This book is the sequel to First They Killed My Father, a book about what happened in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge took power. During this period she went from a relatively wealthy and comfortable life in Phnom Penh to living in primitive conditions in a rural village where her father was taken away to be killed and her mother and two of her sisters died.
“After” is about what happened next. Ung, her eldest brother and his wife escaped to a Thai refugee camp and from there managed to get to Vermont USA. From arrival in USA Ung’s book tells her own story in parallel with that of the sister who remained behind in Cambodia. In this way it shows the significant differences in the way the West live and the way people were forced to live in a less developed country in South-East Asia.
At times I had to stop and remind myself that these lives are being lived in the 1980s and 1990s! Reading Chou’s story it is hard for me to comprehend how people survive living with the uncertainty, scratching a living from land that can be deadly and this in an era of growth, development and plenty in the West.
I find it easier to comprehend Loung’s story. I can imagine how disorienting it must have been moving to a place so culturally different and wanting desperately to fit in. I can imagine the residual fear and anger over what happened in Cambodia and the luxury and pain of being able to feel it once she arrived in a place of safety.
Despite the differences in the sisters’ life experiences though this is also a book about having the drive and determination to achieve something and about not letting the past destroy the future. I admire the Ung family for getting on and living life. I am sure there are many former refugees and survivors of terrible regimes who have done similar.
As well as getting involved in the story I am also aware of finding out more about how thin the veneer of civilisation is and how quickly it can disappear. Underpinning this is a sense of incomprehension and bemusement as to how, in an age of easy mass communication, a dictator can so take such a strong hold of a country and destroy its culture. Dictatorship should be consigned to the history books. Why isn’t it?