Seven-Day Walk: April 1975 

The chapter starts as Khouy informs Pa that soldiers ordered him not to enter a temple, an order others disobeyed. Gunfire interrupts his account, the first violence that Luong experiences directly. In Phnom Penh the soldiers had announced that people could return to their homes after three days, so she is happy, but Pa breaks the news to her that they lied and the family is not going home. Hungry, tired, and disappointed, she sobs.  

The family finally arrives at a Khmer Rouge military checkpoint. The soldiers yell instructions and Luong learns a new word, Angkar, which Pa explains is the new government of Cambodia, established by the communist Khmer Rouge. They want everyone who worked for the Lon Nol government to identify themselves but Pa lies and instructs the children to do the same. They are allowed to continue but Luong is terrified the whole time, leaning on Pa for support. During the night, she dreams of a New Year’s celebration and the red dress she would have worn. She wakes to the news that the people who said they worked for the previous government had been executed. The family continues their trek, food running low. They scavenge and find supplies, including a little sugar, but increasingly only have rice to eat. Ma takes the girls to a pond to bathe and they enjoy some respite from terror. In the morning, they see Ma’s brother, Leang, who tells them that a wagon is coming to carry them to Krang Truop. 

Krang Truop: April 1975 

Eight days after leaving Phnom Penh, the Ung family arrives in Krang Truop. They have a joyous reunion with Ma’s family and receive permission from the authorities to squeeze into Uncle Leang’s house. Seventeen people will shelter under its roof. Luong complains about the poor living conditions and Pa chides her, noting that they too are poor. He tells her that she must forget Phnom Penh and their life there. Luong struggles to pay attention as Pa explains Cambodian politics, including the end of French colonization in 1953, the Sihanouk government, and the destabilization caused by the Vietnam War. The United States supported the Lon Nol government, which was defeated by the Communist Khmer Rouge. Life as a peasant places new demands on Luong, and the most difficult is the constant need for secrecy about the family’s past. She does not have friends, nor can she share her feelings with anyone outside the family. She feels watched constantly and longs for the past, especially the time she spent with Pa. 

Waiting Station: July 1975 

Sadly, the family must leave Krang Truop abruptly as the arrival of acquaintances from Phnom Penh jeopardizes their safety. They plan to take a Khmer Rouge truck to Battambang, but instead are transported to the Pursat province. Pa explains that they cannot argue and must accept their fate. When they arrive, Luong wanders around the waiting station, coming upon an elderly woman who seems dead. She has never before seen someone suspended between life and death. Meanwhile, Pa bribes the soldiers with pieces of Ma’s jewelry, so the family is transported to their new village before other families. Luong is grateful to have a father who can take care of them, but misses the fun they had together in Phnom Penh.  


The problem of security and agency in the face of oppression unites these three chapters as the Ung family moves from place to place in search of somewhere to live. Dangers multiply, even appearing in the arrival of friends who could reveal their identity. The pervasive uncertainty not only turns friends into possible enemies, but also means the soldiers themselves are unreliable and take seemingly arbitrary actions. This crystallizes the tradeoffs the family is forced to make. Like the people around them, they are not permitted to fulfill their basic needs or make decisions about where to go or whether they can reunite with family members. For example, Khouy is told he may not look for water in a temple. Those who ignore the orders are shot.  

When the soldiers will not take the Ungs to Battambang, where Luong’s grandmother lives, their broken promise is a sign that the new regime is not only violent, but also untrustworthy. Not only do the soldiers issue edicts, but they also demand performances of subordination. When Pa manages to bribe soldiers with Ma’s jewelry, he risks complicating their situation even further, but taking a chance pays off, and the soldiers move the Ung family to the front of the line. Hearing this makes Luong feel lucky that her father is able to take such good care of her, although it also reveals the corruption and inequality that is infused in the Angkar. Through all of this, Luong’s world shrinks as the only people she can truly trust are her parents and siblings, and the family’s resources are rapidly depleted.   

Poverty is also a key topic in this section. Although Luong does not offer many details, those she does provide establishes the wide disparity between the comfortable middle-class life her family enjoyed in Phnom Penh and the conditions in her uncle’s village of Krang Truop. In the opening chapters, she had described their apartment as spacious—and readers understand why when they learn that 17 people will crowd into a thatched one-room hut in the village in Krang Truop. At first, Luong looks down on Uncle Leang’s family home, which has a dirt floor and lacks plumbing and an indoor kitchen. Although the memoir does not focus on political conditions, readers can appreciate how the Khmer Rouge initially attracted adherents, given the class differences in Cambodian society. The further lesson that Luong must learn is that, no matter what they owned previously, they are now as poor as everyone else. Pa counsels her to forget her former life in Phnom Penh, but Luong struggles to do so.  

The losses under the Khmer Rouge were staggering and resulted in 25 percent of the Cambodian population dying in less than five years. Young Luong must come to understand what death means, and in “Waiting Station,” she gets her first glimpse. She encounters an elderly woman who hovers between life and death, providing Luong with a new perspective of what it might mean to die. This is something that she had not seen before, and the chance encounter reinforces Luong’s understanding of her new reality. As a child in Phnom Penh, Luong never saw dead or dying people, but under the Khmer Rouge, the entire country feels like a waiting station, where everyone is trapped in the tenuous space between life and death. Luong’s curiosity about dying and death is driven by the fact that in the span of a few days, she is surrounded by the dead and dying. Throughout the memoir, her ideas about this topic will evolve as her knowledge expands, but this is her first important lesson.