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 are fascinated as they walk down the street. “Wah! Look at that!” says Alice’s grandmother as she takes in the new sights and sounds. The family is decked out in clothes from the local St. Vincent De Paul thrift shop, expect for Alice’s grandmother, who wears a handsewn “pyjama suit.” They walk proudly down the street.
The Pungs’ fascination with their new Australian surroundings is a reflection of their culture shock. At this point in time, Cambodia is poor and underdeveloped compared to Australia, and they are unaccustomed to such abundant wealth. They even consider their second-hand clothes a luxury, except for Huyen Thai, whose traditional hand-made clothes reflect her pride in her Chinese heritage.
Huyen Thai watches in amazement as an old man pushes a button 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 pushes the button and declares it simple, he tells the women not to “gawk like Guangzhou peasants.” They watch as the “little Red Man” disappears and the “little Green Man” appears.
As ethnic Teochew Chinese, the Pungs are Guangzhou peasants, and Kuan’s comment observes widespread racist assumptions that Western societies and people are superior to those in the East.Here, Kuan implies that just because they are Chinese, they do not fit in Australia’s Western society.
Back in Cambodia, cars do not yield to people. Only the wealthy can afford to drive, and those people do whatever they want. To Kuan and his family, the “little Green Man is an eternal symbol of government existing to serve and protect.”
Alice notes that much in Australia is “taken-for-granted.” The people do not hide, there are no bombs, and there are no lepers. There are no soldiers in the streets, and most Australians have never even heard of Pol Pot, “Brother Number One in Socialist Cambodia.” To Australians, Pol Pot “sounds like an Eastern European stew,” one “made with 100% fresh-ground suffering.”
Pol Pot is the leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, a Communist party that has taken over Cambodia and perpetrated a country-wide genocide. The fact that Australians think Pol Pot is an Eastern European stew reflects Australian ignorance of cultures that are non-Western.
At the Migrant Hostel, there is a never-ending supply of sugar packets and jam at the breakfast table, and water flows from a tap. As the Pungs first arrive in Australia Alice says, “there are many wahs of wonder.” On their way to declare Australian citizenship, Kuan memorizes the names of the streets— “King Street, William Street, Queen Street, Elizabeth Street”—and when they approach an escalator, Kien refuses to step on the moving track.
In Cambodia there are widespread hardships and starvation, and the ample supply of sugar and jam is unheard of to the Pungs. As a former territory of the British Empire, the names of the Australian streets reflect the history of European colonialism and assumptions of Western superiority.
The first time Kien and Huyen Thai shop in an Australian supermarket, they are overwhelmed by the size, selection, and cleanliness of the store. “Ay, stop gawking like such peasants,” Que says. This is Que’s second trip to the market, and she is quickly becoming an expert. Kien thinks of those left behind in Cambodia and is shocked to find the food so cheap. The women purchase a few cans of meat for fifty cents apiece and return to their new home in Footscray.
Que’s comment again suggests that they should be ashamed of who they are, which further perpetuates racist notions of Western superiority. Their culture shock in the Australian grocery store also underscores the corruption of the Cambodian government. The price of food under Pol Pot’s reign is marked up in an effort to starve the people.
At home, Kien cuts the meat and prepares a stir-fry. “It smells so good,” says Que as she piles the hot food on a plate. That night while watching television, the women see an advertisement for the canned meat and realize it is dog food. “How lucky to be a dog in this country!” Kien proclaims. She smiles and rubs her pregnant belly. “Good stuff,” she thinks.
This too underscores the differences between Australian and Cambodian society—Australian dogs eat better than Cambodian people, and in this moment, Kien knows that her baby will have a good life and not struggle to survive in the same way she has.
Later, as Kuan explains to the other immigrants at the hostel that they are meant to sleep under the bedsheets, not on top, he is told he is needed at the hospital. Kuan nearly has “a heart attack,” and is stunned to discover the doctors only want him to be present for the birth of his baby. Cambodian fathers usually wait until “the whole messy business is over” before seeing their newborn children—then they find out whether “the child has the desired dangly bits.”
The immigrants sleep on top of the sheets because the beds are made too nicely and they don’t want to mess them up, again showing their culture shock. Kuan assumes that there is something wrong with Kien when he is summoned to the hospital, reflecting the sexist nature of Cambodian society as Pung describes it—men are only concerned with whether or not they have a son.
