“Ah!” yells Kien as she sits straight up in bed. She has felt little peace since the Pungs moved into their new house, and she has finally figured out why. “It’s our toilet!” she cries. “Our ensuite toilet!” The family’s Buddhist shrine, the one with An Pung’s picture on it, is located downstairs, directly under the toilet. “We are crapping on our gods and ancestors,” Alice says. “That is why there is no peace in this new house.”
Kien’s belief that the placement of their shrine beneath their toilet is somehow disrespectful is humorous, but it also underscores her faith and longing for her home culture. Kien believes that she is being punished for insulting Buddha and their ancestors.
The Pungs take dreams and ancestors very seriously, and dreams are discussed as a family at meals. Kuan had avoided going back to Cambodia for years now because his dead grandfather told him not to in a dream. Kuan’s brothers own six new banks in Cambodia and are doing very well, but the ominous dream keeps him in Australia. Now, he has abandoned the idea of going back to Cambodia altogether and is focused on the “Great Australian Dream.”
The Pungs’ belief in the importance of their dreams comes from their culture—but ironically, this is also what keeps them from returning to Southeast Asia. Kuan’s dream also reflects the respect for elders within Chinese culture, as Kuan listens to his grandfather even in his dream.
Alice thinks about how Huyen Thai had saved all her money from the plastic bag factory to buy a terrace house in Phnom Penh back in Cambodia. Before she even had the chance to move in, Pol Pot’s regime forced her to the countryside to work. It’s seems obvious to Alice that Kuan should feel leery about going back. When they began to build the new house in Australia, Kuan had “poured over the details” each night. “Such a big house for such little people,” Alice’s friends said when they saw the plans.
The comments made by Alice’s friends highlight the subtle racism present in Australian society. Alice’s friends don’t believe that the Pungs need such a large house since Asian people are typically small in stature, which implies that big, fancy houses are reserved for people who are generally taller and bigger—like white people. By calling the Pungs small, Alice’s friends devalue them.
While the Pungs were building their new house, Alice continues, they would drive each weekend to the construction site to assess the progress. “This was our weekly Sunday trip,” Alice 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 bored at the building site, but Kuan and Kien stood for hours, pointing at this or that, planning the future.
This passage reflects Kuan and Kien’s dedication to the Great Australian Dream. They are so determined to become successful and give their children a chance at a better life that they approach it like a religion. Kien even dresses Alison and Alina in their Sunday best as if they are going to temple or church.
In the new house, the colorful and tacky knickknacks and paper chains are gone. Here, things are “different, things are whitewashed. Nothing can look too peasanty.” The house is decorated in pale pastels, and the Pungs are the envy of their entire family.
This reflects the Pungs’ efforts to assimilate into Australian culture. Their new home means (superficially at least) that they have achieved the Australian Dream.
Kien has felt uneasy in the house ever since they moved in, so she tries to distract herself by working in the garage. Moving the Buddha shrine does little to make her feel better, and she realizes that she must be feeling uneasy because she cannot find the glass jars of gold she had buried in the yard at the old house in Braybrook. She keeps the jars “as a residue of the fear left from the old country.” Under Pol Pot, money became “worthless pieces of dirty paper,” but gold retained value. Kien is convinced she has left four jars buried in their old backyard.
Gold is symbolic of security within Unpolished Gem, and since she has very little sense of security living in the new house, Kien is convinced she feels this way because their gold is unaccounted for. This also highlights the differences between the Pungs’ life in Cambodia and their life in Australia. The fact that Kien could so easily forget about jars of gold is evidence of their wealth in Australia.
The next day, Kien calls the Cantonese woman who bought their old house and tells her that there are the remains of Pung ancestors buried in her yard. The woman is “scared to death of the ancestors, everybody is,” and she tells Kien to come and dig them up right away. Kien and Que dig several holes, but they don’t find any gold.
The Cantonese woman shows just how widespread and powerful the fear and respect of elders—living or dead—is in many Southeast Asian cultures, not just the Pungs’ Chinese culture.
“Kim” is both Vietnamese and Chinese for gold, Alice says, so the jewelry 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 Vietnamese Kims are stylish and the women wear fashionable clothes and hairstyles. The Chinese Kims, she says, are much “less chic” and have a “turnip-and-carrot-soup sort of existence.” The Chinese Kims, Alice says, are just like her mother. They do not own gold or wear gold— “the gold owns them.”
