Ma’s Little Monkey: April 1977

With Pa’s death, Kim becomes the head of the household. Although he is 12, he takes these responsibilities seriously, so much so that Ma no longer uses his nickname, “little monkey.” He notices that a nearby field is full of ripe corn and decides to take some, even though the Khmer Rouge punishes thieves severely, sometimes with death. His attempt is successful and, for the first time in a long while, the family has enough to eat. Over the next few weeks, Kim continues to steal from the field, although he is increasingly terrified of what will happen if he is caught. One night, the sound of the rain prevents him from hearing some soldiers approaching. They beat him brutally for stealing from the Angkar but, after he begs for his life, they let him go. He staggers back to the hut and Ma tends to his wounds, using his nickname again as she nurses him. Luong is overcome with rage, promising to make the Khmer Rouge suffer. Kim continues as head of the household after he heals, but it is a burden a 12-year-old boy should not have to shoulder. 

Leaving Home: May 1977 

The Angkar increases the food rations in the village and Kim speculates that border attacks by the Vietnamese are the cause. The people in the village grow stronger, but everyone in the family has changed. Kim is quieter, Luong no longer fights with Chou, and Geak has stopped asking for Pa. Ma continues to sit at the door, hoping for Pa’s return, but new disappearances in the village spur her to act. The soldiers are executing families and Ma insists that they must separate to survive. She tells Kim, Chou, and Luong to each go in a different direction. She and Geak will remain in the village. The next morning, Luong refuses to go, and Ma tells her that she no longer wants the children in the village because they create too much work. Seething with resentment, Luong departs with Kim and Chou, raging against Ma’s selfishness. Kim separates first, walking away without a goodbye.  

Against Ma’s instructions, Chou and Luong stick together and walk until they find a children’s work camp. The girls explain to the woman in charge, Met Bong (“comrade older sister”), that they are orphans with nowhere to live. Luong lies repeatedly and they are eventually accepted into the camp. The work is hard and at night they attend mandatory propaganda sessions. Luong’s light skin makes her a target, like Ma. After a fight with another child, she is ordered to water the garden, a chore that makes her miss dinner. Later she and Chou discuss the idea of revenge. For Chou it seems better to forget these horrors, while Luong insists that nothing will ever quench her anger or desire for revenge.   


Ung discusses gendered norms and expectations throughout the memoir, often focusing on how they shape the lives of women. However, in “Ma’s Little Monkey,” the idea of what it means to be a man, particularly the male head of household, is a key consideration. Although he is still a child, Kim feels a responsibility to take care of the family. Even as he becomes more terrified, he continues to enter the cornfield to steal food for Ma, Chou, Luong, and Geak. He hides his fear and encourages himself to be brave. Kim is right that the family depends on him, and Luong mentions that they feel fear and guilt during his raids on the cornfield. On the night he is caught, Kim’s masculine front slips when the soldiers beat him. He has always been a boy, forced by circumstances into a role for which he was not ready. After this ordeal, he retains the sense of responsibility, but is more torn between being a child and being a man. 

These chapters once again center on the basic problem of survival, highlighting different strategies and approaches. When Ma tells her children that they are too much work for her, adult readers will recognize it as a lie intended to ease the children’s departure. But Luong, who is still a child, takes Ma’s comments at face value. Separating the family had been Pa’s plan, and Ma was previously unwilling to consider it. Increased insecurity changes her mind. Because Luong narrates the memoir, Ma’s pain is not represented. Ma’s selfless act to send the older children away appears as selfishness to her daughter. What readers see is how the rage that helps Luong survive threatens other parts of her personality, including her compassion and her ability to empathize with others. As her discussion with Chou makes clear, rage presents a new kind of danger for Luong. She increasingly dreams of gaining power and destroying her enemies, a quality that makes her more like the Khmer Rouge than she realizes. 

Deception emerges in a second key way in these chapters—through the propaganda sessions Luong and Chou must attend at the labor camp. The children are encouraged to chant slogans celebrating the power and goodness of the Angkar and asserting the absolute superiority of Khmer soldiers over Youn soldiers. During the lessons the children are told the Angkar will always love and protect them. The empty promises of the slogans are immediately revealed, however, by the fact that Luong is bullied for her light skin. This echoes the ethnic cleansing that the Khmer Rouge practiced, and it belies the idea that even the weak will be loved and protected by the Angkar.