“Woe!” cries Huyen Thai. “Why do you smell like piss?” she asks Alice. Alice tells her she smells like urine because she has peed her pants. Alice’s grandmother asks why she didn’t just ask her teacher to use the bathroom. Alice doesn’t want to talk about school, but she knows that her grandmother will not tell her parents her secrets, so she figures it is safe to tell.
Alice doesn’t want her parents to know about school because then they will know that she doesn’t fit in. Both Kuan and Kien badly want Alice to be an Australian and to have opportunities that were not afforded to them, but Alice has learned that being an Australian is more than simply being born on Australian soil.
That day had been kindergarten picture day at school 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 teachers wanted Alice to slide down a slide for the photo, but she worried that she would leave a “streak of incontinence,” and she refused. She spent the day indoors, standing at an art easel so she wouldn’t have to sit down in her wet suit. When 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!”
Kien and Kuan see only what they want to. They fail to see within the photo that Alice is miserable and feels like an outsider. Her Mao suit is a physical symbol of Alice’s differences from her white classmates. Like the Mao suit, which is incompatible with Australia’s climate, Alice too is out of place in her whitewashed Western school, and her incontinence is a reflection of the humiliation that she feels.
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 you know how?” she asks. Alice confirms she does, and even though she tells her grandmother that she doesn’t know why she doesn’t ask, she knows that it is because she is afraid. Just as Alice thinks that her grandmother has fallen asleep, Huyen Thai begins to tell a story.
The Pungs speak Chinese at home and English is a second language for Alice, which further serves to alienate her from her English-speaking classmates. Alice is afraid to ask her teacher to use the bathroom because their language differences make her feel like an outsider.
Huyen Thai tells Alice that when her own children were young, they had only one mattress. She slept on the mattress with her five sons, and each night she would be woken by wet clothes. She tells Alice that she is glad Alice doesn’t have a “night-time bladder,” but that she must learn to ask to use the bathroom if she wants to “be able to make some friends.”
Of course, Alice’s lack of friends has nothing to do with her incontinence. Most of Alice’s friends throughout the book are also immigrants, which highlights the difficulties they encounter being accepted by Australia’s white society.
School picture day is not the last time Alice “fills her pants,” and it happens again in the second grade. Alice’s class is learning about Australian History, and they are having a “colonial dress-up parade” the next day. She rummages through boxes of old clothes looking for an ankle-length dress, but she knows she will never find one in her home. So, of course, “the Mao suit comes out,” Alice says.
Again, the Mao suit represents Alice’s Chinese heritage, and Alice wearing the suit during a parade to observe colonial history is highly ironic. Historically, colonialism has sought to erase and marginalize Eastern cultures, which makes the Mao suit during the parade a powerful image.
At school, the other children ask Alice why she is wearing pajamas, and when they line up for the parade, the teacher doesn’t give her an apron like the rest of the girls. “No, Alice, I don’t think you need one,” she says. Alice is distraught. She will be the only girl without an apron, and she wants it to cover her pajamas pants. “Excuse me, Miss Higgins,” Alice says to her teacher. “I need to go to the toilet.” Instead of friends, Alice thinks, “I bring home soiled washing.”
Alice feels unincluded because she is denied an apron, but worse, she is made to feel like a boy because she isn’t wearing a dress. While this underscores the cultural differences between Alice and her classmates, it also reflects the sexist nature of Australian society as well, which assumes that women must be ladylike and wear a dress.
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 head. She has come to Outside Ma’s because no one else wants her around because of the nits. Outside Ma never asks about school or friends, and Alice is thankful for her silence.
The fact that no one else wants to deal with Alice and her lice increases her feelings of isolation and rejection, even within her own family. At least at Outside Ma’s, Alice isn’t forced to talk about how she doesn’t fit in.
Both of Kien’s parents had come from Cambodia once their immigration papers were processed, and they arrived in Australia wearing brand new Mao suits. Chia Teng, Kien’s father, quickly turned his new backyard into a Chinese vegetable garden, and he wakes at six each morning to tend to his plants. Outside Ma still makes all their clothes, including their underwear, and they keep all their money buried in Nescafé jars in the backyard.