The fact that the Vietnamese and Chinese words for gold are the same implies the universal value of gold. Alice’s description of her mother’s existence as “turnip-and-carrot-soup” precisely defines Kien’s no-nonsense character. There is nothing flashy or fancy about Alice’s mother. This is why Alice is so taken aback by her mother’s sisters, Ly and Sim, who turn out to be “Chinese chic” when they arrive in Australia.
Sometimes the Kims go 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 are gone. One Kim has owed her for months, so Kien sits in the store all day, staring at them behind the counter. “Chinese people shouldn’t owe any debts,” Kien says. The Kims insist they have no money, so they give Kien a gold bracelet as surety until they can pay.
Kien’s ability to collect money from the bankrupt Kims is further proof of her capabilities as a successful businesswoman. Ironically, Kien uses her quiet nature, one of her stereotypically feminine qualities, as a source of power during her interaction with the Kims. Sitting and staring at them all day unnerves them until they are forced to pay to make her stop.
Kien is constantly haggling prices and payments, and many of the Kims try to undercut her. They say that because Kien’s husband owns two Hi-Fi stores, she doesn’t need the money as much as they do. They question why she even works at all. Surely, she doesn’t need to. What the Kims don’t know is that as they undercut her prices, “they are also stripping away her sense of purpose.” Kien still has a good twenty-five working years left in her, and she can’t imagine spending them at home.
When the Kims insist that Kien doesn’t need to work because her husband is so successful, they undermine Kien’s own success and desire to have a purpose and identity outside of being her husband’s wife and her children’s mother. Kien needs more than this to be happy, and the Kims’ comments, which also reflect the sexist opinions of society at large, do not respect this.
Alice notes that Kien is “not a talker,” but “a shouter.” She is especially loud in the car, and Alice wears headphones under a scarf to drown out the noise. “The less she has to say,” Alice says, “the louder she gets.” She mostly shouts about money and how much everything costs, and the cost of Alice’s education is at the top of her list. “Not every family can send their kids to such a school,” she tells Alice. “Especially not the girls.”
Kien’s comment that most girls don’t get the opportunity for a good education reflects the sexist nature of their culture. A good education is a right reserved for boys because women, who typically work in the home, don’t require advanced studies to clean and raise children.
Kien tells Alice that when she was a child, all the Chinese schools were shut down. Kien has worked most of her life, and she believes that instead of making kids brighter, too much school leads to becoming “limp and lazy.” She gets angry because Alice can’t explain the bank statements to her—even “with all that education”—and says that she should “at least know the simplest things.” Alice is ashamed because her mother is right; she can’t explain the bank statements—in Chinese. She is “running out of words.”
It isn’t that Alice doesn’t understand the bank statements, but that she doesn’t know enough Chinese to effectively communicate this understanding to her mother. Alice speaks mostly English, which reflects her assimilation to Australian society, but it also underscores the power of language to exclude and isolate—Alice feels out of place within her own family because she doesn’t speak the same language as her mother.
Since she is running out of words, Alice doesn’t talk much, and even at school she is quiet. “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 acknowledge that Kien can’t understand them.
A philistine—someone who has no understanding of culture or language—perfectly reflects how Alice feels about her Chinese culture, and it also reflects how Kien feels about the English language and Australian culture.
A classmate at school tells Alice that “migrants don’t assimilate. 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 map. “I’m going to learn it now,” she says, “no matter what.” The class is only ten dollars per term— “a bargain,” Kien thinks.
This student’s opinion represents widespread racist assumptions that immigrants have no desire to assimilate. Most of Alice’s family, with the exception of her mother, have fully immersed themselves in Australian culture. Furthermore, it is Alice’s dedication to speaking English that has caused her distance from her own mother and culture.
Kien asks everyone to start speaking to her in English, so Alice talks to her mother in slow, broken words and phrases. She asks how she is doing and if she had a good day. “Stop asking crazy pointless questions,” Kien yells, “and let me learn something useful!”
Kien wants to speak English but she seems unwilling to start with the basics. To her, basic phrases are stupid and pointless, and their simplicity makes her feel stupid by extension.