When Kien wakes in the hospital, she notices how clean it looks and smells. The colorful food on a nearby tray looks like a place setting for a party, and when she is handed her baby, she is “the most crumple-faced walnut she has ever seen.” Alice is the first Chinese baby the hospital workers have ever seen, and they all marvel at her full head of hair. The baby refuses to take Kien’s milk, so she feeds her a bit of coffee and condensed milk to “shut her up” and goes to sleep.
If Kien were to have given birth in Cambodia or in the Thai refugee camp, her experience would obviously be much different. Likely, she would have given birth at home—or whatever passed for home at the moment—with the aid of a relative or maybe a midwife. The fact that Alice is the first Chinese baby the hospital workers have ever seen further underscores how out of place the Pungs are in Australian society.
Later, Huyen Thai asks Kuan what he plans to name his child. She hates people who don’t give their children Chinese names. “Do they really think that new whitewashed names will make the world outside see that yellow Rose is just as radiant a flower as the white Daisy?” she wonders. Kuan decides that his daughter’s Chinese name will be Agheare (translation Good News) because she has been born into Paradise.
This too reflects Huyen Thai’s pride and commitment to her Chinese heritage, but she is also more realistic about how they will be accepted within Australian society. Kuan is convinced that his new baby will enjoy all the perks of this “Paradise,” but Huyen Thai is less optimistic—she knows their skin color will always be considered.
Kuan must also give his daughter an English name “that her future legions of white-faced friends will remember.” He recalls reading a story translated from English many years ago in which a little girl finds herself in a strange and magical land. This new land of Australia is also a “Wonder Land,” so Kuan decides to name his daughter Alice. “Ay, this girl is going to have a good life indeed!” declares Huyen Thai.
Kuan is optimistic that his child will be fully accepted in Australian society. He assumes that Alice will have “legions” of white friends, which is not the case. Alice spends her childhood and adolescence as an outsider, and while Australia is certainly a safer place to live compared to Cambodia, she still suffers because of it. Alice’s name and her connection to Lewis Carroll’s story introduce the importance of storytelling in Unpolished Gem.
A few years later, the Pungs move into their first home in Braybrook. Alice says, “there is no such thing as tacky cheap knick-knacks” “for Wah-sers like us.” Their home is filled with colorful plastic baskets and figurines, and plastic sandals are piled in every corner so no one’s feet are ever bare. Kuan reminds his family frequently that they “are wealthy beyond measure.” Even the richest people in Phnom Penh don’t live this well, he says. The family’s furniture, which was donated by a local charity, is better than what can be bought in Cambodia.
This too underscores the differences between Cambodian and Australian society. Life in Cambodia )as Pung describes it) is drab and tragic, and based only on necessities that often go unmet. The Pungs buy tacky knick-knacks simply because they are pretty, which is considered an extreme luxury in Cambodian society at this time. Clearly, the Pungs are not rich, but they are by Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia) standards.
Kien takes great care decorating the rooms of the house, and everything is just as 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 always be expensive, but expensive things “must be kept hidden in case of burglars.” Kien can’t understand people who display antiques and valuables.
Kien’s advice to hide expensive things reflects her experiences in Cambodia. Under Pol Pot’s Communist regime, all personal possessions, especially those of value, were confiscated by the government. If one was lucky enough to hold on to something of value, it had to be kept hidden and secret. Huyen Thai is a “permanent fixture” in Kien’s life because multiple generations of Pungs live under the same roof, which is a reflection of the importance of family within Chinese culture.
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 brother, Alexander, make paper chains out of shopping advertisements from the newspaper during Christmastime and hang them throughout the house. “Isn’t this much better than white paper?” Huyen Thai cries, impressed with the multitude of colors.
This image is particularly powerful because Alice’s art project is made from food. Food would never be put to such a useless end as a child’s art project in Cambodia, and it reflects their wealth in this new world. The Pungs are Buddhists, and the fact that they observe Christmas is also evidence of the Pungs’ assimilation; however, Huyen Thai’s preference for colorful paper over white paper—which symbolically represents Australian culture and society—is a reflection of her pride in their Chinese heritage and identity.
