Unpolished Gem

by

Alice Pung

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Huyen Thai Character Analysis

Alice’s grandmother, Kuan’s mother, Kien’s mother-in-law, and An Pung’s wife. Huyen Thai is of ethnic Teochew origin, but she is forced to leave China after boldly speaking out against the government. She moves to Cambodia where she finds a job as a teacher and falls in love with An, even though he is ten years older and has a wife and two children. Tragically, Huyen Thai loses her first two children, both girls, and she spends the rest of her life pining for her lost daughters. She even goes so far as to try to trade one of her newborn sons for a daughter, but An makes her switch back. She is a strong woman despite her oppressive culture, and she commands over her seven children, and everybody else, for that matter. Huyen Thai has a volatile relationship with Kien, her daughter-in-law, and she frequently makes her metaphorically choke on the “bones in her words” (meaning her sharp or hurtful words). Despite this conflict, Huyen Thai is incredibly close with Kien’s daughter Alice, however, and she teaches the girl from a young age to be proud of her Chinese heritage and culture. Huyen Thai shares her life and history through stories of the old country, and Alice learns what it is to be Chinese from long talks with her grandmother. Sadly, Huyen Thai’s dies after suffering a stroke, which is compounded by a cold.

Huyen Thai Quotes in Unpolished Gem

The Unpolished Gem quotes below are all either spoken by Huyen Thai or refer to Huyen Thai. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Plume edition of Unpolished Gem published in 2006.
Part 1 Quotes

“Have you thought of a proper name for the baby yet?” my grandmother asks her son. She has nothing but disdain for those parents who do not give their children Chinese names. Did they really think that new whitewashed names would make the world outside see that yellow Rose was just as radiant a flower as white Daisy?

Related Characters: Huyen Thai (speaker), Alice Pung / Agheare, Kuan Pung
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

When I am a bit older, I don’t know whether [my mother’s] answer is a lament or curse: “Just wait till you get older and have a mother-in-law like mine. Then you will understand. You will understand.” What will I understand? I wonder. Suffering? There are far better things to understand than the inconsolable hardships of life. Constantly sighing and lying and dying—that is what being a Chinese woman means, and I want nothing to do with it.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Kien Pung, Huyen Thai
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Or perhaps my word-spreading is also the only way to see that there was once flesh attached to these bones, that there was once something living and breathing, something that inhaled and exhaled; something that slept and woke up every morning with the past effaced, if only for a moment. That there was a good beginning, and in this good beginning the stories would come like slow trickles of truth, like blood coursing through the veins.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Kien Pung, Huyen Thai
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

My grandmother was possessed of healing powers, or so it was claimed by those who knew her back in Cambodia. Five sons, people exclaimed—seven children, all of them so bright! Of course, everyone chose to forget about the first two babies who died, because they were just girls.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Huyen Thai
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

When it came down to childrearing, they were her children, he had nothing to do with such prosaic things. Fathers were only there to plant the seeds, it was mothers who did the watering and the fertilizing. Of course, the paternal influence would occasionally return to lop off a few leaves for good measure, and smirk for photographs in front of his prize garden, but he made sure to leave immediately afterwards in case the cumquats only glowed orange but were black inside. It was never the pa’s fault if the kids went bad.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Huyen Thai, An Pung
Page Number: 37-8
Explanation and Analysis:

“If you could give me sons, then I wouldn’t need to go over there!”

Related Characters: An Pung (speaker), Huyen Thai
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2 Quotes

“She’s built like a boy,” said my grandfather, “and now you’ve given her that terrible name. She’s going to grow up like a boy if you’re not careful, and then no one will want her. Who wants a girl always running about this way and that? Keep that child still, and stop calling her Little Brother! What do you think it is—some kind of joke? Do you think it’s funny hah?”

Related Characters: An Pung (speaker), Huyen Thai, Little Brother
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4 Quotes

My grandmother was meant to be a part of me forever, so that I would always know that there was a life before me, and a life after me. My grandmother and her stories. What would I do without them? She asserted my existence before I knew I had one—before I was conscious I had a life beyond the present—and she told me my childhood. “Agheare, when you were small you could recite long Teochew songs and poems.” “Agheare, when you were small you could speak in Cantonese.” It seemed as if I could do anything when I was small. We slept in the same bed, and it was always warm. Now there would be no one left to remind me of my roots, no one to tell me to be proud to be part of a thousand-year-old culture, no one to tell me that I was gold not yellow.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Huyen Thai
Related Symbols: Gold
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 5 Quotes