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 and phrases are senseless when she does figure them out. “Who gives a crap about the man with tin can over his head? Stupid idiot.” Alice helps her read one of Alina’s children’s books, and they read it three times. Alice applauds Kien for reading the entire book, but she dismisses her. “I don’t know what it says,” Kien says. “I just memorized the whole thing when you first read it to me.”
Kien feels stupid and inferior because she can’t speak English, but the fact that she can so easily memorize a book, even a children’s book, suggests otherwise. Most people would be unable to remember multiple foreign words and phrases, but Kien does it so well that Alice assumes she is reading the book.
Alice continues to sink further into quiet isolation, and the more she studies, the less she speaks. She says that she always checks the “English as a second language” box on every form she fills out, but she is “beginning to think in English.” “At least I am losing my word-spreading status,” Alice thinks to herself.
The more English Alice speaks, the further she gets from her Chinese culture and heritage, again showing the power of language to isolate and exclude.
Kien continues to have difficulties learning English, and she frequently cries and yells that everyone is going to leave her. “I am getting old and you are all going to leave me because I don’t know the English!” she screams. But she is still determined to learn, and she constantly asks Alice how to say this or that, until Kien’s “questions became more difficult to answer than the literature Alice has to study in class.”
Kien’s ability to learn English relies on Alice’s ability to speak Chinese, which she has slowly been losing as the Pungs assimilate to Australian culture. Alice’s inability to effectively help her mother is yet another reason why they are drifting apart and why Alice doesn’t quite fit in her own Chinese culture.
One day during a holiday from school, Kien takes Alice with her to visit one of the aunts. The women trade their stories of suffering and woe, and Alice “realizes that it is the same everywhere.” Inside all these Chinese homes are “countless silent women” who are “living the dream lives of the rich and idle in Phnom Penh, and yet their imposed idleness makes them inarticulate and loud.” Alice’s aunt laments that her teenage children no longer talk to her—they go straight to their rooms after school. “Aiyohh,” Kien says, “yours don’t speak to you anymore? Well, I have it worse. Mine can’t speak to me anymore!”
The suffering of all the women in Alice’s life is another reflection of the trappings of their sexist society and culture. The women are not given the same outlets as men—meaning they often do not have careers or a place in the community outside the home—and because of this their lives feel restricted and small, leading to a deep unhappiness. Even money and security are not enough to counter this, and their suffering is only worsened by their language barrier.
“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, and then it will be the end of us.” The women decide they are “doomed” because they don’t know English. Their children are likely to ship them off to a nursing home, like the Australians do. “Kids these days have no loyalty,” Kien says.
This passage highlights the differences between how the Chinese treat the elderly compared to the Australians. Nursing homes are nearly unheard of within Chinese culture, since children usually care for their parents when they get old. Kien’s concern that Alice will marry a “ghost,” or a white man, foreshadows Alice’s relationship with Michael and her inability to commit to him partly because of their cultural differences.
Later, when she burns the 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 you get married,” Kien says, “you’re going to be making ghost food for your ghost husband.” Plus, Kien says, why should she teach Alice anything if she is just going to leave her anyway? Alice remembers that her mother has English class in the morning, but Kien says she has stopped going. “Who would I speak the English to, I ask you?” she questions.
Of course, Kien’s refusal to continue her English lessons because she has nobody to talk to contradicts her previous concerns that her family will leave her because she doesn’t speak English. Her insistence that Alice doesn’t need to learn to cook because she will “be making ghost food for her ghost husband” shows her disapproval of Alice marrying a white man instead of a Chinese man.
Sometime later, the Pungs hang a new chandelier in their 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 that wasting energy!” The light is only to be used for visitors—just like the couch and the dining room table.
Kien’s reaction to Alice turning on the light reflects how empty their lives really are. Kuan and Kien have worked hard to have a nice life and own nice things, yet they refuse to use them. They don’t get the chance to enjoy anything because everything is kept hidden or turned off, a habit they have maintained from living in Cambodia.
Kien tells Alice that it is time to go pick up Alina and Alison from school. But it is already too late. Alice had walked the long way home from school and stopped by her sisters’ school because she figured her mother would forget. She did. Kien’s shoulders “slump.” “Another failure,” she thinks. She can’t take care of her kids properly, and she hasn’t been able to work lately either.
Even Kien believes that taking care of the children is solely her responsibility—even though she has no desire to actually do it. Without her work to give her purpose, she feels directionless and useless.