From the outside, “you cannot tell that this is a Chinese house,” Alice says. There is no telltale “I Ching mirror” or cumquat trees for luck. The Pungs are trying to assimilate, and they don’t want to bring shame to their people by “growing chickens in the backyard or keeping goats as pets.” Instead of Chinese plants and herbs like mint and lemongrass, the Pungs grow geraniums and white oleander.
Instead of goats and chickens—animals that produce food and sustain life—the Pungs grow poisonous flowers. White oleander is toxic and deadly if ingested, and since the word “white” is frequently associated with Australian society in Unpolished Gem, this passage implies that this society is, in a sense, toxic as well.
When Kien’s sisters, Ly and Sim, arrive from Cambodia, Alice comes “face to face” with what she calls “true cutting-edge Chinese chic.” The women are glamourous and wear dangly gold jewelry and colorful polyester suits, the “silk that requires less ironing.” Their apartment at the housing 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.
Alice is not use to women like Ly and Sim because Kien doesn’t dress this way. She never wears gold, a symbol of wealth and security within Unpolished Gem, and she doesn’t wear colorful clothes. Until this point, Alice assumes that all Chinese women dress like her mother. The bootleg Hong Kong soap operas, a reflection of Alice’s Chinese heritage and identity, underscore her feelings of illegitimacy within Australia’s whitewashed society.
The apartments at the housing commission overlook a park, and they have cupboards full of coffee, sweetened condensed milk, and packages of instant noodles. Ly and Sim paint their nails with polish they paid only twenty cents for, and they curl their hair with their friends who are training to become hairdressers.
This passage again underscores the difference between Australia and Cambodia. Parks are unheard of under Pol Pot’s tyrannical reign and food is scarce. Ly and Sim’s cupboards are full of food, and they still have money to spend on beauty products. Furthermore, women in Cambodia are not always given the opportunity for vocational training, such as becoming a hairdresser.
Ly and Sim talk about local men, always referring to “someone’s son or someone’s male relative.” They don’t use first names, Alice notes, because the men “do not exist in isolation of their family.” No one does, she says. As the aunts apply their makeup and gossip about men, “there is no fear of not finding a family.” The women are “so trusting,” and because their new Australian government “takes such good care of them,” they believe “all Australians are alike.”
Ly and Sim’s references to men as “someone’s male relative” underscores the importance of family within Chinese culture. The individual identities of the men are not as important as who their families are. Alice’s mention that the women are “trusting” foreshadows the upcoming sexual assault of Ly’s friend at the hands of an Australian man.
Once, Alice recalls, Ly’s friend had forgotten the number of Ly’s apartment and knocked on a stranger’s door to ask to use their telephone. “Fon, fon?” she asked, holding her hand to her ear like a telephone. An Australian man let her in, and as she was dialing, he snuck up behind her, poked her bottom and held “his front up against her back.” She immediately ran, leaving behind the shoes she had taken off at the door, and ran directly into Ly in the stairwell of the housing commission. Both women realized they were “not so safe here.” Even though they were “young and lovely,” Alice says, “they were not invincible.”
There is clearly a language barrier between Ly’s friend’s and the Australian man, and her use of gestures highlights the nonverbal aspects of communication that Alice Pung explores throughout her memoir. The man’s sexual assault of Ly’s friend underscores the gender inequality within Australian society—not just in Cambodia. He attempts to touch her sexually without her explicit permission, a move that implies his assumed power over her.
In the meantime, as Alice grows up, Kien teaches her to respect her elders and instills in her a 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 stories about Kuan and his siblings waiting for her before they ate as well. She claims that if her children did not hold their bowls properly, they would beg, “Give me a whack over the knuckles if you catch me doing that again!” To Huyen Thai, her story is proof she had raised her children well, but as Alice watches her father smile, she doubts that it is true.
The Pungs’ deep respect for Huyen Thai and other elders is evidence of their Chinese culture. Filial piety—or the act of revering one’s family, especially one’s parents and grandparents—is considered a primary virtue of Buddhist ethics. Huyan Thai’s story about her children’s manners is evidence of her love for storytelling, and the power of storytelling to teach lessons and relay cultural values and practices.
