In 1980, a ten-year-old Cambodian refugee stepped off a plane in Vermont with her eldest brother and his wife. All the remaining members of their family who were not already dead were left behind. Luong Ung was the Lucky Child selected to move to America because there was only enough money to save one of the younger siblings and her brother thought she was young enough and feisty enough to adapt to western life and get an education. One of Luong’s last memories of Cambodia was letting go of the fingers of her twelve-year-old sister Chou’s hand.
Lucky Child is the story, told in alternating chapters, of how one young orphan grew up in rural America and one survived in rural Cambodia. Ma and Pa had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. Eldest sister, Keav, and the baby girl, Geak, died of illness and starvation in forced labor camps. A well-off, middle-class, educated Phnom Penh family was ripped apart, brutalized and half-exterminated by the Pol Pot regime. Luong shouldered the heavy baggage of unimaginable loss and nightmares. Chou spent each desperate day in a struggle for survival.
We know about the killing fields, the decimation of the country’s culture and population, the mountains of bones now memorialized in a museum of horror. We hear sometimes about the landmines still buried all over Cambodia that explode under unsuspecting feet. What we seldom note in the news stories and the history texts are the scars on the soul that fill a child with memories so painful she cannot hear the buzz of an alien language in class, cannot claim her own heritage with its wrecked family and stunning terror. Luong Ung’s first memoir, First They Killed My Father, is a vivid recollection of her war-ravaged family. It ends in 1979 with the country, and the Ung family, devastated and in ruins. But that pause signals the beginning of another story–the story of what happens after the unthinkable, what happens next.
This book does a good job of filling in the picture. What is remembered and can be recounted is hard, sad and almost unendurable. Many people in a new land are kind—just as many are clueless or cruel. Rage has no safe outlet; the simple beauty of an ordinary day or of one’s own face in the mirror is a lie; the sounds and shapes of too many languages still the tongue. Luong’s journey away from her home is uneasy. She is tethered to her old life by memory and loss. A tough little kid will survive but time and the grace of a long-delayed homecoming are the conditions that eventually allow her to thrive.
Luong is the only Cambodian in a sea of blond, carefree, well-fed classmates. While she wrestles with the complexities of trying to attract a high school boyfriend, Chou struggles to avoid an arranged marriage. As Luong makes embarrassing faux pas in her class reports, Chou hauls the youngest child in her aunt’s brood to a one-room school house and then loses her chance for an education forever when the baby’s crying interrupts the class. Luong sleeps in a closet off the dining room of a donated apartment and never gets over being cold in the winter. Chou sleeps on a board bed with all of her girl cousins and hordes of hungry mosquitoes swarming around their net. Luong learns to roller skate and has a bike. Chou hauls water from a distant stream and forages for food. Both of them grow up hungry.
Lucky Child is graceful prose that captures atrocity and misery without self-pity. Luong Ung was the lucky child but her good fortune came at a steep cost. She had to grow up to reclaim her childhood and her family and herself. She had to accept that the darkness and pain in her life would always be part of who she is, but not all of who she is. Her resilience and courage, and that of the sister she left behind, shine from the pages of this book. Luong and her sister have created a valuable historical record that has even more value as a tribute to the redemptive powers of hope and human spirit.
Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind (P.S.) Luong Ung | HarperCollins 2005