the peasants who had never left their fields had enough to survive, those driven from the cities and presumed corrupted by urban life were starved or murdered outright.

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Ung’s 2000 memoir, First They Killed My Father, begins with remembering a life of prosperity and privilege as her father’s favorite in Phnom Penh. Angkar troops occupied and emptied the capital on April 17, 1975. The five-year-old Loung naively believed that the “evacuation” would only last three days. Angkar lied, and the horrors burgeon. Savvy a survivor as her father is, he is eventually taken away. She’d like to believe the Angkarite who says he’ll return in the morning. Her father knows better and tells her twelve-year-old brother Kim that he must protect the family.

Kim goes to heroic lengths (to which no one of any age should have to go) against implacable enemies. Loung celebrates Kim and their father and mother, blaming herself for lack of understanding and sympathy for the latter. Loung and Kim have to be mature and crafty long before chronological adulthood. Above all, they must not let anyone know they are urban and of mixed (Chinese-Khmer) descent, though their light skin give them away as not being peasants.

As the Angkar mythos shifts into a cult of Pol Pot, Loung focuses the fury, which she cannot show, on fantasies of providing him the painful death he evaded. Desire for vengeance keeps her going (rather than eating her up) as she trains to be a soldier. She eventually watches two women hammer and stab an Angkar murderer, but does not enjoy it… And has more travails on the South China Sea en route to a Thai refuge camp.

From title and subtitle, I knew I was getting memories of sickening mistreatment. An older sister is eager to forget the horrors, but Loung provides witness—very young when witnessing, and very gifted a writer (in English) about the horrors she saw when her happy childhood turned into a protracted nightmare. The 29-year-old author (and anti-landmine activist) recalls a few rays of sunlight that reached her in Angkar hell, and the lost paradise of the childhood that ended just after she turned five.

What the adult author imagines happened to (altogether too many!) family members, based on Angkar practices is set off in italics. The five-year-old’s hero worship of her father leaves open to more distanced readers to wonder what her father did as a police official, though being killed by Angkar “justice” clearly did not require evidence of any misdeeds.

That Cambodia had to be saved from its nativist butchers who outdid the carnage and economic suicide of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by the far-from-democratic forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam is somewhere beyond ironic. That Ho Chi Minh City in 1979 seemed a paradise of freedom and prosperity says a great deal about the Cambodia in which Loung had spent the previous four years.

 

©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray