Later, when Alice arrives at the Pungs’ shop after school, she doesn’t see her father. It is unusual for Kuan not to be there—he’s always there—and he always needs help filling out forms or running newspaper ads. Que tells Alice that her father is at the hospital. Alice freezes. “Why?” she asks. Huyen Thai has had a stroke, Que says.
Kuan needs Alice’s help with forms and advertisements because Chinese is his primary language. Kuan does speak English fluently, but he frequently needs help making sure he doesn’t make a mistake.
Alice goes to the hospital later that evening, and everything there is white and blue. The stroke has left Huyen Thai blind in one eye, but she doesn’t know it yet. Once she is discharged from the hospital, Kuan finds a caregiver to look after her at Que’s house. Huyen Thai requires twenty-four-hour care, but she is “not the softest soul to look after.” Alice’s grandmother bites and scratches the help, and she often refuses to eat.
Huyen Thai’s actions again challenge typical stereotypes of women and femininity. Alice has already established that Chinese women are expected to be quiet and sedate, but her grandmother refuses to behave this way, even in her incapacitated state.
That week in school, Alice begins to study William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Her teacher has written the word “paganism” on the blackboard, and she asks the students what it means. “Belief in many gods?” one of the students asks. “Good,” says the teacher. Then she turns to Alice. “For example, the Chinese. They believe in and worship many Gods. Don’t you, Alice?”
Alice is mortified. “Er, my grandmother worships many gods. Buddha, Goddess of Mercy, Lord of Business, she prays to them all to bless us.” The class laughs, and Alice laughs too, hoping that they aren’t laughing at her. She thinks of King Lear and Huyen Thai going mad incapacitated all day long at Que’s house alone.
Just as Alice suspects, her Australian classmates laugh at her grandmother’s religion because it is so different and foreign compared to their own overwhelmingly Christian belief system. Alice’s reference to King Lear, who goes mad within Shakespeare’s play, again shows the importance of storytelling within Unpolished Gem.
One morning, Alice wakes “with a false skin on her face.” Her new skin is made of rubber, and it takes serious effort to move the muscles in her face. No matter how she tries, Alice can’t seem to remove the “rubber death-mask.” Alice feels “a funeral in her brain, and she hasn’t even studied Emily Dickinson yet.”
In another literary allusion, Alice refers to Emily Dickinson, a famous poet who suffered from depression, as she makes sense of her world through storytelling and literature. Alice’s “false skin” is evidence of her own depression, which makes it difficult for her move her face or smile.
Alice is seventeen now. Her grades have earned her entrance into a good school, and a boy has even asked her out, but she still feels like she “lives in a big bubble.” She doesn’t relate to the kids at school, and they think she is “naïve,” a girl in an “ivory tower of books and ideas.” Alice tries to believe that her “real life will begin sometime soon. When this false one ends.”
Alice’s “false life” is a reference to her sheltered and small life. Her parents keep her locked away in an effort to protect her from danger—mainly men—and she is exceedingly unhappy because of this. Alice’s sheltered existence is yet another reason why she doesn’t fit in at school.
Kuan and Kien schedule meetings with the administrator at Alice’s school. He asks what medication the doctors have ordered her to take. Alice has “little pink pills for focus, big white ones to help her settle, and tiny white ones to help her sleep.” Kuan has also prescribed his own apothecary remedies for Alice to try, and each night he massages her feet and shoulders.
The loving way Kuan tends to his daughter and massages her feet and shoulders is again proof of his inherent goodness. He doesn’t view Alice as less valuable because of her gender, and his attention to her unhappiness is evidence of this.
Kien buys Alice a new white dress for her graduation dinner, and Alice feels like she is dressing for a “polished pine box.” She borrows a sleek black dress from a friend instead and tries to sneak out of the house in it. “What are you wearing?” yells Kien. When Alice’s friends arrive to pick her up, she is like “a wind-up obedience toy” in her white dress and shoes—a pair of “shiny plastic middle-aged-woman pumps.”
Alice’s white dress is an outward reflection of her purity, and it also reflects her parents’ (and society’s) expectation that she remains chaste and virginal. The black dress symbolizes the exact opposite, and Kien seems able to sniff it out. Alice’s shoes are another source of her humiliation, and they will again be another reason why she doesn’t fit in and feels awkward around her Australian classmates.
At the dinner, Alice and her family sit at the only “ethnically-enhanced table.” There is a family of Muslims 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 as they celebrate their graduation and snap pictures. Alice’s parents thought if they worked hard enough, Alice would fit in and live a beautiful life. This certainly is not the case.
For Kuan and Kien, their “ethnically-enhanced table” is definitive proof that Alice does not fit in. They assumed that by moving to this new place, giving their children Western names, and immersing themselves in Australian culture, their child would automatically be seen as Australian, not Chinese, but this is obviously not the case.
Alice’s final exams are coming up, but she can’t concentrate long enough to even think about them. The school nurse teaches her how to breathe, and she is convinced she will fail her exams and be “condemned to a life sentence of dirty dishes and rubber-faced, blank-wall staring.” Now that school is nearly over, Alice thinks, her only expected role is to “attach her tentacles to an emotionally un-bruised boy with a doctor’s bag.”
Alice’s expected role as a doctor’s wife further emphasizes her sexist culture and society—good grades hardly matter if she is destined to scrub dishes and raise babies.
Alice feels “great contempt” for any boy who is interested in her. After all, those boys must have terrible taste anyway. Alice goes to visit Huyen Thai and her grandmother begs her to take her “to a place with no darkness.” Alice wishes she could. Anyplace Alice goes with her grandmother, Huyen Thai would be sure to say: “This is my granddaughter, she is so clever, she is so smart. She knows everything, for someone so young. Aiia, she can also make anything and do everything.”
