Back to Bat Deng: April 1979 

The family departs on foot for Bat Deng. Luong recalls her first trek, noting that her body has adapted but her emotions have not. They shelter in an abandoned hut that is vulnerable to Khmer Rouge attack. Before they depart the next morning, Luong leaves some food for a woman with a sick husband and baby. They walk for many days and Luong recalls her dead family members. As they approach Bat Deng, they see Uncle Leang, who fails to recognize her. According to Cambodian custom, the oldest child narrates the experiences of the family, so Luong remains silent, and Meng and Khouy eventually tell the story. Bat Deng suffered less under the Khmer Rouge than other provinces and was liberated several months before Pursat province. Had Ma lasted two more months, she would have survived, Uncle Leang explains, a fact that haunts Luong. 

The family arranges for Meng to marry a young woman named Eang because, as head of the household, he needs a wife to help him. Three months later, a woman arrives, looking for Eang. She is Eang’s sister, who traveled from Vietnam in search of her. Eang is thrilled to learn that her parents are alive, although a brother is missing and presumed dead. Eang and Meng leave for Vietnam, although he promises to return quickly. 

When he returns, Meng is eager to go to America. He plans to return to Vietnam and, from there, cross illegally into Thailand. This is costly but it is easier to get to the United States from a Thai refugee camp. This is the best way to take care of the family, Meng argues. He believes that in America he can earn enough money to reunite the family in five years. Because Luong is young, she will accompany him. They bike out of Bat Deng. 

From Cambodia to Vietnam: October 1979 

Returning to Phnom Penh stirs many emotions for Luong, who hopes to see their old home. Meng tells her that it bears little resemblance to the neat place she remembers. Meng hurries off to find a boat to carry them to Vietnam and they leave without returning to their former home. Luong enters Vietnam hidden under the tarp of a fishing boat, but she arrives safely. Meng and Luong live in Saigon with Eang’s parents, who are lively and generous. In December, Meng, Eang, and Luong move to a houseboat on the Mekong Delta, the better to evade the Vietnamese authorities. Luong occupies her time learning Vietnamese and origami. Finally, they set off for Thailand. The seas are rough as they cross the Gulf and, on the third day, a group of pirates storms their boat. They steal a Buddha from Luong that belonged to Pa, but allow the passengers to continue on their way. A few hours later, the Lam Sing Refugee Camp appears in the distance. 


The search for a permanent home organizes these two chapters, first in their uncles’ village and then in the United States. Even though getting to the United States will require that they separate for five years, the possibility of a better life for all of them suggests to Meng that it is the better choice. The depiction of life in the village, where Luong sells food in the market, suggests that it will be impossible for them to regain the standard of living they enjoyed before the Khmer Rouge took power. The memoir provides no account of village life before 1975, and there is no mention of the children’s education in 1979. In his belief that the family’s survival is best guaranteed through a temporary separation, Meng’s thinking replicates Pa’s suggestion to Ma that the children should scatter. His decision also recalls Pa’s remark to Luong, before the fall of Phnom Penh, that things are different in America. 

These chapters rely significantly on the structure of comparison as a way to measure the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime. Uncle Leang does not recognize Luong, taking her for a street urchin. Not long after that, Luong imagines that she sees Ma in the market. These two events unfold with slight differences. Leang cannot recognize his young niece when he meets her as an older child. Inversely, Luong believes she sees her mother in a woman who dresses similarly but only bears a passing resemblance. Both sightings suggest the difficulty of fully understanding how the Khmer Rouge distorted life in Cambodia on an individual and personal level. In the brief representation of Eang’s family, who fled to Vietnam when Phnom Penh fell, Ung describes the experiences of a family similar to her own. In their warmth and kindness, the reader gets a glimpse of the nurturing environment Luong and her siblings have lost.  

“Back to Bat Deng” returns to a recurrent element of Luong’s moral development, the theft of food. This chapter offers a sign of resolution and personal growth. Where previous chapters showed Luong’s struggle to sympathize with others, in this chapter she is able to grasp how difficult the situation is for the woman with a sick child and husband. She decides to leave rice for the woman, even though the Ung family must carefully keep track of their supplies. The gift is important because it shows Luong attempting to undo her previous harmful behavior, such as stealing her family’s rice and taking rice from the dying woman in the infirmary. This suggests that she feels secure enough to engage in generosity and kindness. 

The harrowing dangers Meng, Luong, and Eang face during their passage from Cambodia to Thailand have much in common with refugees nearly fifty years later. As they evade authorities, hire smugglers, and encounter pirates, a familiar theme emerges. Even after they escape the Angkar, they must face dangerous challenges to secure their futures. As Luong recounts these events, she reveals how much people will endure to escape poverty and the after-effects of war in order to rebuild their lives and find safety for their families.