Unpolished Gem One finds pain and comedy running through Alice Pung’s migrant story THIS IS A MEMOIR SO vivid that images from it linger behind your eyelids – the pig’s blood jelly that Alice Pung’s father remembers wistfully; the festive paper chains made of cut-up Target catalogues; the fate of the chocolate eggs that the seven-year-old Alice hoards in a drawer. The book begins as the ethnic Chinese Pung family arrive in Australia from Cambodia, fleeing the Khmer Rouge.
Immigrants to this country have a vast range of stories to tell but their have a more complex narrative formed by the experience of life as links between the old country and the new. Over time various ethnic groups have arrived and congregated in tight-knit communities for a while: Irish, Italian, Greek and, of course, Anglo Saxon. All have merged into the dominant Australian culture; significantly all have provided top footballers, politicians, chefs and writers, the first being a more reliable indicator of cultural integration than the last two.
But Chinese Australians and other East Asians have been more inclined towards business and medicine than footy. However admirable their achievements, it takes a book like this to help bridge the wider Australian culture and the old ways. Alice Pung is the classic migrant child whose immersion in two cultures makes her an interpreter. She is a go-between in other ways; her paternal grandmother and mother use her quite ruthlessly: “They keep all these secrets and tell them to four-year-olds who cannot possibly understand the complicated channels of hatred . . .
And so I was doomed, early on, to be a word-spreader. ” The stories are full of pain but there is a rich vein of comedy running through Unpolished Gem. Pung sees her family with Australian eyes and portrays them often as quaint. It’s a position of privilege – certainly no one else could do this without risking prejudiced cultural stereotypes. Yet many of the Asian/migrant stereotypes are there: the family sets up a small business; her mother is an outworker, putting enormous pressure on the young Alice to look after her younger siblings; Alice is under massive pressure later on to excel at school.
Pung’s sense of what it is to be a Chinese woman is often disturbing: “Constantly sighing and lying and dying – that is what being a Chinese woman means, and I want nothing to do with it. ” Western notional female equality entices her. As a teenager she engages in the usual subterfuges in order to go to parties and feel comfortable with her friends. But she does not go as far as they do: she has a strong sense of what can be tolerated by both the cultures she inhabits, even as she loses the ability to think in Chinese.