Loung is playing hopscotch in the street on a Thursday afternoon because Pa has kept all the children home from school. Suddenly mud-covered trucks roll through the streets, occupied by filthy, dark-skinned men with long greasy hair—a sign in Cambodia of having something to hide. They wear black pants and shirts, with red scarves tied around their foreheads. A crowd forms and people cheer. Loung runs to ask Pa what is happening, and he says that they are soldiers cheering because they won the war. Pa says they are not nice men, pointing out that their shoes are made of tires—signaling that they destroy things.
This is Loung’s first sight of the Khmer Rouge, and reveals how abruptly the group invades and upends her life. Though she does not understand exactly what is happening, she knows the men’s dark skin associates them with the rural countryside. The men’s long hair and Pa’s observation about their destructive nature foreshadow the havoc the Khmer Rouge will wreak upon Cambodia.
Everyone has stopped what they are doing to watch the men. Loung joins in the cheering, though she has no idea what is going on. When she returns home, her family is frantically packing, and Ma snaps at her to eat because they have a long journey ahead. Loung reluctantly does so under Khouy’s watchful eye. Upon Ma’s instructions, Loung changes her clothes, and then walks toward the family Mazda—a car that signals that they are middle class. Kim picks Loung up and instead plops her in the back of Pa’s rundown pickup truck, and the family drives off through the crowded streets of the city.
The fact that Loung cheers for the soldiers underscores how little she understands about the Khmer Rouge, but also how they could potentially be seen (particularly by the poor) as liberators—overthrowing a corrupt government and advocating for equality—until their own corruption and brutality becomes apparent. The confusion she feels will be present throughout the story, highlighting the ultimate irrationality of the violence that is about to become part of her life. The family takes the truck to avoid being associated with wealth or worldliness, both of which are punishable under the Khmer Rouge, as Ma and Pa immediately understand.
Many other families are leaving the city, both in vehicles and on foot. The soldiers shout at citizens to surrender all weapons, and Loung notes that they no longer seem friendly. Keav explains to Loung that they are called the Khmer Rouge and are Communists. The soldiers shout that the city must be emptied for a few days because the U.S. will bomb it. They fire their rifles in the air, causing the crowd to push and shove in a frenzy as people try to escape the city.
Even amidst Loung’s confusion about why her family has to leave Phnom Penh, the cruelty and violence of the Khmer Rouge is immediately apparent—they are not liberators at all, but have only replaced one corrupt government with another that is even worse. Many families appear to be in the same situation as the Ungs. Loung’s family continues to be a source of information and comfort for her.