Unpolished Gem

by

Alice Pung

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Alice’s mother, Kuan’s wife, and the antagonist of Unpolished Gem. Kien first meets her husband while working in his Cambodian factory as a young girl, but she doesn’t fall in love with him until years later. Kien’s family runs to Vietnam to avoid the Killing Fields, and she doesn’t see Kuan for years. Kuan escapes and flees to Vietnam too; they meet again, and Kien falls in love with Kuan from the back of his bicycle. In Australia, after the birth of Alice, Kien grows miserable under the thumb of her mother-in-law, Huyen Thai, who controls her money and her entire life. Kien is furious when she thinks Alice and Huyen Thai are talking about her behind her back, and she is prone to depression and suicidal threats. Kien is an incredibly hard worker, and she finds her purpose making gold jewelry from the family’s garage to help make ends meet. She spends countless hours working every day, and the chemicals she uses burn her skin and lungs. Kien believes that women who stay home to clean and raise their children are “lazy,” and she can’t bear the thought of not working. Ironically, while Kien challenges typical stereotypes of domestic responsibilities for women, she also gives her daughter more chores than her son, Alexander, and tells Alice that girls don’t usually get the chance for a good education like hers. These inconsistencies underpin the sexist nature of both Chinese and Australian culture. Unlike her husband, Kien refuses to assimilate to Australian culture, and for a long time she refuses to learn English. She fears that she is growing old and useless, but Kien proves to be invaluable at Kuan’s electronics store, where she is the best salesperson on the floor. Kien and Alice frequently fight, and the only thing Kien worries about more than her family leaving her is her daughter marrying a “white ghost,” meaning a white man.

Kien Pung Quotes in Unpolished Gem

The Unpolished Gem quotes below are all either spoken by Kien Pung or refer to Kien Pung. 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:
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). 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

Later that evening, in the bed that fills up the entire small storeroom where they sleep, my mother and father lie thinking about their full tummies. “Wah, who would believe that they feed this good meat to dogs? How lucky to be a dog in this country!” My mother puts her hand on her sticking-out stomach and smiles. Good-oh, she thinks. Her baby is going to be born with lots of Good-O in her. Good stuff.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Kien Pung, Kuan Pung
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

“Your father was trying to tell them that the beds were made to be slept in, when suddenly he was told that he was needed at the hospital. Something must have happened to me, your father thought. Why would a hospital need him? He thought about bringing along his acupuncture needles just in case, but there was no time. When he arrived at the hospital, he discovered that the doctors just wanted him to be there to see the baby come out!” In Cambodia the husbands usually find a chair and sit in from of the room where babies were being born until they heard the wahwahwah sounds, and it was only then that they would know that the whole messy business was over and they could find out whether the child had the desired dangly bits or not.

Related Characters: Kien Pung (speaker), Alice Pung / Agheare, Kuan Pung
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Beautiful things do not need to be expensive, and precious things are to be kept hidden in case of burglars, or guests with kleptomaniac fingers. My parents could never understand those houses where the Royal Doulton plates and family antiques were displayed for every eye to see. After war, people learn to keep good things hidden. They learn that nothing is permanent, and that the most beautiful things are not necessarily the most expensive.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Kien Pung, Kuan Pung
Page Number: 18
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:
Part 2 Quotes

A lady was the most abhorred thing you could become, because ladies were lazy bums who sat around wasting their husband’s money and walked down the street with perfectly made-up mien visiting the jewelry stores to which my mother delivered her wares. My mother was certainly not a lady. She worked and worked and worked, and when she wasn’t working she was cleaning, and when she wasn’t cleaning or working she was sick. You could always tell who was a lady by what they complained about, the length of their nails and whether they put milk or butter into their coffee.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Kien Pung
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3 Quotes

I sat slumped in the back seat of the car. It was true, I couldn’t. It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the English, it was that I didn’t have the Chinese terms in me to be able to explain. I was running out of words.

