Thursday, May 20, 2010

Throwback Thursday: Unpolished Gem

Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung 2006
Black Inc. Books (Australia!)

IQ "Old people, I thought, grew younger the older they became. They would see things differently, making a difference in whatever way they could, without being afraid of looking foolish." Alice, pg. 171

Unpolished Gem
is a memoir of the first eighteen years of Alice Pung. Alice's Chinese-Cambodian family immigrated to Australia for the opportunities (it was that or Canada, too cold!) and life in Australia is full of difficulties and hardships. "Armed with an ocker accent, Alice dives headfirst into schooling, romance and the getting of wisdom. [...] And every day her grandmother blesses Father Government for giving old people money." (back cover) Alice's mother makes jewelry and her father joins a franchise by opening an electrical-appliance store.

You may have just read that summary and wondered who is Alice Pung? I have no idea. Even after finishing this book, I don't really know what she does. The book ends with her wanting to be a lawyer and her biography says she is a writer and lawyer, but her memoir only briefly hints at this. The thing that irked me the most about this book was I felt that Ms. Pung had not done anything that justified her writing a memoir. In my opinion, you should write a memoir if you've achieved something (preferably achieved many different things and then you write a memoir when you are older), like Barack Obama wrote his after becoming the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. He did something. I don't mean to insult Ms. Pung, it seems that she has had a successful writing career (I do own both books) but she wrote a memoir before all that and I didn't really understand why she chose to write a memoir. Was it simply because she's Asian and lives in Australia? I think the immigration experience is important but I think she should have either written a novel previously to this book or published an anthology (which is what her second book is, Growing Up Asian in Australia). Honestly, I was bored at times. The ending was jarring too, because it was so random and sudden. I could sort-of understand why Alice did what she did and I'm glad that she was able to honestly evaluate her relationships, but I think the story should have continued a little after that (the scene should not be cut out because it's a very key scene, but it needed a follow-up).

You may think I despised this book but I didn't. The author has a great sense of humor and she's able to poke fun at the strictness of her parents while still remaining the ideal obedient daughter. Although I am confused by her family's background. Alice's father's mother was definitely Chinese, she immigrated to Cambodia because she was a revolutionary and the government was after her. There she met Alice's father's father and I'm not sure if he's Cambodian or Chinese. She met him at a Chinese school, so I do think he's Chinese but he was way older and a teacher so maybe he was Cambodian and just taught at a Chinese school. I'm pretty sure Alice's mother is Cambodian though, Alice doesn't reveal much about the beginning of her life, her story starts when her mom is thirteen. Alice's mother was fortunate, when Pol Pot came to power, she was able to escape with her family to Vietnam. Alice's father and his family were not so fortunate, they were sent to the Killing Fields, but they miraculously survived and met up in Vietnam (the families knew each other from their days in Cambodia, but Alice's future parents did not know each other, Alice's father was many years older than her).

Nevertheless, I loved reading about the Chinese-Cambodian culture and Alice's interesting family. There are two things that really stuck me in reading this novel, how Alice and her family call white people "ghosts". I found this quite amusing and smiled to myself every time I read it. I also thought that their definition of gossip/insults was brilliant, "Words with bones in them, my grandmother calls them. Words to make the other person fall flat on their back and die a curly death, my mother says. The sharp ones, the ones you can use if ever you need a weapon to protect yourself." (pg. 36). I also loved the glimpse into Australian culture in general, mainly though vocabulary. For example, an ocker (see summary of the book above) is someone with an Australian accent who speaks and acts in an "uncultured manner" (thanks Wikipedia!). I had no clue what an ocker was but I had fun reading the bits of slang (bugger!) scattered throughout the novel and I was pleased that there was no translation (I'm not even sure if this book was published in the U.S., I don't think it was) you had to use context clues or just go look it up.

Alice and her grandmother have a special relationship that was really heart-warming to read about. Alice respects most of her elders because of her grandmother's example and attitude (see the Incredible Quote above), Her grandmother made me laugh (well, the way Alice described her grandmother made me laugh. "If anyone dared to feed her, she would yell 'Stop it! Stop it or else when I finally go, I'm going to drag you with me!' When her threats did not work, she would pick up her porcelain bowl and attempt to do grievous bodily harm to the poor soul who had dared to offer help" pg. 173) and she is a great role model for Alice. I also liked how the book started off with Alice on the appearing to be super obedient and not wanting anything for herself and being OK with it. But there is a negative effect of her always being pushed in academics and in all the hard work she has to do and this is portrayed so authentically, it's one of the biggest strengths of the book.

Unpolished Gem
was a humorous look into the life of an average Chinese-Cambodian family living in Australia. I learned a lot about Chinese-Cambodian and Australian culture. The strong characters, rich history and culture are never sugar-coated which keeps the book interesting and original. I do think the ending could have been way better and the story becomes tedious at times, but the author's light hearted look at things and her way with words, helped me finish the book. I cheered when she said "I wanted to know whether it was only because I was 'exotic' and if so, what that word meant to him. If he told me he liked my almond eyes and caramel skin, I would tell him to buy a bag of confectionery instead, because i was sick of it all-how we always had to have hair like a black waterfall, alabaster or porcelain skin, and some body part or other resembling a peach." (pg. 230)I LOVE this line! I have mixed feelings on this memoir, but I would say if you want to learn about being Asian in Australia then this book is a must-read for you.

Disclosure: Received from Justine. Justine is one of the most amazing people I know and last summer (don't really click the link, it's so awful, I didn't even include pictures and summaries do to laziness! I'm going to have to a re-do post) she sent me several Australian books by/about POC that she thought I would be interested in. This is my first review of one (I'm wincing as I type this). I'm mortified at how long it's taken me to read one and I'm so sorry Justine! My goal is to review them all before this upcoming summer is over. Anyway, thank you so much Justine!


  1. I read this book and didn't particularly enjoy it, I must admit. I can see why you had mixed feelings about it. I think the protagonist wanted it both ways. She didn't like her boyfriend exoticizing her, but at the same time, she kept saying how she didn't fit in and felt different, etc., and seemed to make no move to assimilate (thus, why wouldn't she be thought exotic?).

  2. Ari - You've been sitting on POC books by Aussie authors, that's almost sinful. What would you rate this book?

    I don't like the term exotic for people.

  3. @Aarti- I think many of us do want it both ways, especially as immigrants. We want to hold onto our culture but also assimilate to the culture that we now live in. We just have to find a balance and the author never found that balance. I wonder if the author is going to write a follow-up to this story, I want to know if she was ever able to find a balance since the ending was so awkward and out of place (except for the scene with the parents and the mangoes, very cute).

    @Doret-*covers her face in shame* I know, I know! I don't rate nonfiction books so I emailed you what I would rate it :) Everytime I read the word 'exoctic' I roll my eyes because it's such a silly term.


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