Before she eats, Huyen Thai says grace and prays to Buddha to bless “Father Government,” who treats them “better than our sons do.” She asks Alice to write a thank-you letter to the government for taking care of them. To Huyen Thai, “Father Government” cares for them because “Motherland China didn’t want them.”
Huyen Thai’s prayer to Buddha underscores her expectations of the respect she deserves as an elder. Furthermore, as a political refugee, Huyen Thai feels as if they have been rejected by their homeland.
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 mother. Huyen Thai controls all of the Pungs’ money, and all government checks are turned over to her. Instead of writing a letter to the government, Kien writes her parents in Cambodia, but she doesn’t tell them how miserable she is because Huyen Thai handles all the mail.
In Huyen Thai’s Chinese culture, women often handle the finances, and as Kien’s mother-in-law, she assumes this power over Kien and uses it to control her and make her unhappy. Kien suffers in silence because Huyen Thai controls every aspect of her life—right down to the mail.
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 she could write what she really feels—that this family treats her like a “servant.” “Ma, why did you let me go?” Kien thinks as she hands her mother-in-law the envelope.
This is evidence of Kien’s deep unhappiness in Australia. At times, she thinks that she could be happier living back in Cambodia and wishes that her parents had not agreed to her marriage and emigration.
Later, Huyen Thai and Alice stand in line outside the bank to collect Huyen Thai’s “old people’s gold.” The others standing in line are sullen and unhappy, and Alice’s grandmother remarks on their sour faces. These people don’t know how good they have it, she says, “just like your mother.” Huyen Thai is so happy, she decides to do a good act to “spread good karma.”
Gold serves as a symbol for wealth and security within Unpolished Gem, and Huyen Thai’s government stipend means that she will always be taken care of. Huyen Thai’s underhanded comment about Kien underscores her strained relationship with her daughter-in-law.
At a pet shop, Huyen Thai buys a fish and a red plastic bucket and then boards a bus. She tells Alice that they are going to let the fish go because Buddha has blessed them. After a short ride, they get off the bus and Alice’s grandmother dumps the bucket into a muddy riverbed. After the terrible years of Pol Pot, Huyen Thai says, “Father Government is so good to us now!”
The red bucket highlights the family’s preference for bright colors, and Huyen Thai’s actions in releasing the fish reflect her Buddhist belief in karma. By doing a good deed—that is, letting the fish free—she is repaying the universe for the goodness of “Father Government.”
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 kind of woman Alice will grow up to be. Huyen Thai constantly spends time with the child, and even though Kien knows that it is better for Alice to have many people who love her, she resents not being able to spend more time with her daughter. Kien wants Alice to be hers alone, but still she thinks it is “better the girl go to the other side of the Served rather than stay on the side of the servants.”
Huyen Thai’s division of the money is further evidence of her control within the Pung family. Kien feels stifled and oppressed by her family. She has already established that they treat her like a servant, and she doesn’t want Alice to lead the same life. Ironically, Kien does treat Alice like a household servant when she gets older, but for now, she wants her daughter’s life to be better than her own, even if that means spending time with her grandmother.
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 run away. When Alice begs her to stay, Kien threatens to commit suicide. “You will never see me again!” she cries, calling Alice a “word-spreader.”
Alice’s status as a “word-spreader” highlights the power of words to divide and exclude. The negative words spoken by Kien and Huyen Thai, along with Alice’s repetition of them, divide the Pung family and create dissent.
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 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 Alice as well if she doesn’t tell her things about Huyen Thai.
This passage underscores the psychological damage that Kien and Huyen Thai’s gossip has on Alice. She is convinced her mother will leave her, yet she is worried that neither her mother nor her grandmother will love her if she stops spreading their hateful words.
Huyen Thai tells Alice that Kien doesn’t love her children because she works in the garage making jewelry instead of taking care of them, which is “the greatest role of a woman.” Alice’s grandmother makes Alice’s breakfast each morning and criticizes the clothing Kien has purchased for her—they aren’t warm enough, she says. Instead, she dresses Alice in a padded Mao suit sent from Hong Kong.
The padded Mao suit is a physical symbol of Alice’s Chinese culture, and it is one of the reasons why she doesn’t fit into Australian society. Huyen Thai’s criticism of Kien because she works out of the home underpins the sexist nature of their culture—it is assumed that Kien will stay home and care for the children because she is a woman.
