After the Khmer Rouge takes over the city of Phnom Penh in 1975, the Ung family struggles to stay together. Days go by without food and rest, making it hard to stay strong while traveling. Over the course of several years, the family becomes separated and several members die, leaving Loung Ung to question the concept of her family. From Loung’s perspective in her memoir, “First They Killed My Father”, her family is vital although they are forced to separate and start new lives.
However, after all of the losses she is forced to cope with and the separations of different family members, she remains loyal to her family and does not forget its importance in her life. She constructs a portrayal of her family by describing how all of the deaths and atrocities affect her and her family. Despite certain circumstances, Loung’s concept of family stays the same. Until the age of five, Loung Ung lived in Phnom Penh, one of seven children of a high-ranking government official. The families lived in a moderate apartment and they were considered upper-middle class citizens of Cambodia.
She lives with her mother, father, and six siblings in Phnom Penh where they have many privileges compared to those of other lower class Cambodians. In this memoir, Ung tries to make her family seem like a typical family in the mold of the American middle class. She repeats the term “middle class” as if saying it more will lead to more people believing her. The description of her family’s wealth reveals otherwise. For Cambodia, however, their possessions place them economically in the upper class of Cambodian society. Ung notes, “I know we are middle-class because of our apartment and the possessions we have” (7).
It is as though she is striving for the readers to think they were a typical American family. They had a privileged life: they owned two telephones, had a full-time maid, had two cars and a truck, and had expensive “antique jewelry” in her Ma’s possession (146). In America, these possessions are considered uncommon but in Cambodia during the time of the genocide, this was very rare. Despite her obliviousness to the fact that her family is indeed wealthier than she makes it out to be, Ung is very aware of the fact that her family’s economic status is higher than most of society.
She looks up to her older siblings, especially Meng, the eldest brother. She cares deeply for all of her siblings despite their age. The father works and the mother is the homemaker who cares for the kids. They have a nanny who “comes to their house every day to do the laundry, cooking, and cleaning” (15). Loung notes that she doesn’t have to “do any chores because our maid does them for us” (15). Narrating the story from the perspective of a five-year-old girl, Loung Ung reveres those who are older than her because she does not know any better which develops the concept of her family.
In the beginning of the memoir, Loung Ung recounts the daily activities that she participates in with her family. She enjoys being in her mother’s presence especially when she gets to get driven in the cyclo with her mom. When she takes a cyclo she sits on Ma’s lap and “bounces and laughs as the driver pedals through the congested city streets” (2). Loung Ung also enjoys going with Ma and Pa to a noodle shop for breakfast with her other siblings. Ma is usually the one who yells at Loung for misbehaving but Loung respects what she says. For example, Ma yells at Loung to sit still and asks, “Don’t you ever sit still?
You are five years old. You are the most troublesome child” (2). Being that Ma’s scolding needs to be acknowledged, Loung listens to her mother and behaves. At the beginnng of the memoir, Loung simply explains her daily life in Phnom Penh, which consists of spending time with her family, going to school, and playing with her siblings. When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed into Phnom Penh in April 1975, Ung’s family was forced to flee their home and hide their previous life of privilege. At the beginning of their trip, Loung has a hard time grasping what is currently happening.
She asks many questions, mostly directed towards her father, of why everything is happening as it is. For example, Loung is curious about the soldiers in Kom Bol base. After she asks her father if they will go home soon, he tells her not to think about it and keep walking. Loung becomes impatient and sobs to Pa, “I don’t know why we have to save it… Let’s just go home. I want to go home” (29). With tears streaming down her face and pain in her eyes, her father goes to get her a ball of sticky rice to eat and proceeds to react in a calm way. Loung loves him for this although she feels shame for complaining.
He tells her that the soldiers have lied to her therefore she believes him and does not question it any further. As a five-year-old girl living through Pol Pot’s regime, it is hard for her to fully grasp the economic and political situation present in her country. However, she understands it enough to comprehend that people are being killed because of the government and that her family must lie in order to survive. As they are transported from camp to camp, base to base, life gets tougher, food is scarce, and the Pol Pot army is killing more people.
The first traumatic event for Loung aside from the death of her sister is the death of her father. Loung laments, “Keav, and now Pa, one by one, the Khmer Rouge is killing my family” (107). She develops an extremely strong rancor for Pol Pot and his army, praying for her father back and cursing Pol Pot. Ma’s optimism about the life hardens Loung’s heart (108). Loung expresses, “To hope is to let pieces of myself die. To hope is to grieve his absence and acknowledge the emptiness in my soul without him” (108). For the remainder of the memoir, Loung mourns the death of her father and wishes for his presence more than anything.
As a daughter who respects her parents, Loung immediately begins to worry for Ma. Loung explains that Pa “had always been there to make things easier for her” (108). The Ung family copes with the losses but are soon forced to separate. Ma explains that it will be impossible for them to survive as a family so she sends her children separate ways and she and Geak stay behind. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans while her other siblings were sent to labor camps. Loung begins to feel alone but never loses hope on finding her family.
After the death of her father, mother, and sister, the remaining members of the Ung family are left to survive on their own. Only after the Vietnamese destroyed the Khmer Rouge were Loung and her surviving siblings slowly reunited. After being forced to start a new life on their own, the Ung children find a family to live with. Loung travels everyday “with Pa, Ma, Keav, and Geak in her thoughts” (211). Through all of her journeys she has not forgotten the people most important to her. She begins to hate the first foster family and realizes that the “longer she sis with them, the more her hatred grows”.
This new family will never really be like her own family. Yet she listens to the mother although she despises her and does what she is told. In this sense, her concept of family has shifted. It has now become the concept of her family as opposed to any. She compares the dynamic of her family to that of others and is always thoroughly disappointed. She struggles to accept the fact that her family will never be complete again. By going to America, Loung can start a new beginning and come back to retrieve the rest of her family members.
Although Loung loses her home, her sisters, and both of her parents, her concept of family remains the same. She always compares the life she lived with her family whether it be the privileged one in Phnom Penh or the difficult one under the Khmer Rouge. Bolstered by the shocking bravery of one brother and sustained by her sister’s gentle kindness amid brutality, Loung forged ahead to create a courageous new life without forgetting the life that she lives. She remains loyal to herself and to her family while struggling to stay alive.