Alice’s contempt for the boys who show interest in her is another example of her self-deprecation, and another symptom of her depression induced by the demands and restrictions of her sexist society. Huyen Thai is the only one who has truly understood and appreciated Alice, and now she is in danger of losing her too.
Huyen Thai catches a cold and dies a short time later. Alice thinks that her “grandmother is not meant to die. She is meant to be with Alice forever.” Huyen Thai never cared when Alice ran out of Chinese words, and she was always happy to see her. Alice knows that Huyen Thai will be part of her forever—through her stories. Alice is who she is because of those stories, and she will remember them forever. Still, Alice says, there is “no one left to remind me of my roots, no one to tell me to be proud to be part of a thousand-year-old culture, no one to tell me that I am gold not yellow.”
Alice’s connection to her grandmother and her culture through storytelling highlights the power of storytelling to influence one’s life and inform one’s identity. Alice learns what it means to be a proud Chinese woman from her grandmother’s stories of the old country, and this is reflected in Alice’s reference to herself as “gold not yellow.” Alice’s sense of self-worth is in large part because of the respect she has learned for her culture through her grandmother’s stories.
Alice’s exams come and go, and she manages to sit upright and answer all the questions. Afterward, Kuan tells Alice, “Go on, go and have fun while you’re young. Go out with boyfriends.” Alice can’t 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 the energy to do anything. Plus, people in public “will be able to see through this rubber mask,” Alice thinks.
Kuan’s advice for Alice to “make herself look pretty” suggests that this is her greatest strength as a woman now that she is allowed to go out and not just study. Instead of acknowledging that Alice is smart and has accomplished great things while in school—things that are sure to make her future bright—he encourages her to rely instead on her femininity and beauty.
Alice doesn’t even want to keep working at Kuan’s shop. Everyone is sure to know that she is a failure who can’t get into a decent 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 show your aunties how you are at the moment,” they tell her.
Kuan and Kien’s comment reflects popular opinions that mental illness and depression is something to be ashamed and must be hidden from others. Their comments make Alice appear as an overly emotional woman who has no clinical reason for her feelings.
Meanwhile, Alice stays in her room, crying. She can’t concentrate enough to even read a book. One day, Alina knocks on her door and silently walks into the room. She climbs into Alice lap and snuggles her small body next to her sister. Suddenly, Alice hears Alina sniffle and realizes she is crying. “It is contagious,” Alice thinks, “this disease.” The next day, Alice “decides to do something useful.”
Since Alice has raised Alina and spent so much time with her, Alina’s negative response to Alice’s depression motivates her to recover. Alice’s reaction to Alina’s tears underscores just how important Alice’s family is and how much they mean to her.
Alice organizes the cutlery draw. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she tells herself. “Nothing means anything. Why are you doing this?” “Shut up,” Alice tells herself. She is finally doing something, even if it is small and ridiculous. Alice thinks about Huyen Thai and wonders what they did in the old country when they failed exams. She knows women weren’t allowed such things then, and she should feel lucky, but she can’t.
This small act represents Alice’s recovery from this spell of depression, but her internal dialogue still shows the restrictions and oppression of her sexist society. No matter what Alice does, it is likely to mean very little because she is a girl. The fact that women haven’t always been able to study reflects the progress society has made, but there is still much more to be done.
Kuan and Kien keep telling Alice to call the exam hot-line to get her scores and “put an end to her torment,” but she hesitates. Finally, she punches in the numbers and waits. She immediately hangs up. “I must have heard wrong,” she thinks. Kuan tells her to dial again, so she does. Despite sleeping in and nearly missing the exam, Alice has scored well, and she has been accepted into the law program at Melbourne University. “I will live,” Alice thinks.
Much like Kien, Alice does not want her life to revolve around domestic chores and childrearing. She feels that in order to have a meaningful life, she must also have an identity outside of the home.
That summer before college, Alice works in Kuan’s shop. She is comfortable among the toasters and televisions, and she “always retreats to this place after something traumatic” happened. Alice is in charge of mobile phones, and she commands her small space behind the counter.
The mobile phone counter is the only place where Alice feels she truly belongs. The duality of her cultural identity—that is, being both Australian and Chinese—has left her feeling like she doesn’t belong anywhere.
While Alice and Kuan work, Kien brings three-courses lunches down to the shop, and they all eat together in the employee breakroom. As the family eats, talking loudly in Chinese, the non-Chinese employees “huddle over their Herald Sun, quietly scoff down their pizza or take-away fried rice and get the hell out of there as fast as possible, since they have no idea whether the yelling is about them or not.”
This passage again underscores the power of language to divide and isolate. Just as Kien is isolated in her own home when her family speaks English, the Pungs’ English-speaking employees are isolated when the Pungs speak Chinese.
Alice’s 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 goes off and has her baby.” Kien sells electronics the same way she sold gold, and she quickly becomes the best salesperson in the shop. She doesn’t need English to bargain cost. “I sold three microwaves and a fridge today,” she tells her family after work. Alice and Kuan look at her with jealousy. They wish they could sell three microwaves and a fridge in one day too.
The fact that Kien is the best salesperson at the Pungs’ shop despite her inability to speak English fluently highlights the overarching theme of the importance of communication, even non-verbal communication, within Unpolished Gem. Just like in her own gold business, Kien does not need English to haggle price and numbers, and she effectively proves this when she outsells the others in the shop.