Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behindby Loung Ung
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When Loung Ung came to America in 1980 as a ten-year-old Cambodian refugee, she had already survived years of hunger, violence, and loss at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, a story she told in her critically acclaimed bestseller, First They Killed My Father. Now, in Lucky Child, Ung writes of assimilation and, in alternating chapters, gives voice to a genocide survivor she left behind in rural Cambodia, her older sister Chou.
Loung was the lucky child, the sibling Eldest Brother chose to take with him to America. The youngest and the scrappiest, she was the one he believed had the best chance of making it. Just two years apart, Chou and Loung had bonded deeply over the deaths of their parents and sisters. As they stood holding hands in their dusty village while the extended family gathered to say good-bye, they never imagined that fifteen years would pass before they would be reunited again.
With candor and enormous flair, Ung describes what it is like to survive in a new culture while surmounting dogged memories of genocide and the deep scars of war. Not only must she learn about Disney characters and Christmas trees to fit in with her classmates, she must also come to understand life in a nation of peace: that the Fourth of July fireworks are not bombs and that she doesn't have to hide food in her bed every night to make sure she has enough to eat. Her spunk, intelligence, and charisma win out, but Cambodia and Chou are always in her thoughts.
An accomplished activist and writer, Ung has now returned to Cambodia many times, and in this recreation of Chou's life, she writes the story that so easily could have been hers. Both redemptive and searing, Lucky Child highlights the harsh realities of chance and circumstance and celebrates the indomitability of the human spirit.
The Washington Post
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Lucky ChildA Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind
By Loung Ung
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Loung Ung
All right reserved.
Welcome to America
June 10, 1980
My excitement is so strong, I feel like there are bugs crawling around in my pants, making me squirm in my seat. We are flying across the ocean to resettle in our new home in America, after having spent two months living in a houseboat in Vietnam and five months in a refugee camp in Thailand.
"We must make a good impression, Loung, so comb your hair and clean your face," Eang orders me as the plane's engine drones out her voice. "We don't want to look as if we've just gotten off the boat." Her face looms in front of me, her nails working furiously in their attempts to pick crusty sleepy seeds out of the corners of my eyes.
"Stop, you're pulling out my eyelashes! I'll clean my own face before you blind me." I take the wet rag from Eang's hand.
I quickly wipe my face and wet the cruds on my lids before gently removing them. Then I turn the rag over to the clean side and smooth down my hair as Eang looks on disapprovingly. Ignoring her scowl, I ball up the rag, run it over my front teeth, and scrub hard. When I'm finished, I wrap the rag around my pointing finger, put it in my mouth, and proceed to scrapefood residue off my back teeth.
"All finished and clean," I chime innocently.
"I do have a toothbrush for you in my bag." Her annoyance is barely contained in her voice.
"There just wasn't time ... and you said you wanted me clean."
Eang has been my sister-in-law for a year and generally I don't mind her; but I just can't stand it when she tells me what to do. Unfortunately for me, Eang likes to tell me what to do a lot so we end up fighting all the time. Like two monkeys, we make so much noise when we fight that my brother Meng has to step in and tell us to shut up. After he intervenes, I usually stomp off somewhere by myself to sulk over how unfair it is that he takes her side. From my hiding place, I listen as she continues to argue with him about how they need to raise me with discipline and show me who has the upper hand or I'll grow up wrong. At first, I didn't understand what she meant by "wrong" and imagined I would grow up crooked or twisted like some old tree trunk. I pictured my arms and legs all gnarly, with giant sharp claws replacing my fingers and toes. I imagined chasing after Eang and other people I didn't like, my claws snapping at their behinds.
But no, that would be too much fun, and besides, Eang is bent on raising me "right." To create a "right" Loung, Eang tells Meng, they will have to kick out the tomboy and teach me the manners of a proper young lady -- which means no talking back to adults, fighting, screaming, running around, eating with my mouth open, playing in skirts, talking to boys, laughing out loud, dancing for no reason, sitting Buddha-style, sleeping with my legs splayed apart, and the list goes on and on. And then there is the other list of what a proper girl is supposed to do, which includes sitting quietly, cooking, cleaning, sewing, and babysitting -- all of which I have absolutely no interest in doing.
I admit I wouldn't fight Eang so hard if she followed her own list. At twenty-four, Eang is one year older than Meng. This little fact caused quite a stir when they married a year ago in our village in Cambodia. It also doesn't help that Eang is very loud and outspoken. Even at my age, I'd noticed that many unmarried women in the village would act like little fluttering yellow chicks, quiet, soft, furry, and cute. But once married, they'd become fierce mother hens, squawking and squeaking about with their wings spread out and their beaks pecking, especially when marking their territory or protecting their children. Eang, with her loudness and strong opinions, was unlike any unmarried woman I'd ever spied on. The other villagers gossiped that Meng should marry a young wife who could give him many sons. At her advanced age, Eang was already thought of as a spinster and too old for Meng, a well-educated and handsome man from a respected family. But neither one cared too much for what the villagers said and allowed our aunts and uncles to arrange their marriage. Meng needed a wife to help him care for his siblings and Eang needed a husband to help her survive the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge war, Cambodia's poverty, and increasing banditries. And even though they got married because of those needs, I do think they love each other. Like the two sides of the ying and yang symbol, together they form a nice circle. Whereas Meng is normally reserved and quiet, Eang makes him laugh and talk. And when Eang gets too emotional and crazy, Meng calms and steadies her.
"Thank you for the rag," I smile sweetly, handing it back to Eang.
"Did you see what she did, Meng?" Eang crunches her face in disgust as she rolls up the wet rag and puts it in her bag. On my other side, Meng is quiet as he pulls a white shirt from a clear plastic bag and hands it over to his wife. The shirt gleams in Eang's hands, crisp and new. When Meng found out we were coming to America, he took all the money we had and bought us all new white shirts. He wanted us to enter America looking fresh and unused despite our scraggy hair and thin limbs. Eang kept the shirts in a plastic bag so they would stay fresh and unwrinkled for this very special occasion ...
Excerpted from Lucky Child by Loung Ung Copyright © 2006 by Loung Ung. Excerpted by permission.
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An author, lecturer, and activist, Loung Ung has advocated for equality, human rights, and justice in her native land and worldwide for more than fifteen years. Ung lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband.
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