Pa and Ma worry that malnutrition has stunted Loung’s growth. The Khmer Rouge does not allow New Year’s celebrations, despite it being Cambodia’s biggest holiday. Loung reminisces about the multi-day feasts and can think about little else besides food. Many villagers have begun stealing corn to survive, and Loung regrets how she judged thieves as simply too lazy to work back when she was “rich and spoiled” in Phnom Penh. She dreams of feasts that she refuses to share even with her family, and wakes up feeling guilty.
Loung continues to adapt to life under the Khmer Rouge, going to extreme lengths to survive. Her guilt over refusing to share food in her dreams shows how one’s will to live can overcome nearly everything else—including deeply-held beliefs and morality. Her realization that sometimes people must steal to survive foreshadows her stealing rice from her family and, later, an elderly woman. New Year’s will repeatedly be used to mark the passage of time throughout the book.
Many have died from starvation and disease, and Loung eats things she would not have touched at home, from snakes and rats to insects. In Cambodian culture, people do not celebrate birthdays until the age of fifty. Before that time, everyone gets older on the New Year—meaning Loung is now six. As she gnaws on charcoal to ease her hunger, she recalls Pa’s stories of how children in other countries get birthday cakes.
Loung’s reflection on eating charcoal while other children get cake creates a stark contrast between the outside world and Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge.
As the months pass, the villagers begin to stink of death. People are often too weak to bury the dead, whose bodies rot in the sun and become full of maggots. Loung has grown numb to watching people dispose of bodies in communal graves. Her neighbor Chong’s husband was killed by the Khmer Rouge, and her two-year-old son then died of starvation. Now, desperate for food, her daughters Peu and Srei accidentally eat poisonous mushrooms they find in the woods and die in pain in front of a horrified Chong. Loung thinks about how the chief said the Angkar would take care of them. She worries about the frail-looking Geak, who has lost most of her hair from starvation. Chong goes “crazy,” speaking to her children as if they are still alive and handing Ma a bowl of earthworms to eat.
Loung does not shy away from describing the atrocities that occur under the Khmer Rouge, and in doing so highlights the extent of the group’s barbarity. Chong’s tragic fate reflects the novel’s theme of family; without her husband and children, Chong becomes utterly unmoored. Loung again points out the hypocrisy of the Angkar, which promoted equality yet is letting its citizens starve and encouraging them to turn on each other.
Ma sewed jewelry into the straps of their bags to hide it from the soldiers in Uncle Leang’s village, and plans to use this to trade—even though bartering is considered treason. Meanwhile Kim says more people are talking about Pol Pot as the leader of the Angkar, though his identity remains mysterious. People say he is a fat, brilliant soldier with “kind eyes”; Loung wonders if those eyes can see them starving. Chong becomes known as the village “crazy lady” and eventually dies from poisonous food like her daughters.
Despite being ill-prepared for life under the Khmer Rouge, Ma proves capable and forward-thinking in saving her jewelry; later on, this jewelry will eventually help Loung escape Cambodia. Loung’s rejection of Pol Pot reveals that she sees through the propaganda of the Angkar and again recognizes the utter hypocrisy of the Khmer Rouge.
Pa remains friendly with the chief and gets extra rice in exchange for Ma’s jewelry. This rice keeps the family from starving to death, though they must keep it hidden. Loung steals from the rice container one evening. Despite sensing that Pa knows her guilt and feeling deeply ashamed, she cannot bring herself to admit it.
Pa continues to swallow his pride in the name of helping his family. Loung taking the rice echoes her earlier realization that sometimes people must steal to survive. For the rest of her life she will feel guilty about this theft, which represents the desperate lengths to which people will go in order to live one more day.
Loung begins to close herself off from her family, and constantly fights with Chou. When the weaker Chou finally pushes back, Loung charges at her. Ma throws a coconut shell at Loung to stop her; it hits her head and makes her bleed. Ma immediately grows worried and begins to cry. Loung has never seen Pa angry, but now he scolds Ma, saying she could have blinded Loung, and that a blind child could never survive in the village. Later Ma apologizes for hurting Loung, asking why she must always start fights with everyone. An angry Loung ignores her, silently wishing her dead. She hates herself for being “bad” and the family troublemaker.
Loung’s immature behavior with Chou reflects the fact that she is still a young child grappling with extreme horror. Ma and Pa, similarly, are clearly being pushed to their breaking points by the horror of life under the Khmer Rouge. The hardship they endure sometimes strengthens the bonds between the members of the Ung family, but it also brings out new conflicts as they are driven to desperation.
Chou grabs Loung’s hand when they leave for work in the communal garden, and Loung knows she has already forgiven her. That night Loung’s anger towards Ma turns to despair as she remembers how beautiful and joyous she was in Phnom Penh, lamenting that no one would even recognize her now. Born in China, Ma never did hard labor growing up. She must work to hide her accent because the Angkar is “obsessed with ethnic cleansing.” Loung rubs dirt and charcoal onto her own skin to make it appear darker and better fit in with the base people.
The bond between Chou and Loung remains unbroken. Chou grabbing her sister’s hand here will be echoed many years later, when Loung returns to Cambodia for the first time since the genocide in the story’s epilogue. This is also the first time Loung mentions ethnic cleansing directly, emphasizing that the Khmer Rouge is actively and openly targeting ethnic minorities.