Kien is constantly unhappy, and when Alice asks her why she is so sad, she tells Alice she will understand only once she grows up and has a mother-in-law. “Constantly sighing and lying and dying—that is what being a Chinese woman means,” Alice thinks, “and I want nothing to do with it.”
To Alice, being a Chinese woman means that she must constantly suffer because of the restrictions imposed on her gender, just like her mother does.
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 a son. “Words with bones in them,” Huyen Thai calls the word-spreading, and they are enough to “make the other person fall flat on their back and die.”
Alice’s comparison of Huyen Thai’s words to bones serves as a compelling metaphor for the power of words and language to inflict actual pain. Huyen Thai’s words are not harmless; instead, her words absolutely can hurt Kien, which by extension hurts Alice as well.
Huyen Thai tells Alice stories about Cambodia, where she was regarded as a woman who “possessed healing powers.” Her seven children, five of them boys, were proof of her power, and children everywhere were drawn to her. Her husband, An Pung, thought her power nonsense—he wanted “nothing to do with such prosaic things.” As a man, his job was only to “plant the seed.” If the children turned out badly, it was no fault of his.
An Pung’s opinion of Huyen Thai’s power underscores gender inequality within Chinese culture. He considers child-rearing too simple a task for a man, and instead leaves this entirely to his wife. Beyond sex and the actual conception of a child, An takes zero responsibility in raising his children.
Huyen Thai mothered all the children living nearby, and they took to calling her “Ma.” An would scoff at his wife’s collection of children and reminded her of their fourth boy. “Fourth boy was the past!” she yelled at her husband. “Indeed,” he said, “bundling up our baby like that and setting off to sell him for a useless daughter!”
An’s use of the word “useless” to describe a daughter is further evidence of the sexist nature of their culture. He cares very little that Huyen Thai’s heart was broken with the death of their two daughters—he cares only about fathering sons, which he sees as an outward reflection of his own virility and masculinity.
As the mother of five sons, Huyen Thai desired a daughter “above all else.” Crying, she told An that she only traded the children to save money. After all, daughters cost less to feed. She did eventually get their son back, but An refused to keep living with her. He had begun to stay with his first wife, a marriage which had been arranged by his father. An had married Huyen Thai because he loved her, even though he couldn’t really afford it, and he wondered if it was all worth it, “considering the crazy things this second wife did.”
Huyen Thai’s excuse that girls cost less to raise than boys also suggests that girls are worth less than their male counterparts. Whatever her motivation, Huyen Thai’s attempt to swap her child with another is extreme, and the fact that An does not leave her after does imply that he deeply loves her. An and Huyen Thai’s love, along with Kuan and Kien’s, sets the standard for love within Alice’s own life.
An was bored living with his first wife. The daughters he shared 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 there!” he yelled at her. By the time Huyen Thai gave birth to their sixth son, An grew nervous with the amount of power his wife had over their children. He began to devise a “plan to recruit his own army,” but “like all his plans,” whether he was able to pull it off depended on Huyen Thai, and “this irritated him to no end.”
Again, this reflects the sexist nature of An’s Chinese culture. He is bored by his daughters because they are girls, and he uses the fact that his first wife only gave birth to girls over as a form of punishment by suggesting that he wouldn’t have taken a second wife if she had been able to give him sons. Still, An is, to some extent, powerless against Huyen Thai, which serves to challenge stereotypical gender roles. An’s irritation also implies his deep love for his second wife—loving her means he also gives up some of his masculine power, which he is willing to do even though he doesn’t like it.
Soon after, An snatched Huyen Thai’s newborn son and gave him to his first wife. “He took my son to the Other Side!” she yelled, plotting to get him back. She even went so far as to go to the home of the first wife, but she came back “empty-handed.” Alice finds her grandmother’s story difficult to believe. How could she let her own child be taken away? Alice doesn’t know, but she does know that her grandmother never took her son back, and years later a strange man from Macau appears at Huyen Thai’s funeral.
Alice can’t reconcile the Huyen Thai she knows with a woman who would allow her boy to live as another woman’s son; however, her obvious acquiescence to An’s plan suggests that she too respects the importance of sons within Chinese culture and family. After all, she has been blessed with six sons while An’s first wife doesn’t have any.