The story begins in Phnom Penh in April of 1975. The bustling city comes to life early as people try to avoid the extreme heat of midday. The streets are full of food vendors, children playing, and people on their way to work. Loung Ung is five years old and lives with her family in a third-floor apartment in the middle of the chaos. She enjoys traveling with Ma via cyclo, a sort of “big wheelchair attached to the front of a bicycle,” as police officers stand on metal boxes at intersections to direct traffic. This morning Loung struggles to sit still as she and her parents eat a traditional breakfast of noodle soup. Ma scolds her and Loung believes it must difficult for Ma—who is tall, slender, and beautiful—to have such an unruly daughter. Despite Ma’s efforts, Loung cannot walk daintily like a proper young lady.
To open her memoir, Loung establishes the vibrancy and normalcy of life in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge takeover. The city is full of regular people simply going about their lives, including Loung and her parents. Her unruliness at the breakfast table is the first hint at her strong-willed character, while Ma’s scolding reflects the restrictive attitudes towards women even before the Khmer Rouge takeover. The association between Ma’s pale skin and beauty suggests the racial prejudice within Cambodian society, equating lighter skin with superiority.
The family’s food comes and Loung adds two whole red chilies to her bowl, reflecting that Pa told her that eating spicy food is good for people in hot climates because it makes them drink more water. Loung knocks over a salt shaker and Ma becomes angry once again, pointing out that Loung frequently gets into trouble—such as when she carried around a chicken to join in chicken fights with her friends. Pa, meanwhile, asserts that Loung is clever for getting herself out of tricky situations.
Loung clearly respects Pa’s advice and values his praise. Her story of the chicken further establishes Loung’s adventurous, “unladylike” nature. Pa’s assertion that Loung is able to get out of tricky situations foreshadows her ability to survive under the Khmer Rouge.
Pa is five-foot-five with a stocky frame and a warm smile that reaches his eyes. He was a monk when he met Ma but, smitten by her beauty, left the monastery so they could marry. Because he was poor and dark-skinned, however, Ma’s parents did not approve of the match and the two eloped. Pa had a serious gambling problem early in their marriage; he lost his house and money in a game, and stopped gambling when Ma threatened to leave him. As a result, he does not allow playing cards in the house. He works as a military police captain, and though Loung does not get to see him often because of his job, she insists he is “everything a good father should be” and is respected by many.
Ma’s parents’ disapproval of her relationship with Pa further establishes the racial prejudice of the time between light and dark-skinned Cambodians—prejudices that will soon be exploited by the Khmer Rouge. Pa’s job will also later threaten the survival of the Ungs. Loung continues to display love and respect for her family members and establish what their lives are like in the time before the Khmer Rouge takeover.
Loung is extremely curious about the world, though her incessant questioning annoys Ma. After she has finished eating, her parents let her leave the table and she buys fried crickets for a snack. She notices that many of the more successful street vendors are pretty girls, and that beauty is a powerful commodity. She recalls friends of her parents frequently saying she is “ugly,” which in Cambodia is a compliment; people believe that evil spirits become jealous when they hear a child being complimented outright.
Loung’s observation of beauty as currency in Phnom Penh further reveals the societal expectations of and pressure placed on women regardless of who is in power. Later on, beauty will become a burden as it attracts harassment and even rape under the Khmer Rouge.