“It is best if I just stop talking completely so I won’t unintentionally disclose information about our family. To talk is to bring danger to the family. At five years old, I am beginning to know what loneliness feels like, silent and alone and suspecting that everyone wants to hurt me.”

The first strategy Luong adopts to protect herself and her family is silence. In the book’s first chapter, she is described as profoundly curious—always asking questions and wanting to know more—but under the Khmer Rouge this trait opens the family up to danger, as this quote from “Waiting Station: July 1975” makes clear. At five, she is too young to weigh each word carefully and so determines that silence is the best option. Not only is she cut off from the person she once was, she is also isolated from the world around her. Because it is impossible to know who, precisely, presents a threat, she feels profoundly alone. Where formerly she had been surrounded by a loving family, now she is menaced by the potential for harm from every angle.

“Our hands reach for one another and we hold on a few seconds more. I do not know how to say good-bye, so I say nothing. No matter what, I am determined not to cry. Chou has this luxury; everyone expects her to. I am strong, so I cannot cry. I will never understand how Chou ever survived the war.”

This passage, from the end of “Back to Bat Deng: April 1979,” clearly presents the different survival strategies that Luong and Chou used during the Khmer Rouge era. Even though their ordeal is over, Luong still copes with the trauma of separation as if danger pressed on them from all sides. She stresses her strength, refuses to cry, and remains silent. She views Chou’s tears and her ability to express her emotions as a luxury that she herself cannot afford. Even as she departs for America, Luong has yet to understand fully that there are modes of strength that differ from the standards she internalized under the Khmer Rouge. In the book’s epilogue, however, Chou’s tears provide a way for sisters to reconnect.

“Opposite the soldiers, Pa straightens his shoulders, and for the first time since the Khmer Rouge takeover, he stands tall. Thrusting out his chin and holding his head high, he tells the soldiers he is ready to go.”

To protect his family, Pa performed submission to the Khmer Rouge soldiers. One important way he did this was by rounding his shoulders and bowing his head. As he explained to the children, it was key that they gave the soldiers everything they wanted—and, as his behavior makes clear, this includes the feeling of power and superiority. But as they prepare to lead him away to his execution, in this passage from “Pa: December 1976,” he abandons this strategy and reclaims his sense of self. By standing erect and firm, Pa shows the soldiers and his family that the most essential part of him, his personality and self-respect survive, no matter what the soldiers will do to his body. As Luong suggests in several different ways across the book, what it means to survive has more nuanced implications than just continuing to live.