At Footscray Retravision, there was a propensity for some mainland Chinese to refuse to buy items made in China. Whenever they said haughtily, “O, zhonggno zuo de wo buyao”—I don’t want anything made in China—I couldn’t help myself. I would ask with salesgirl innocence, “But sir, aren’t you made in China?” Of course, I always had to feign that little giggle that sounded like two brightly coloured balloons rubbing rapidly up against each other. Unlike my younger sisters, who grew up in tastefully bland pastel dresses, I had spent my childhood with a grandmother who packaged me into padded Mao suits and made me aware that I had to defend myself against all the other blandly dressed banana-children—children who were yellow on the outside but believed they could be completely white inside. My grandmother had warned me that those children grew up to become sour, crumple-faced lemons. I now believed her.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Huyen Thai
Related Symbols: The Mao Suit
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue Quotes

Then, four weeks later, I decided that one of the little ones had to go. It was time. I imagined they were quivering in their cotton-wool padded prison, I was so excited. But when the drawer was opened—horror of all horrors, worse than finding my fortunes furtively stolen—ants spilled out and the bunny had melted and the goo that gushed from the eggs had wrecked my box. I didn’t care about the ants that would crawl up my arms, I pulled the whole drawer out of the cupboard and dug my hands in deep. While Alexander and Andrew watched, I started pulling out each egg one by one—or what was left of them—trying in desperation to find one that was not insect-infested, trying to sort through the foil and frustration, not wanting to believe that these squished tragedies were once my pride and joy, the things I had looked forward to most in the world for more than four weeks.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Huyen Thai, Alexander Pung
Related Symbols: Gold
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:
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Huyen Thai Character Timeline in Unpolished Gem