The chemicals Kien uses to process the gold have begun to affect her lungs and make her cough. The cough has failed to improve, so she has not been going out into the garage. Instead, her workspace is dark and covered with an old bedspread.
The bedspread covers Kien’s workspace like a shroud, and it represents the death of her true passion. Kien only values herself because of her work, and without her gold, she feels likewise worthless.
Kuan wants Kien to sell all her gold processing equipment and just stay home with the kids, but she can’t see herself doing such a thing. Still, she is getting old and running all over Footscray is becoming difficult, and she worries a purse-snatcher will take her bag of gold. Plus, the skin on her hands has blackened and begun to crack from the chemicals. Like “a coal miner’s hands,” Alice thinks.
Kien’s worries that someone will steal her gold, albeit realistic, are also a reflection of her experiences back in Cambodia. Furthermore, her blackened hands like “a coal miner’s” are physical proof of the hard work she has put in to achieve the Australian Dream and ensure a better life for her children, a continual source of guilt for Alice.
Kien wishes that she could work in Kuan’s shop counting the money like Que, but she doesn’t speak English. “I am a useless person!” Kien cries. Her doctor diagnoses her with depression, and she complains of her constant “scattered thoughts.” She is given little white Zoloft pills and told to wait.
Again, Kien equates her inability to speak English with her own uselessness, further underpinning the power of language to isolate and exclude, which is also a major cause of her depression.
Kien can’t stand staying home and she has a hard time occupying her days with housework. She does the grocery shopping, but even a good deal fails to cheer her up. She begins to obsess about the cleanliness of the house, and yells over any stains or scratches.
This passage plays on stereotypical jokes of Asian people appreciating a good deal. The fact that Kien fails to be happy even when she is saving money highlights just how depressed she is.
Kuan knows that Kien needs to work again if she is ever to get any better, so he decides that she should come to work at his store despite her poor English. Kuan asks Alice to look after the house while Kien goes back to work, and she is “exuberant.” Alice sees her mother going back to work as “the best thing that has happened in a long time” and doesn’t mind having more work because of it.
Alice hates housework and she resents being expected to do it just because she is a girl; however, her use of the word “exuberant” illustrates how eager she is to get her mother out of the house so that Kien can at least feel useful again.
Kuan hires Kien as a salesperson. She is given a time-card and put in the toilet-cleaning rotation (his store is now big enough to have one), and he brings home invoices to familiarize her with the language. Kuan teaches her how to write “washing machine,” “hair dryer,” and “toaster.” Kien writes the words over and over, and tapes scraps of paper all over the house with new words on them. Alice watches as her mother “persists.”
Kuan’s toilet-cleaning rotation implies that he does not view typical housework and cleaning as solely women’s work. Kuan also takes his turn cleaning the toilet at the shop because splitting up this dreaded task is the fair and equal thing to do, which speaks directly to Kuan’s inherent goodness and decency.
Kien does well at the store until she must print a receipt, then “she is stumped.” She grows frustrated and hits random keys, claiming, “Sometimes receipts print, sometimes not.” At home, Alice keeps the house clean and makes all the meals. Kuan even drives her to the market to do the shopping. She babysits Alison and Alina, and they play games and laugh. “Wah, look how good the house looks!” Kien says. “I am doing an excellent job,” Alice thinks.
This is the first time Kien has given Alice any credit for the work that she does around the house. Her comment suggests that she appreciates Alice and her efforts, and Alice secretly hopes that doing a good job around the house will ensure that Kien keeps her job at Kuan’s shop.
The next week, 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 given the wrong amount of money to take to the bank—she was one hundred dollars short—and that Kuan “wants her gone at any cost.” “I can’t work there any longer!” Kien cries. Kuan swears it was a simple mistake, but she is convinced he only wants to humiliate her. Alice soon comes down with the flu, and Kien takes the week off to care for the house and kids. “We all know by the end of that week that it will probably be forever,” Alice says.
Again, Kien is convinced that others believe her stupid and worthless because she cannot speak English, which serves to further isolate her from her family, and from her job at Kuan’s shop. Kien is looking for a reasonable excuse not to return to the shop, and Alice’s illness is the perfect reason to stay home. Of course, Kien’s mishap at the bank was only a mistake on Kuan’s part, but Kien’s insecurities don’t allow her to see this.