Ay Choung Ung is depicted in the memoir as a model Cambodian mother. She is beautiful, elegant, and accomplished, raising her seven children to be successful. These qualities also make her ill-suited to the rigors of life under the Khmer Rouge. For example, she had valued gender norms, which have little relevance to her daughters’ lives once they are placed in work camps. Beauty shifts from a gift to a deficit because it can draw unwanted attention from soldiers, as Luong learns near the end of the memoir. Dependent on Pa but capable of acts of profound strength, Ma is usually gentle but has flashes of frustration and anger that cause her to lash out at her children. 

Where Pa is Luong’s champion, Ma is often her adversary. The differences between Pa and Ma are exacerbated by the Killing Fields, which require certain kinds of strength. Ma passes poorly as a peasant, and her lighter skin and unusual height also mark her as different. This makes her and her children targets for the racism that featured heavily in the Khmer Rouge’s program of ethnic cleansing. Luong worries that Ma cannot provide for the family after Pa dies, yet is horrified when Ma sends her, Chou, and Kim away. To Luong, Ma seems unable to face reality, her tears evidence of weakness. Luong often feels angry at Ma, although she comes to recognize the injustice in this way of thinking.