Related Characters: Alice Pung / Agheare (speaker), Kien Pung
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4 Quotes

“Why don’t you get on stage too?” my parents asked me. As if I could just jump on stage with people I had never spoken three words to all year and insert myself gracefully into their picture. And suddenly the reality must have sunk in for my parents, for all the parents on our table, that their children were not more popular, that we did not talk to the beautiful people. It must have hit them hard—that we were still sticking by each other, sticking with each other, and not getting out, not fitting in. They had thought of this new life in simple cause-and-effect terms: that if they worked their backs off to send their children to the grammar school, then we would automatically mingle with the brightest and fairest of the state.

Related Characters: Kien Pung (speaker), Kuan Pung (speaker), Alice Pung / Agheare
Page Number: 186-7
Explanation and Analysis:
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Unpolished Gem PDF

Kien Pung Character Timeline in Unpolished Gem

The timeline below shows where the character Kien Pung appears in Unpolished Gem. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
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...pigs and thin people,” and all around him migrants negotiate in broken English. Alice’s mother, Kien, is not at the market—she is in an Australian hospital waiting to give birth to... (full context)
Part 1
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Alice’s story jumps back to the previous month, when Kuan and Kien first arrive in Australia with Kuan’s mother, Huyen Thai, and his sister, Que. The Pungs... (full context)
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...on the traffic light and the cars stop, allowing him to safely cross the street. Kien notices a group of young girls do the same nearby. “Wah!” she cries. As Kuan... (full context)
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...the streets— “King Street, William Street, Queen Street, Elizabeth Street”—and when they approach an escalator, Kien refuses to step on the moving track. (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,... (full context)
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At home, Kien cuts the meat and prepares a stir-fry. “It smells so good,” says Que as she... (full context)
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When Kien wakes in the hospital, she notices how clean it looks and smells. The colorful food... (full context)
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Kien takes great care decorating the rooms of the house, and everything is just as she... (full context)
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When 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... (full context)
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When Kien’s sisters, Ly and Sim, arrive from Cambodia, Alice comes “face to face” with what she... (full context)
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In the meantime, as Alice grows up, Kien teaches her to respect her elders and instills in her a sense of “filial piety”... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The next day, Kien gives the letter to Huyen Thai to mail. The letter is full of meaningless and... (full context)
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Back at home, Huyen Thai divides all the money into separate piles and gives Kien just enough to purchase groceries. As Kien shops the next day, she worries about what... (full context)
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Kien grows upset with Alice for talking with Huyen Thai behind her back. “You are so... (full context)
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That night, Alice stays awake listening for sounds of Kien and Alexander’s departure. Thankfully, the next morning she wakes to find her mother and brother... (full context)
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Huyen Thai tells Alice that Kien doesn’t love her children because she works in the garage making jewelry instead of taking... (full context)
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Kien is constantly unhappy, and when Alice asks her why she is so sad, she tells... (full context)
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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 Thai once gave away... (full context)
Part 2
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...the school pictures are developed and the only shots of Alice are at the easel, Kien and Kuan proudly proclaim, “We have an artist in the family!” (full context)
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Sometime later, Alice goes to visit Chia Ngo Hung, Kien’s mother, whom Alice calls “Outside Ma,” and the two sit and pick lice from Alice’s... (full context)
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Both of Kien’s parents had come from Cambodia once their immigration papers were processed, and they arrived in... (full context)
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The next day, Kien applies lice treatment to Alice’s head that “smells like cat-piss.” It must be left on... (full context)
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Kien continues to work making jewelry in the Pungs’ garage. She fires up her kiln early... (full context)
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After making the jewelry, Kien delivers her products to the shops in Footscray and the surrounding areas. Occasionally, her customers... (full context)
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Kien “negotiates, supplies, markets, and chases up creditors,” all without speaking English, but she never considers... (full context)
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Soon, Kien becomes pregnant again. This time she is constantly sick and swollen, yet Kien insists on... (full context)
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...nine years old, Alice spends most of her time caring for her baby sister, Alison. Kien continues to work in the garage making jewelry, and Alice has little time to play... (full context)
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...is taking care of Alison, the baby rolls off the bed and onto the floor. Kien runs into the room, yelling and screaming, and tells Alice she is “doomed” if Alison... (full context)