Unlike Alice’s immediate family, Kien’s parent’s have not tried to assimilate to Australian culture. Their Mao suits again are symbolic of their Chinese heritage, and their Chinese vegetable garden implies that they do not eat local cuisine. They keep their money buried because the Cambodian government confiscated everything of value, and Alice’s grandparents have learned to be cautious and hide their money.
The next day, Kien applies lice treatment to Alice’s head that “smells like cat-piss.” It must be left on for twelve hours, and Alice is forced to go to school with the treatment still in her hair. The treatment doesn’t work, and Kien has no choice but to take her to a salon. She has the hairdresser give Alice a perm, hoping that it will kill the nits. Sitting in the car afterwards, Alice feels like a “Chinese Ronald McDonald, minus the Happy Times.”
Alice’s perm serves to further humiliate her. Her persistent nits have already made her even more of an outcast, and Alice’s classmates are sure to know why her mother has insisted she get a perm. The references to Ronald McDonald emphasize the fact that she can’t really relate to popular Western icons or social representations.
When Kuan tells Huyen Thai that he is going to open an electronics store, she thinks he is crazy. An Asian grocery store is better, she says, but he is not convinced. He has no desire to sell soy sauce, so he buys a small shop with no bathroom and begins selling watches, batteries, and radios. Local gangs constantly harass him for money, and they frequently steal from him. “Just like in Cambodia,” he says.
To Huyen Thai, an Asian grocery store is a better fit for Kuan, a Chinese man. Kuan, however, is committed to assimilating to Australian society, which is why he would rather open an electronics store.
A shop-to-shop supplier often stops by Kuan’s shop to sell cheap adaptor plugs. Kuan thinks the adaptors are too cheap and is leery about buying them. “How do you make a profit?” he asks. The supplier tells Kuan that he steals the adaptors from big stores, like Kmart, and then sells them cheap. Six months later, when Kuan becomes a Retravision franchise, he tells the supplier that he can no longer order from door-to-door suppliers.
Kuan’s hesitance to buy from the shady supplier is a reflection of his own good nature and basic decency. Kuan is an honest business owner and family man, and he has no desire to steal from anyone just to get ahead. Instead, Kuan is dedicated to the Australian Dream—the belief that with hard work and honest dedication, he can succeed in Australia.
Kien continues to work making jewelry in the Pungs’ garage. She fires up her kiln early in the morning and works late into the night. Kien pours gold into plaster molds and waits for it to harden, and then she polishes the jewelry by hand. Most customers order 24-carat gold, but why they would want to wear the pale metal is beyond Kien.
Gold represents wealth and security within Unpolished Gem, and Kien does not wear gold jewelry because she believes that anything of value should be hidden to keep it safe from burglars. To Kien, wearing gold as visible jewelry is an unnecessary risk.
After making the jewelry, Kien delivers her products to the shops in Footscray and the surrounding areas. Occasionally, her customers cannot pay, or they owe her gold and don’t have it. She “relies only on their promises,” which she keeps written on scrap paper in her purse.
Kien is illiterate, yet her ability to keep track of her accounts despite this is a testament to her capabilities. In this way, Kien challenges popular sexist stereotypes, both within her Chinese culture and Australian society, that assume women are less capable than men.
Kien “negotiates, supplies, markets, and chases up creditors,” all without speaking English, but she never considers herself a businesswoman. The representatives from Sony who come to sell televisions to Kuan are businesspeople, but she is a “housewife with a handbag filled with gold wrapped in McDonald’s napkins.”
Kien’s low opinion of herself reflects her sexist society. She doesn’t believe that her efforts constitute a business despite much evidence to the contrary.
Soon, Kien becomes pregnant again. This time she is constantly sick and swollen, 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 Huyen Thai, Alice begins to look “disheveled,” with messy hair and clothing, and there is nobody to make her eggs in the morning.
