Loung Ung considers herself a lucky child. That is mainly because she escaped being killed by the Khmer Rouge in her native Cambodia and then was able to emigrate to the United States when she was ten years old.
Loung was born in 1970 to a Cambodian father and a Chinese mother in Phnom Penh. She didn’t seem like a lucky child, though, in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge forced all the middle class people, like her family, out of the capital city and into rural labor camps. Over the next four years, her parents and one sister were killed by ruthless Khmer Rouge soldiers, and another sister died of food poisoning.
“First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” (2000) is Loung’s first book. It is a personal account of her experiences during the Khmer Rouge years from 1975 to 1979. The book became a national bestseller, and in 2001 it was given the “Excellence in Adult Non-fiction Literature” award by the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association.
Ung’s second book is “Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind” (2005). It is one of two books I read in preparation for my visit to Cambodia earlier this month, and it is quite impressive.
“Lucky Child” tells about Loung’s going with her oldest brother and his wife to a refugee camp in Thailand and then on to the U.S. With the sponsorship of Holy Family [Catholic] Church in Essex Junction, Vermont, they were able to settle in that small town and start a new life.
For about 2/3 of the book, the odd-numbered chapters tell of Loung’s life in the U. S. from 1980 until 1993, and the even-numbered chapters tell what was happening to Chou, her sister who is two years older, back in Cambodia. Then in the 27th chapter she tells of her first visit back to Cambodia in 1995 and joyfully reuniting with Chou and other family members after fifteen years.
“Cambodia’s Curse” (2011) is the other book I have been reading over the past month. The author is Joel Brinkley, a journalist who wrote for the New York Times for more than 20 years. His book vividly describes the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979, and afterward.
I had not known (or remembered) that Cambodia was under direct control of the United Nations in 1991-92. According to Brinkley, this first and only example of the U.N. taking charge of a country was a dismal failure. But according to Loung’s memoir, the situation was considerably better after 1992, so it seems that the work of UNTAC (the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia) was effective.
After graduating from Saint Michael’s College in 1993, Loung worked for years to help rid Cambodia (and other countries) of landmines, which has been a terrible problem in that sad country. The village chief who donated the land where New Hope Church was built (as I wrote about here) stepped on a landmine years ago and now has an artificial leg.
Ung was, indeed, a lucky child in many ways—and one of those ways was being born into a middle class family. Most Cambodians did not have the opportunity to leave the country as she did. She was also “lucky” in having the talent to write so well.
And I consider myself “lucky” to have found Loung Ung’s captivating book “Lucky Child” and to have learned so much about Cambodia from it. I think you, too, would be inspired by reading this outstanding story of surviving and thriving.