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...She remembers about the white oleander in the backyard and thinks about poisoning herself. Later, Kien and Kuan return from the hospital. “You are lucky,” says Kien. Alice is so relieved... (full context)
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...care of Alison. She learns embroidery as well, and she makes hats and stuffed animals. Kien has another baby, Alina, and Kuan buys Alice a sewing machine, which she uses to... (full context)
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...watch as well, and she is soon drowning in childcare and housework. She complains to Kien that Alexander isn’t expected to do as much as she is, and Kien claims that... (full context)
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A couple of years later, one of Alice’s aunts asks her if Kien had a celebration when Alice’s “time came.” Alice is confused, and Kien says, “Don’t be... (full context)
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...calls Alice on the phone and her mother hears his voice on the other end. Kien says boys and girls don’t “just chat,” and she is convinced that Alice is having... (full context)
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Later, Kien tells Alice about how she first met Kuan. Kien worked in the Pungs’ plastic bag... (full context)
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Five years later, Kien and Kuan met again in Saigon. Kien sensed that Kuan liked her but was too... (full context)
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Kien and Kuan were married in Vietnam, but they didn’t celebrate until after they arrived in... (full context)
Part 3
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“Ah!” yells Kien as she sits straight up in bed. She has felt little peace since the Pungs... (full context)
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...says, “to watch the temple being constructed and to worship the fruits of our labour.” Kien even dressed Alison and Alina in dresses for the drive. Alice and Alexander would grow... (full context)
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Kien has felt uneasy in the house ever since they moved in, so she tries to... (full context)
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The next day, Kien calls the Cantonese woman who bought their old house and tells her that there are... (full context)
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...stores in Footscray are collectively called the Kims. One day after school, Alice goes with Kien to the Kims to collect money for her gold and jewelry. Alice notes that the... (full context)
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...bankrupt, and even though they know that they are closing, they still accept gold from Kien. The next week, when she comes to collect, their shops are boarded up and they... (full context)
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Kien is constantly haggling prices and payments, and many of the Kims try to undercut her.... (full context)
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 Alice notes that Kien is “not a talker,” but “a shouter.” She is especially loud in the car, and... (full context)
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Kien tells Alice that when she was a child, all the Chinese schools were shut down.... (full context)
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...“One wrong word could mean being found out for a philistine,” Alice says. At home, Kien gets louder. At the dinner table, her family speaks mostly in English, and they don’t... (full context)
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...They all come here and stick together, and don’t bother to learn the language.” But Kien insists on learning English. She has Alice find an address for a language school on... (full context)
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Kien asks everyone to start speaking to her in English, so Alice talks to her mother... (full context)
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All of the migrants in the English class speak varying levels of English. Kien doesn’t understand the worksheets that the instructor hands out, and she thinks the simple sentences... (full context)
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Kien continues to have difficulties learning English, and she frequently cries and yells that everyone is... (full context)
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One day during a holiday from school, Kien takes Alice with her to visit one of the aunts. The women trade their stories... (full context)
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“At least you have a daughter,” Alice’s aunt tells Kien. “Yes,” says Kien, “but she’s gone with the ghosts already. She’s going to marry one,... (full context)
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...taro cakes while cooking dinner, Alice feels like she can do nothing right. She asks Kien to teach her to cook, but Kien tells her she doesn’t need to learn. “When... (full context)
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...sitting room. Alice flips the switch to watch the light dance around the crystals, and Kien screams, “Turn it off! What are you doing? Stupid, turning it on and off like... (full context)
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Kien tells Alice that it is time to go pick up Alina and Alison from school.... (full context)
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The chemicals Kien uses to process the gold have begun to affect her lungs and make her cough.... (full context)
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Kuan wants Kien to sell all her gold processing equipment and just stay home with the kids, but... (full context)
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Kien wishes that she could work in Kuan’s shop counting the money like Que, but she... (full context)
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Kien can’t stand staying home and she has a hard time occupying her days with housework.... (full context)
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Kuan knows that Kien needs to work again if she is ever to get any better, so he decides... (full context)
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Kuan hires Kien as a salesperson. She is given a time-card and put in the toilet-cleaning rotation (his... (full context)