Kien’s refusal to stay home and care for her children and home serves to challenge popular gender stereotypes. Both Kien’s culture and her Australian society assume that children and the home are the responsibility of women, yet she refuses to follow this unwritten rule.
The Pungs’ house turns dark and boring, and nobody comes to visit. During that year, Alice learns “to be alone” and realizes how unsocial her family is. She hardly ever goes outside, and one day while exploring a cupboard under the stairs, she finds human hair hidden in Huyen Thai’s old Buddha shrine.
The dark and isolated nature of the Pungs’ home mirrors Alice’s own isolation. Her parents want her to fit in, yet they do very little to ensure that she does.
When Huyen Thai stops by a few weeks later to gather more of her things, Alice asks her about the hair in the Buddha shrine. “Ah,” Huyen Thai says. “This hair is your Auntie Que’s.” She tells Alice that whenever she cut her daughter’s hair, she would keep a piece.
The fact that Huyen Thai saves Que’s hair is proof of her deep love for her daughters. Huyen Thai begins a tradition of keeping locks of her daughters’ hair when her first daughter tragically dies, and she continues this with Que.
Back in Cambodia, Alice says, Huyen Thai’s first two babies, both girls, died when they were just young. After her grandmother gave birth to her first daughter, An Pung was “inconsolable.” Usually, in Chinese culture, when a baby turns one month old, they are considered one year old because the time in the womb is counted as well, but there was no celebration for this baby. Three months later, the baby fell ill and died quietly in the night. Huyen Thai cut a small piece of the baby’s hair before burying her.
An is “inconsolable” because he had hoped that Huyen Thai would give birth to a son. He doesn’t celebrate her birth like he would a boy, which is also evidence of his disappointment. Again, Huyen Thai cuts a lock of her hair as a keepsake, and she continues this tradition with Que.
Less than a year later, Huyen Thai was pregnant again. She gave birth to another girl and An thought for sure he was cursed. Huyen Thai named her MeiHuay, beautiful flower, but called her “Little Brother.” This new baby had “sturdy legs” and a “strong face,” and everyone soon began calling her Little Brother as well. An was angered by the name. “She’s built like a boy,” he said, “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.”
An believes he is cursed because he can’t seem to father a son, and this is why MeiHuay’s nickname, Little Brother, is so ironic. All of the qualities that might make a boy desirable, such as a strong build and assertive personality, are exactly what make Little Brother undesirable in the eyes of her father and their culture.
Little Brother was very mischievous, and Huyen Thai had a difficult time keeping her in line and out of trouble. “What a bad girl you are, Little Brother!” Alice’s grandmother would yell at her daughter. The child refused to wear dresses and she was constantly dirty. “Discipline that child!” An Pung would order his wife.
An expects Huyen Thai to discipline Little Brother for behaving much like a boy would, which are undoubtedly the very same things that An would applaud if Little Brother had been born a boy, which highlights the double standards within their sexist culture.
Huyen Thai soon gave birth to another child, a son this time, and An Pung threw a big celebration when the baby turned one month old. Before the party, Little Brother tried to take the lollipops that An had set aside for the guests, and he snatched them away, putting them up on a high shelf. Little Brother cried and fussed, throwing a tantrum over her lost lollipop.
When An celebrates the birth of his son and takes the lollipops away from Little Brother, claiming they are for the guests, his actions are another reflection of his disregard for his daughter and his preference for his son.
After An left the room, Huyen Thai gave Little Brother a lollipop to calm her down and went back to preparing food for the party. Suddenly, she heard a loud crash from the other room. When she ran into the room, Huyen Thai saw the high shelf was no longer on the wall and there were lollipops and blood everywhere. “I told you not to give her those lollies on a stick!” An yelled at his wife.
An is quick to blame Huyen Thai for Little Brother’s accident and death, yet Alice’s story establishes the fact that An placed the lollipops on the high shelf. An too thus shares in the blame of this tragedy. This highlights the power of storytelling to reveal truth that may otherwise be hidden or erased.
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 grandmother claims there was a child in her neighborhood who fell from his chair with a chopstick in his mouth, which “poked right through to the back of his head.”
