Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.  


Rice is mentioned on nearly every page of First They Killed My Father. It is a staple of the Cambodian diet and a key to surviving the genocide. For Luong, it comes to represent life itself. Rice is something that an affluent family, like the Ungs, previously could take for granted but they quickly realize how precious it is for it replaces paper money, which loses all value and is useful only as toilet paper. Rice is equally precious to the Angkar, both as a part of its vision of the agrarian past and future of Kampuchea, and as a commodity it can trade for weapons and international support.  

Black Clothes 

As part of their program for Cambodian society, the Khmer Rouge insist that everyone wear the same clothes, a black shirt and pants. These clothes are supposed to symbolize the equality the regime will bring to the nation. For the people who suffer under their brutality, the clothes instead symbolize the regime’s efforts to erase individuality and personal expression. In the epilogue, Luong realizes with horror that the comfortable outfit she put on to travel to Cambodia resembles the black pants and shirts they were forced to wear. This oversight shows how completely her new life in the United States allowed her to forget the meaning of this uniform.  

Angkor Wat 

Angkor Wat symbolizes the best parts of Cambodia, but it represents different aspects of the country to different people. Angkor Wat is a massive complex of Buddhist temples built during the Khmer Empire, which dominated southeast Asia from the ninth to the 14th centuries. The Khmer Rouge view it as an important symbol of the glorious past they want to rebuild. However, as a religious site, it also represents what they seek to abolish. The temple has personal implications for Luong. The Ung family visited Angkor Wat before the Khmer Rouge took power and Luong thought the sculptures on the buildings looked like Pa, who was a monk before he met Ma. For her, the temple represents her family’s happy past and her reliance on Pa.