Activist Ung’s memoir of life after Pol Pot, a worthy sequel to First They Killed My Daughter (2004).
Both of the author’s parents, and many other relatives, were killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide. In 1980, Ung’s older brother—sponsored by a local church—was able to leave Cambodia and settle in Vermont. He could afford to take his wife and one sibling with him, but that was all, so he chose the youngest (Ung) and left her beloved sister Chou behind. The two girls didn’t meet again for another 15 years. Here, Ung tells both sisters’ stories, chronicling her own adjustment to living in Burlington and Chou’s life in Cambodia. The juxtaposition generally works well. The story of the older girl’s arranged marriage, for example, is told against the backdrop of her sister’s very American schoolgirl crushes, and Chou’s attempts to get an education contrast effectively with Ung’s comparatively luxurious studies at secondary school and then at St. Michael’s College. Not surprisingly, the chapters about the author’s personal experiences are more vivid. The scenes set in Vermont snap with vivid prose, and Ung imparts freshness to a fairly familiar immigrant’s tale. Many of her new acquaintances call her Luanne instead of Loung, so Ung tries calling herself Luanne: “The name comes out of my mouth tasting like a spoonful of vinegar.” Using food stamps at the Burlington grocery store imprints “shame stamps” on her face, marks that won’t come off no matter how hard she scrubs. In one very funny scene, the excited girl rushes outside, barely able to move thanks to all her layers of winter clothes, shouting, “Snow! Snow!” to a blasé neighbor wearing a light coat and sneakers who replies calmly, “No. Frost.” When Ung feels embarrassed, or stupid, or frustrated, the reader won’t be able to help empathizing. Chou, however, is two-dimensional, and the secondhand stories of her girlhood, though clear and interesting, remain just that: secondhand.
Still, overall, here’s a moving story of transition, transformation, and reunion.