As a young child at the start of the Khmer Rouge takeover, Loung has little else in her life apart from her parents and six siblings. Family is Loung’s entire world, and as the horror of the next four years steals her innocence, ties between family members are the only things unbroken by the Angkar.
In the beginning of the story, Loung emphasizes that her relationships with her siblings in Phnom Penh are fairly typical, full of the love, frustration, and rivalry that characterize many family bonds. She notes, for example, how annoying her ten-year-old brother Kim is, and that older brothers seem to exist solely to pester their little sisters, writing that “their whole purpose for being is to pick on you and provoke you.” Strict Khouy is “the brother we fear,” while Ma is always comparing the “spoiled, troublesome” Loung to her more well-behaved older sister Chou. When the Khmer Rouge takes over, however, every member of Loung’s family puts petty differences aside. Khouy, for example, tries to shield Loung from seeing dead bodies on the march out of Phnom Penh. When he and Meng are later sent to a labor camp, they do backbreaking work without complaint and risk their lives to smuggle extra rice back to their family. After being sent away by Ma, Chou, too, sneaks back as often as she can to bring rice to her and their youngest sibling, Geak.
Of all her siblings, Loung’s relationship changes most drastically with Kim—who, after Pa’s death, is thrust into the role of head of household in the absence of Khouy and Meng. Despite being “only a little boy,” Kim takes the job of providing for his remaining family members seriously. He risks his life night after night to steal ears of corn for his starving mother and sisters, fully aware that getting caught could mean death. As Loung sees how much her family is willing to sacrifice for one another, her appreciation for her parents and siblings only deepens. Thus, not only is the Khmer Rouge unable to break their bond; its cruelty, in fact, makes it ever more steadfast.
Family ties are not just unshakeable, but are also a special source of inspiration and strength. Throughout the book, Loung finds comfort amidst the horror by thinking of her parents and siblings. She remembers twirling around in dresses with Chou and Keav, eating a New Year’s feast together at their apartment in Phnom Penh, or watching Kim practice karate. These flashbacks are often the sole source of hope or light in her existence under the brutal Khmer Rouge. Thoughts of family sustain Loung long after she has been separated from everyone she has ever known. While in the infirmary due to malnutrition, for example, Loung’s dreams of Keav grant her the will to overcome her exhaustion and find food. “Determined to live, the next morning I force myself to walk the hospital grounds looking for food to steal to fill my stomach,” she writes. Even Loung’s hatred for the Khmer Rouge is inextricably linked to love for her family, as her will to live hangs on her desire to avenge the deaths of Ma, Pa, Keav, and Geak. When Loung’s cruel foster mother in the Vietnamese displacement camp tells Loung she will never amount to anything, Loung draws strength from Pa’s words of encouragement. “Pa loved me and believed in me,” Loung thinks, asserting that she will “make something” of herself one day because she possesses “everything [her] Pa gave [her].” Thus, for Loung, familial love overcomes everything—including death, distance, and time. The love Loung’s family gave her, the lessons they taught, and the sacrifices they made will forever be with Loung because they made her the woman she is.
The Unbreakable Bonds of Family ThemeTracker
The Unbreakable Bonds of Family Quotes in First They Killed My Father
My first red dress, the one Ma made for me for the New Year's celebration. I remember Ma taking my measurements, holding the soft chiffon cloth against my body, and asking me if I liked it. "The color looks so pretty on you," she said, "and the chiffon material will keep you cool." Ma made three identical dresses for Chou, Geak, and me. ... I grind my teeth so hard the pain in my throat moves up to my temples. My hands clench in fists; I continue to stare at my dress. I do not see the soldier's hand reach into his pocket and retrieve from it a box of matches. I do not hear his fingers strike a match against the side of the box. The next thing I know the pile of clothes bursts into flames and my red dress melts like plastic in the fire.
"No one knows how precious you are. You are a diamond in the rough and with a little polishing, you will shine," Pa whispers softly. His gentle words bring a small smile to my lips. The mother may not give me the love I crave, but I know what it feels like to be loved. Pa loved me and believed in me. With that little reminder from him, I know the foster mother is wrong about me. I do possess the one thing I need to make something of myself one day: I have everything my Pa gave me.
Then I lift and smooth my dress once again before laying it down carefully, making sure it will not be wrinkled tomorrow. I am sad thinking I have finally replaced the other red dress that the soldier burned. This is my first dress in five years, and tomorrow I will wear it and show off to everyone. Before the giggles can escape my lips, a feeling of sadness pushes them down. Staring at the dress I realize it will never be the dress Ma made for me. They are both gone.
Once her glance reached my face and our eyes locked, I saw that they are the same: kind, gentle, and open. Instantly, she covered her mouth and burst into tears and ran over to me. The family was speechless. She took my hand, her tears cool in my palm. Our fingers clasped around each other naturally as if the chain was never broken, and I allowed Chou to lead me to the car while the cousins followed with my bags.