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Kien does well at the store until she must print a receipt, then “she is stumped.”... (full context)
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...when Alice returns home from a walk with her sisters, she is surprised to see Kien’s car in the driveway during the middle of the day. Kien tells Alice she was... (full context)
Part 4
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Kuan and Kien schedule meetings with the administrator at Alice’s school. He asks what medication the doctors have... (full context)
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Kien buys Alice a new white dress for her graduation dinner, and Alice feels like she... (full context)
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...and another Vietnamese family, and there are even a few immigrants from Russia. Kuan and Kien realize that Alice too is a “Watcher.” She doesn’t fit in with the other students... (full context)
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...believe her ears, but he insists. “Brush your hair,” he says. “Make yourself look pretty.” Kien tells her to focus on housework—that will “keep your mind off things.” Alice doesn’t have... (full context)
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...university. “All that money,” she thinks about her private education, “all that waste.” Kuan and Kien tell her to keep her feelings to herself. “Don’t tell people how you are, don’t... (full context)
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Kuan and Kien keep telling Alice to call the exam hot-line to get her scores and “put an... (full context)
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While Alice and Kuan work, Kien brings three-courses lunches down to the shop, and they all eat together in the employee... (full context)
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...Aunt Sim, who also works at the store, is pregnant and unable to work, so Kien suggests she go down and help out. “Mind you,” Kien says, “just while my sister... (full context)
Part 5
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Later, Kien tells Kuan that Ah BuKien, a family friend, “wants to discuss Agheare for her son.”... (full context)
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Once, Alice remembers, Ah BuKien gave the Pungs a tour of her house and took great care describing every piece... (full context)
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Alice has never met Ah BuKien’s son. He is always busy with tutors and studying. Still, Ah BuKien tells Kien that... (full context)
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One day, Ah BuKien comes into the shop. She doesn’t seem interested in buying anything, and she casually asks... (full context)
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Alice suspects that Kien wants her to marry Ah BuKien’s son, and she feels like the women are “conspiring... (full context)
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One day, Ah BuKien again comes into the shop and tells Kien that her son is no longer going... (full context)
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...of their family calls him “the Round Red-haired Demon,” even when Melanie’s around. Of course, Kien refers to him as a “white ghost,” and she tells Alice never to marry one... (full context)
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...begins to ask Alice about meeting her parents. “Soon,” she tells him. Neither Kuan nor Kien have any idea about Michael. She promises to tell them about him this weekend, and... (full context)
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Alice thinks about Kien. In her face there is a “simplicity” that stands out, and she has a beautiful... (full context)
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Michael is a vegetarian. “No meat at all?” Kien asks. “Buddhist? Taoist?” She thinks it is ridiculous when Alice tells her he “feels sorry... (full context)
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After dinner, Michael gives Kien a lovely, “understated” arrangement of flowers. “Tanks you velly march,” Kien says. Alice can tell... (full context)
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Later at home, Alice listens to Kien’s “list of objections to potential husbands.” She thinks Aussies “sleep around” and have loose morals,... (full context)
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Kien tells Alice that Michael probably “splits everything in half.” Alice lies and says he doesn’t.... (full context)
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...have issues with physical contact like we do,” Alice thinks. “Are you listening to me?” Kien yells, interrupting her thoughts. She isn’t. (full context)
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Kien continues to give Alice a hard time about Michael, and when they walk downtown by... (full context)
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Earlier that night, Alice had taken Michael upstairs after Kien had gone out. Not to sleep with him—just “to see what he looked like” in... (full context)
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“What were you doing upstairs with the boy?” Kien had asked. Alice told her that they were vacuuming. Michael begged Alice to just tell... (full context)
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In the meantime, Michael tries hard to be accepted by Kuan and Kien, and when Alice does her chores at home, he offers to help. She declines and... (full context)
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...miss him too. After she drops him off at home, she thinks about Kuan and Kien, young and in love. Kuan wanted to live with Kien “for the rest of his... (full context)
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When Alice gets home, Kuan and Kien are sitting on the couch together, sharing a mango. “Good to see you home not... (full context)
Epilogue
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...all look up at the sky. “Agheare, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Kien yells from across the grass. (full context)
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Alice ignores Kien. She can hear her mother telling Kuan that she is laying in the grass “with... (full context)
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Alice began to cry, and both Kien and Huyen Thai tried to console her. Huyen Thai offered to buy Alice more chocolate,... (full context)