Takeover: April 17, 1975 

Luong is playing with friends in front of the Ung family’s apartment building as the chapter opens, kept home from school by Pa, when she hears the roar of trucks. As they rumble past, she sees thin young men with long and greasy hair in them, wearing black pants and shirts with red sashes or scarves. Despite their suspicious appearance, many people cheer. Confused, Luong runs to her father for information. Pa explains that they are bad men who destroy things and pose a threat to the Ung family. Still, the people of Phnom Penh celebrate because the war is over. He sends Luong off to play and, although she does not understand, Luong is comforted by Pa’s wisdom. 

When she returns to the apartment, the family is hurriedly packing and Ma tells Luong to eat. In the kitchen, she sits with Khouy, who is characteristically mean, and she feels frustrated that no one will answer her questions as they rush around, throwing belongings into bags and pillowcases. Everyone but Khouy piles into the family’s truck—he follows on his motorcycle—and they join the crowd of vehicles leaving Phnom Penh. Other inhabitants of the city evacuate on foot, and everywhere people are yelling and crying. Luong wonders at the screaming soldiers and asks Keav why they are so mean. She replies that they are the Khmer Rouge, which means they are communists, and that they claim to love Cambodia. Luong cannot understand why they express this sentiment with threats, as the soldiers repeatedly broadcast orders to leave the city immediately because the Americans are coming. They tell the crowds that everyone will be able to return to Phnom Penh in three days. 

Evacuation: April 1975 

Hours later, the truck is finally out of the city and Luong is exhausted from long exposure to the dry season’s hot sun. April is the hottest month of the year and the back of the truck is sweltering and dusty. Keav wraps a scarf around Luong’s head to protect her eyes. She falls asleep and, when she awakens, everything is unfamiliar. Although they have traveled only ten miles, the city is now far away. Thousands of other evacuees are moving along the same road. The family sets up camp by an abandoned hut for the night and Luong is surprised when her mother gives her money to use as toilet paper in the woods. They sleep in the back of the truck and Luong marvels at the stars. 

In the morning, Khouy tells them that many people did not survive the evacuation and died along the road, making Luong realize that Keav had another motive for wrapping a scarf around her eyes. She marvels at the change one day has made in her life. After lunch, their truck runs out of gas, so the family continues their journey on foot, carrying only clothes and food. A Khmer Rouge soldier tells Pa to hand over their watches and, with bowed shoulders, he complies. All adventure is now gone—Luong is scared. 


These two chapters depict both the destruction of the stable world that Luong had known and the inversion of the values upon which it had been built. This is seen most sharply when Ma tells her that money is now valuable only as toilet paper. Money’s value is always symbolic and dependent on political and economic systems, so this sudden shift is unsettling, as is Ma’s straightforward acknowledgment of it. Luong might not have the capacity to comprehend the logic of paper money, but she is fully capable of grasping that something that once had value now does not. Such inversions occur repeatedly throughout the chapters and are crucial to the memoir’s vivid representation of radical destabilization and rupture. 

Equally central to the chaos these chapters introduce is the arbitrary power the Khmer Rouge wields. Because there is little hint of civil war as Luong first describes her world, the changes the soldiers lead are even more striking. In the memoir, political history is secondary to Luong’s experience as a child, but Ung still documents many actions and characteristics of the Khmer Rouge, clearly communicating that it was a cruel tyrannical regime. The violent use of arbitrary power is a basic feature of tyranny, which is a form of government that substitutes the interests of a single person or group for the general concern for the common good. These chapters provide a first introduction to the regime’s indiscriminate cruelty.  

The way the author depicts time also changes in these chapters. The opening chapters offer a survey of Phnom Penh and the Ung family, including specific examples of character traits, relationships, and local culture. The chapters exist in time but their narrative does not unfold linearly. With its specific date—April 17, 1975—“Takeover” establishes a momentous shift in the memoir. This date is the start of the family’s ordeal, one shared by countless others, and the subsequent chapters follow a rigid chronological sequence. It is not hard to read this single specific date as representing the abrupt conclusion of the happy, edgeless days of childhood, supplanted by a temporal order as strict as the Angkar itself.  

The other narrative challenge that begins to emerge in these sections is monotony. As the end of “Evacuation” notes, the surprise and mystery of the family’s rapid departure from the city initially had a sense of adventure, even though Luong was often afraid. These feelings are entirely explicable for a child who does not appreciate the events’ larger meanings. But as they trudge down a dusty road, carrying their belongings, the grind effaces all excitement, replacing it with tedium. It does not undermine the story’s power to point out that one of Ung’s narrative challenges is the creation of readerly interest when the plot is driven by a daily struggle to survive characterized by exhausting sameness. The chapter ends with an early example of what will be a regular approach to her description of events. Ung notes that the family walks the entire day and then stops and eats in silence. They have little to say because the point of their existence is to get through the day. Throughout the memoir, Ung captures this grinding tedium in a similar fashion.