Huyen Thai likely doesn’t warn Alice against running with pens in her mouth because of a neighborhood child, but because of Little Brother’s accident with the lollipops. Huyen Thai simply changes the story to hide her grief of losing a child.
At 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 with her friend, Beatrice. Alice learns to prepare Alison’s formula and test the temperature on the inside of her wrist. Kien never tells Alice that she is a good sister or daughter.
This marks the point when Kien begins to treat Alice like a servant, the very thing she had hoped her daughter would avoid. Kien pushes her own responsibilities onto Alice because she is a girl, and as such, Alice is expected to do the housework.
One day, as Alice 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 is “brain-damaged” from the fall. Alice prays to Buddha to protect her sister and promises to never complain again, but then she realizes that if Buddha does exist, he wouldn’t “torment” her so.
Alice’s religious faith is shaken here. Kien cuts Alice very little slack and she has an incredible amount of responsibility despite her young age. That fact that she is a victim to such unfair circumstances feels like proof to Alice that there is no benevolent higher power.
When Kuan comes into the room, he “tut-tuts” his tongue at Alice. “Can’t even be responsible for anything, not even looking after your sister for a little while,” he says. Alice doesn’t tell him that she has been looking after the baby all day, and she watches as her parents rush Alison to the doctor.
Alice is responsible, and Kuan’s “tut-tut” is very condescending. His actions and words dispel all of Alice’s hard work on account of this one accident, which really could happen to anybody.
With her parents and sister gone to the hospital, Alice figures that she is doomed anyway. She considers suicide, but she hates blood and is too short to effectively hang herself. 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 that Alison is alright that she forgets to be thankful for not killing herself.
Alice’s suicidal ideations reflect how deeply unhappy she is, and in this light, it is difficult to view her as “lucky.” Alice’s disregard for her own life mirrors her parents’ disregard for her as well, and this is why she is thankful for her sister’s life and not her own.
Meanwhile, Alice begins to sew to try to take her mind off her guilt for failing to take proper 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 make clothing for Alina.
Alice is kept at home raising children—and now even making clothes—and the fact that Kien has had another baby suggests that this kind of domestic work will not end anytime soon.
Other members of the family and friends begin dropping their own children off for Alice to 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 he doesn’t know how to do housework because he is a boy. Alice is “more mature,” Kien says. “Girls only mature faster because they have to do more,” Alice says.
Alice’s comment also highlights her sexist culture and society. It is expected that she will do the household chores because she is a girl, and since she has more responsibilities than Alexander, she has been forced to mature faster. Alexander has the luxury of childhood, whereas Alice is expected to raise her younger sisters as if she were an adult.
Alice drinks cups and cups coffee sweetened with condensed milk to keep herself energized and motivated. The caffeine gives her the shakes, but she doesn’t care. She does manage to escape her housework long enough to do her homework and even read a few books. Alice watches movies like Stand by Me and Dead Poets Society and thinks that coming of age for boys is much more exciting than girls. Alice isn’t given the same opportunities a boy, and all that matters is that she can “make a good pot of rice, has a pretty face, and is fertile.”
Alice needs coffee because she is exhausted. Between her responsibilities at home and the pressure put on her to succeed academically, Alice is spread too thin, and this foreshadows her nervous breakdown later in the text. A childhood spent raising her siblings means that Alice is not afforded the same opportunities as boys.
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 ridiculous, no one does that anymore.” Alice realizes that girls come of age easily—they begin to bleed and are “certified women.” Kuan and Kien begin to warn their daughter about rapists. “You never know,” Kien says, “how dirty-minded men are.”
Kien’s failure to celebrate Alice’s coming of age parallels An’s failure to celebrate the births of his first two daughters. Alice’s realization that girls are “certified women” after they menstruate implies that a woman’s sole value lies in her ability to reproduce.
At fifteen, Alice wishes she had a boyfriend to talk to or go to the movies with, but Kuan tells her that she is too young for relationships. She must study hard, he says, because her “future is so important.” Alice becomes the “cover-up girl” for her friends when they want to go out with boys. They tell their parents that they are going to the library with Alice or working on a school project.