The timeline below shows where the character Huyen Thai appears in Unpolished Gem. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
...to the previous month, when Kuan and Kien first arrive in Australia with Kuan’s mother, Huyen Thai , and his sister, Que. The Pungs are fascinated as they walk down the street.... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Huyen Thai watches in amazement as an old man pushes a button on the traffic light and... (full context)
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The first time Kien and Huyen Thai shop in an Australian supermarket, they are overwhelmed by the size, selection, and cleanliness of... (full context)
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Later, Huyen Thai asks Kuan what he plans to name his child. She hates people who don’t give... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...his daughter Alice. “Ay, this girl is going to have a good life indeed!” declares Huyen Thai . (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
...she imagined it would be. The only downfall to her new life is her mother-in-law, Huyen Thai , who is “an unfortunate permanent fixture.” Kien tells Alice that pretty things must not... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
...Alice comes home from kindergarten with crafts made from macaroni noodles and construction paper, Kien, Huyen Thai , and Que “wah over it” and display each piece prominently. Alice and her brother,... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
...commission is better than the apartments in the Hong Kong soap operas that Kien and Huyen Thai buy from the illegitimate video shops in town. (full context)
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Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
...sense of “filial piety” that “permeates through every pore.” At dinner, they all wait for Huyen Thai to pick up her chopsticks before they begin to eat, and Alice’s grandmother frequently tells... (full context)
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Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Before she eats, Huyen Thai says grace and prays to Buddha to bless “Father Government,” who treats them “better than... (full context)
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Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
The only Pung who is not thankful for Father Government is Kien. Huyen Thai prevents Kien from enjoying the government’s “everlasting abundance,” and Kuan is forever loyal to his... (full context)
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Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
The next day, Kien gives the letter to Huyen Thai to mail. The letter is full of meaningless and banal words, and Kien wishes that... (full context)
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Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Later, Huyen Thai and Alice stand in line outside the bank to collect Huyen Thai’s “old people’s gold.”... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
At a pet shop, Huyen Thai buys a fish and a red plastic bucket and then boards a bus. She tells... (full context)
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Back at home, Huyen Thai divides all the money into separate piles and gives Kien just enough to purchase groceries.... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Kien grows upset with Alice for talking with Huyen Thai behind her back. “You are so evil,” Kien tells Alice, threatening to take Alexander and... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...still there. “I don’t like word-spreaders,” Kien says. Alice is stuck. If she stops telling Huyen Thai things, the girl’s grandmother will stop loving her, and Kien is sure to stop loving... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Huyen Thai tells Alice that Kien doesn’t love her children because she works in the garage making... (full context)
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Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
In the meantime, the word-spreading continues. Huyen Thai tells Alice that Kien was not Kuan’s first fiancée, and Kien tells Alice that Huyen... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Huyen Thai tells Alice stories about Cambodia, where she was regarded as a woman who “possessed healing... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Huyen Thai mothered all the children living nearby, and they took to calling her “Ma.” An would... (full context)
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Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
As the mother of five sons, Huyen Thai desired a daughter “above all else.” Crying, she told An that she only traded the... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
...with her were “dull things,” and she frequently complained that he went too often to Huyen Thai ’s house. “If you could give me sons, then I wouldn’t have to go over... (full context)
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Soon after, An snatched Huyen Thai ’s newborn son and gave him to his first wife. “He took my son to... (full context)
Part 2
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
“Woe!” cries Huyen Thai . “Why do you smell like piss?” she asks Alice. Alice tells her she smells... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
...and Alice was, as usual, wearing a padded Mao suit. Despite the warm spring weather, Huyen Thai still worried that Alice would “freeze like the communist peasants from the Middle Kingdom.” The... (full context)
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Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
That night, in the queen-size bed they share, Huyen Thai asks Alice why she doesn’t tell the teacher she needs to use the bathroom. “Do... (full context)
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Huyen Thai tells Alice that when her own children were young, they had only one mattress. She... (full context)
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When Kuan tells Huyen Thai that he is going to open an electronics store, she thinks he is crazy. An... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
...yet Kien insists on continuing to work. Que decides that it will be easier if Huyen Thai comes to live with her, and Alice’s grandmother soon moves out of their house. Without... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
...one day while exploring a cupboard under the stairs, she finds human hair hidden in Huyen Thai ’s old Buddha shrine. (full context)
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
When Huyen Thai stops by a few weeks later to gather more of her things, Alice asks her... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Back in Cambodia, Alice says, Huyen Thai ’s first two babies, both girls, died when they were just young. After her grandmother... (full context)
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Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
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Less than a year later, Huyen Thai was pregnant again. She gave birth to another girl and An thought for sure he... (full context)
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Little Brother was very mischievous, and Huyen Thai had a difficult time keeping her in line and out of trouble. “What a bad... (full context)
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Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Huyen Thai soon gave birth to another child, a son this time, and An Pung threw a... (full context)
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Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
After An left the room, Huyen Thai gave Little Brother a lollipop to calm her down and went back to preparing food... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
For as long as Alice can remember, Huyen Thai has always warned her not to run with pens or pencils in her mouth. Alice’s... (full context)
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Huyen Thai tells Alice to “love sensibly,” but Alice fails to see how passion can be experienced... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Shortly after Huyen Thai fled China, Alice says, she met An Pung. They were both teachers at the same... (full context)
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
...lost her entire family in the Killing Fields, and she had returned to marry Kuan. Huyen Thai invited Kien into the house anyway. (full context)
Part 3
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Alice thinks about how Huyen Thai had saved all her money from the plastic bag factory to buy a terrace house... (full context)
Part 4
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...Que tells Alice that her father is at the hospital. Alice freezes. “Why?” she asks. Huyen Thai has had a stroke, Que says. (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
...hospital later that evening, and everything there is white and blue. The stroke has left Huyen Thai blind in one eye, but she doesn’t know it yet. Once she is discharged from... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...laughs too, hoping that they aren’t laughing at her. She thinks of King Lear and Huyen Thai going mad incapacitated all day long at Que’s house alone. (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
...in her. After all, those boys must have terrible taste anyway. Alice goes to visit Huyen Thai and her grandmother begs her to take her “to a place with no darkness.” Alice... (full context)
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Huyen Thai catches a cold and dies a short time later. Alice thinks that her “grandmother is... (full context)
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
...She is finally doing something, even if it is small and ridiculous. Alice thinks about Huyen Thai and wonders what they did in the old country when they failed exams. She knows... (full context)
Part 5
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Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
...made in China. “But sir,” Alice asks an older gentleman, “aren’t you made in China?” Huyen Thai had always taught Alice to be proud of being Chinese. She had raised Alice to... (full context)
Gender and Inequality Theme Icon
...“blonde-haired sixteen-year-old sweetheart” “in an American movie.” Other than the same bed she shared with Huyen Thai , it is completely empty. (full context)
Epilogue
Culture and Assimilation  Theme Icon
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Alice remembers back to when she was a kid and Huyen Thai still lived with them. Her grandmother had given her four solid chocolate eggs. “Don’t eat... (full context)
Family, Love, and Marriage Theme Icon
Alice began to cry, and both Kien and Huyen Thai tried to console her. Huyen Thai offered to buy Alice more chocolate, but she didn’t... (full context)