'Lucky Child' Details Flight from Khmer Rouge

Detail from the cover of 'Lucky Child'

Detail from the cover of Loung Ung's memoir. hide caption

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Author Loung Ung tells NPR's Liane Hansen about her new book, Lucky Child. The memoir describes how Ung escaped the violence of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian conflict known as the Killing Fields, and how she and her sister reunited after a 15-year separation.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Thirty years ago, when Loung Ung was five years old and living in Cambodia, she expected to be trained as a killer for the Khmer Rouge. Under orders from the dictator Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge took over Ung's village and many others, executing townspeople considered loyal to the previous Cambodian government. Nearly two million people died. In 2000, Loung Ung published a memoir of those times, "First They Killed My Father." She's just published a new memoir, "Lucky Child," and she's in our Chicago bureau.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. LOUNG UNG (Author, "Lucky Child"): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: Your new book essentially picks up where the first one left off. Your mother and father have been killed. You have a big family and your older brother and his wife are getting the chance to go to the United States--Vermont, specifically. A church in the town of Essex Junction has sponsored the trip to the States. Now why was it that you were chosen to go with them to America?

Ms. UNG: Right after the war, there were five surviving siblings. There were only two ways then to get out of Cambodia: either walk the mine field to the Thai borders, and we knew it was a very dangerous route filled with mines and Khmer soldiers, or you go the route of the boat people, but that required for him to raise a lot of gold and he was only able to borrow enough money for three people. So it was him and his wife and he had to pick one of four siblings with him and I was chosen back then. He told me because I was the youngest and therefore able to come to America and take advantage of the education system and also because they believed I was fearless, I was aggressive and that--it's not a good thing for girls to be aggressive in Cambodia, but it might be something that would be all right in America.

HANSEN: It was 1980 and you were 10 years old.

Ms. UNG: I was 10 years old, didn't speak any English. I didn't know anything about America and was devastated not only to come to a new place where I didn't know anything but to also leave my best friend, my confidante, my kindred spirit of my sister behind.

HANSEN: Often during the book you use the words `parallel lives,' and the book is structured like that. We'll read a chapter or two about what life is like for you adjusting to life in Vermont and then we read about your sister, Chou, and how she is adjusting to life in Cambodia. In the 15 years that you were separated, what did you think her life was like?

Ms. UNG: Unfortunately for me I knew a lot what her life was like because I went through it. I survived the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia in my mind was filled with more terrors and wars and soldiers and hunger and fear. And so I imagined her life would just be an extension of that. It was just a prolonged suffering, sad experience and that filled me with guilt.

HANSEN: Hmm. When you were eventually reunited, did she ever tell you what she thought your life was like?

Ms. UNG: No. She didn't have any idea. Didn't know anything about America and she imagined that I probably ended up in a place where there were big buildings and lots of cars and diverse people. She was surprised that I basically grew up in a state full of farms with lots of cows and it wasn't the big city she had imagined.

HANSEN: We read about your sister's physical difficulty, just the day-to-day hard work that had to go into providing food for the family. Physically, you were better off than your sister. Emotionally, though, you suffered quite a bit. There's a scene, for example, when you're talking to the school counselor and, you know, here's the opportunity you have to talk about all that blackness that's inside you and you never did. Were you just not aware of how emotionally scarred you were?

Ms. UNG: I was embarrassed, I was ashamed, and I also wanted not to be different. I wanted her to like me and to view me the same way she looked at other children. And I also learned from experiences. When I was growing up, before I reached high school, I remember talking with friends who would share with me that their worst nightmares were of going in front of the class to give a presentation and then realizing they were naked. And I would share with them and, you know, last night, I actually had a dream where some soldier was chasing after me and he was trying to rape me and he was trying to kill me and then I had to grab a knife and slice his neck off. And I could just watch my friends' jaw drop. They didn't know how to react. And when I talked about the war, sometimes they even call me a party pooper and they didn't want to hear about it.

So I learned that in order to fit in, I better forget and put Cambodia behind and suppress all of that, and my body was reacting now and I was going through puberty and I was told that when you go through puberty in America for girls that your body would change. But I didn't know anything about this--the job that my mind was going through. I was expecting a little PMS. I was not expecting the severe depression.

HANSEN: You were reunited 10 years ago and it's a very complicated set of circumstances where you were all able to be reunited. Your older brother reunited first and then you were invited to go but you were reluctant. You'd missed your sister so much. Why did you hesitate when you were offered the chance to go back?

Ms. UNG: For 15 years, I had worked so hard to leave Cambodia behind. I had worked so hard to obtain the American Dream, to get an education, to have a good job, to live a life where I could go out with my girlfriends and spend $30 on a meal and not have to think, `That was my brother's income for the month.' And I knew going back I would have to face the war, reopen wounds and that I would have to cry. And I really was afraid that once I opened my heart and I cried I might never stop.

HANSEN: Has you sister been able to come to the States yet?

Ms. UNG: She hasn't.

HANSEN: Does she want to?

Ms. UNG: She would like to visit, for both of us. For me, Cambodia will always be a part of my heart and soul. For my sister, Cambodia is her heart and soul. She's now married with five lovely children, but she is very curious to know the life that I live and to see my home. And I've been back to Cambodia over 20 times--I've been back to Cambodia over 25 times and she has yet to make one visit here.

HANSEN: Loung Ung's new memoir is called "Lucky Child." It's published by HarperCollins. She joined us from our Chicago bureau.

Thank you so much.

Ms. UNG: Thank you.

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Books Featured In This Story

Lucky Child

A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind

by Loung Ung

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