Phnom Penh: April 1975 

The book opens with a description of Phnom Penh. Luong Ung’s portrayal of its climate, foodways, and residents creates an image of a vibrant and active city. The chapter centers on a breakfast she shares alone with her parents in a noodle shop. The intimate meal presents Luong as a typical five-year-old child, unwilling to sit still and annoying her mother.  

As the family slurps their soups, Luong offers background information about her parents. Ma is famous for her beauty and elegance, and Pa for his generosity. Pa had been a monk when he first saw Ma. He fell in love with her at first sight and abandoned his life in the temple. Because her family objected to their marriage, the couple eloped and, although Pa suffered briefly from a gambling problem, their life together is both happy and prosperous.  

Luong’s behavior causes disagreement between her parents during the meal, and Ma chides Pa for encouraging Luong’s willfulness and curiosity. He counters that her escapades are evidence of her cleverness and strength. Ma reminds them about the time Luong got in trouble for fighting chickens, behavior Pa should not encourage. After a satisfying breakfast, Luong craves glazed crickets, one of the many treats available from street vendors. Seeing attractive girls selling food makes her realize the importance of a woman’s physical beauty, and she states that she knows she is a pretty child. 

The Ung Family: April 1975 

There are nine people in the Ung family, the parents, three boys, and four girls. They live in a long and narrow third-floor apartment, which Luong describes as spacious and modern. The apartment’s size, location, and amenities make clear to the child that the family is middle-class, although many in the city are impoverished. Because the family does not have a refrigerator, Ma buys food every day from one of Phnom Penh’s many outdoor markets. Until recently, Luong had accompanied her on shopping trips. Instead, Luong now passes time with her father on the apartment’s balcony. They watch the city below and talk about important things, as Luong sometimes climbs on the railing and imagines she’s flying.  

Luong shares several of their conversations, providing insight into her special relationship with her father. One concerns Pa’s insistence that a cloud that took the shape of a dragon would appear to announce the birth of his children. Another conversation introduces the subject of the Cambodian civil war. Pa is a military police officer. After hearing about a bomb planted in the family’s trashcan, Luong asks him to explain what a bomb is. His answer is appropriate for five-year-old Luong and provides some basic facts about the political situation in Cambodia that a child would not have known. Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s government fell in 1970 and was replaced by one led by General Lon Nol. Pa says that working for the government was not his choice, but refusal carried serious consequences, including death. Cambodia differs from America, he suggests, in that there is no peaceful transfer of power. 

The narrative pivots away from Luong’s conversations with her father to introduce each of her siblings from oldest to youngest: Meng, Khouy, Keav, Kim, Chou, and Geak. The family happily engages in various activities, like watching television and doing homework. Luong returns to what her family’s class status makes possible, including the things they possess, how her parents divide their time, what she studies in school, and their membership in a swimming club. The chapter ends with Luong’s first glimpse of a white man—a “Barang”—at the swimming club to which the family belongs. 


This memoir is written by an adult about experiences she had as a child, and Luong Ung makes several stylistic choices to center her young self as narrator. Most importantly, she writes the memoir in the present tense. This choice makes the events she depicts feel more immediate to the reader and also allows the story to unfold across time. Ung sketches the world of Phnom Penh using details that would interest a five-year-old child, such as describing her favorite form of transportation (the cyclo), her preferred foods, her school uniform, and the games she plays with friends. By including a meal she shares with her parents in the opening chapter, Ung identifies Luong in a loving family and establishes the relationships that define who she was before the Khmer Rouge regime comes to power. The world Luong describes is narrow, reflecting a young child’s experience. However, the memoir’s first sentence describes the heat as an invading force, which foreshadows the coming invasion of soldiers.  

The opening chapters of First They Killed My Father keep violence at a distance. The focus is on the world that will be wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. These chapters are prefaced by an author’s note, which specifies the period the book will cover, April 1975 to February 1980. Ung notes that during this time the brutal Khmer Rouge regime ran Cambodia and caused the deaths of approximately two million people, nearly 25 percent of the nation’s total population, through execution, starvation, and forced labor. Luong explains that her story of survival is similar to that of every person who endured this violent and cruel era. By including dates with each chapter title, Ung grounds the events of the narrative in a specific timeline as she reminds the reader that the stable world Luong describes is on the cusp of destruction.  

That destruction arrives as a literal bomb in the narrative: the bomb placed in the family’s trash can is one of the important topics that Luong and Pa discuss on the balcony. She asks what a bomb is and why people might want to kill him, and she does not understand his explanation, but talking about the experience is unsettling to her. In the scene of Pa’s explanation, Ung describes Luong’s family home alongside houses destroyed by bombs. This helps show that the threat of violence is getting closer to home. Even though the assassination attempt on Pa occurred at the family’s home, to Luong the violence still seems like it happened in a distant time and place. Here the child’s perspective is especially powerful and reveals an obvious but nevertheless often ignored truth about war: at the most basic level, war does not make sense. The destruction of humans by fellow humans is brutal and illogical in every case, but it is blatantly and horrifyingly so in the case of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who pursue destruction and commit atrocities based on utterly ridiculous beliefs. Luong believes that if people would take the time to know her father they would see how nice he is and leave the family in peace. In her conversation with Pa, he tells her that he also does not understand the war that Cambodia is fighting, which highlights the complications and senselessness of violence. 

The book’s subtitle, A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, places Ung in a second kind of family: the nation of Cambodia itself. At the start of the memoir, the idea of what it means to be a daughter is comparatively unimportant. In its place, Ung stresses what it meant for her to be one of the daughters of Ma and Pa. She presents these issues in two ways. First, she details the differences in the relationships she has with Ma and Pa. Her father supports her, while her mother attempts to mold her into a proper young woman. Already in the opening chapters she establishes that, while she loves them both a great deal, she has more in common with her father. Equally important are the Cambodian cultural norms for daughters, the rules of conduct, standards of beauty, and responsibilities of motherhood which govern their lives. It is Ma’s responsibility to teach Luong about the expectations associated with her gender and class. While Pa calls Luong a “diamond in the rough,” Ma complains that she is a troublemaker with insufficient regard for others. 

Across these chapters, Luong returns regularly to the tastes and smells of Cambodian food. From noodle soup for breakfast to afternoon snacks of crickets and sugar cane, the visceral descriptions of what people in Phnom Penh eat help non-Cambodian readers to appreciate the cultural differences the memoir implicitly will depict. Eating and starvation form a recurrent motif across the memoir and the opening chapters celebrate the abundance and unique flavors of Cambodian cuisine. Because the author’s note establishes that the Khmer Rouge used starvation as a weapon against the population, these descriptions locate the reader in a moment in time and capture a rich sense of all that was lost.