The fact that Alice’s friends use her as a cover with their parents when they go out with boys reflects popular stereotypical notions of Chinese women as chaste and studious. If their daughters are with Alice, then they likely aren’t up to no good with boys.
One day, a boy 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 an inappropriate relationship with the boy. They ground Alice during the school holiday, so she won’t be able to go out with any boys.
This is evidence of how strict Alice’s parents are and how small and confined her life is because of it. Kien assumes that because Alice is a girl, her virtue must be guarded, or her future husband will not want her.
Alice stays locked in her room for two weeks, and her parents assume that her silence is an admission of guilt. Alice realizes that to raise a girl, “you need gallons of Social Conditioner with added Spirit Deflator. Rub onto every limb until limp, put the child into a chair and wait until she sets.” Once the arms and legs harden, “you have a perfect young woman—so still and silent and sedate.” Alice feels like a “geisha behind glass.”
Alice’s comment is yet another reflection of her existence in a sexist society and culture. The purpose of a geisha is to please and serve men, and this is very much how Alice feels. Ironically, her parents ground her to keep her virtue safe from boys—so that she will remain desirable to the men these same boys will become in the future.
Huyen Thai tells Alice to “love sensibly,” but Alice fails to see how passion can be experienced sensibly. When her grandmother was a young woman in China, she got into trouble with the government for speaking passionately about land rights and landlord abuses, and that surely wasn’t sensible. In fact, it was the reason why Huyen Thai had to leave China in the first place.
Huyen Thai’s resistance to the Chinese government further serves to challenge the strict gender roles within Chinese society. As a woman, Huyen Thai should not be so outspoken; yet she is.
Shortly after Huyen Thai fled China, Alice says, she met An Pung. They were both teachers at the same school, and even though An was ten years older and married, Huyen Thai fell in love with him anyway. Huyen Thai and An were “diseased with love.” Alice does not see this as sensible either.
The story of Huyen Thai and An Pung highlights the power of love, and it is this type of love that Alice hopes to experience herself in the future.
Later, Kien tells Alice about how she first met Kuan. Kien worked in the Pungs’ plastic bag factory back in Cambodia, and she still remembers the day that Kuan and Sokem became engaged. Then, Pol Pot’s regime took over and Kien’s family escaped to Vietnam while the Pungs were sent to the Killing Fields.
The Killing Fields are the communist farms implemented under Pol Pot’s regime where citizens were sent, either to be killed outright or to be worked to death. The fields are home to the mass graves of over one million bodies.
Five years later, Kien and Kuan met again in Saigon. Kien sensed that Kuan liked her but was too shy to say it. They went for walks together and Kuan even let Kien borrow his bicycle. One day, Kien went to the Pungs’ to return Kuan’s bicycle and found Sokem there as well. Sokem had lost her entire family in the Killing Fields, and she had returned to marry Kuan. Huyen Thai invited Kien into the house anyway.
When Huyen Thai invites Kien into the house, she silently consents to her relationship with Kuan. An was the one who arranged Kuan’s marriage to Sokem, and now that both of these men are dead, their deal died with them as far as Huyen Thai is concerned. Kuan’s mother allows him to marry for love just as she did when she married An.
Kien and Kuan were married in Vietnam, but they didn’t celebrate until after they arrived in Australia. Before Kuan asked Kien to marry him, he knew that he must have something to offer her. Of course, he had nothing, so he offered her what he did have— “a promise, something for her to picture in her imagination.” He planned their escape through a refugee camp in Thailand, and after one year in the camp, the couple was finally able to get out of Southeast Asia. They were given the choice to go to either Canada or Australia, and since no one wanted to live in the snow, they chose Australia.
Kuan’s promise reflects his deep love for Kien. While he has very little to give her, their new life together in Australia is proof of what great love can accomplish. Furthermore, the Pungs’ decision to move to Australia suggests that they are not committed to assimilating to Australian culture per se, but any culture that is available—and inviting.