Unpolished Gem

by

Alice Pung

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Unpolished Gem: Part 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Later, Kien tells Kuan that Ah BuKien, a family friend, “wants to discuss Agheare for her son.” Kuan laughs. “That crazy antiquated relic thinks she’s still living in Confucian times,” he says. Alice knows the woman well. She made all her money selling rice noodles and built a huge mansion. Now, whenever they drive by, the Pungs say, “Look, there’s BuKien’s rice-noodle house.”
Confucius was a Chinese teacher and philosopher who was born sometime near 550 BC. When Kuan calls Ah BuKien an “antiquated relic” “living in Confucian times,” he implies that her desire to marry Alice and her son is a dated concept—one that ignores Alice’s own independence and voice.
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Once, Alice remembers, Ah BuKien gave the Pungs a tour of her house and took great care describing every piece of furniture, including the price. “Do you know how much this cost?” Ah BuKien said pointing at a coffee table. “Do you? Guess.” In the car on the way home, Kien said the table was ugly, but Alice disagreed. “You just watch it,” Kien said. Kien thought Ah BuKien had “peasant taste.” After all, the table was imported from China. “My parents abhorred anything that reminded them we would grow up yellow and there was nothing they could do to save us,” Alice says.
Alice’s use of the word “yellow” to describe herself is a derogatory reference to her Chinese identity. To Kien and Kuan, they want their children to be Australian, not Chinese, and Ah BuKien’s Chinese table is a reminder of their true heritage. Both Kien and Kuan equate being Chinese with being a peasant, no matter how much money Ah BuKien spent on the table.
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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 her son has not been accepted into medical school, and she has not been successful trying to pay his way. “Only a percentile of 92.4! The boy is a retard!” she cries. Alice has no desire to marry the “rice-noodle boy—quivery, white and malleable, made exactly like Ah Bukien’s pasta.”
The way Ah BuKien talks about her son is terrible, and it reflects popular negative stereotypes about the physically and mentally disabled. Ah BuKien’s ugly words also underscore the amount of stress Alice is under to perform well academically.
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Back at Kuan’s Retravision shop, the local Chinese population refuses to buy any items made in China. “But sir,” Alice asks an older gentleman, “aren’t you made in China?” Huyen Thai had always taught Alice to be proud of being Chinese. She had raised Alice to “defend herself against all the other blandly dressed banana-children—children who were yellow on the outside but believed they could be completely white inside.” Huyen Thai always said those children would grow to be “sour.” Now, with this man refusing a Chinese television, Alice knows she was right.
This passage again highlights the power of storytelling. Huyen Thai’s stories of the old country have instilled in Alice a sense of pride in her Chinese heritage and history, and when her customers reject a television because it is made in China, they likewise reject their own Chinese identities. Because of her grandmother’s stories, Alice understands that she can never be entirely Australian because a large part of her will always be Chinese.
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One day, Ah BuKien comes into the shop. She doesn’t seem interested in buying anything, and she casually asks Alice the results of her final grades. Alice suddenly understands she isn’t looking to buy a toaster—she is there to size up Alice for her son. Well, thinks Alice, “if she is searching for my child-bearing hips, she won’t find any.”
This too reflects the trappings of Alice’s sexist society and culture. Ah BuKien wants to make sure that Alice is good enough for her precious son—that is, she wants to make sure she is smart enough—even though she really expects Alice to stay home and have children.
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Alice suspects that Kien wants her to marry Ah BuKien’s son, and she feels like the women are “conspiring against her liberty.” Kien wants her to be quiet and docile, and always warns her to be “careful.” Translated into Chinese, Alice says, “‘careful’ means to have a ‘small heart.’”
Kien and Ah BuKien are “conspiring against Alice’s liberty” because they wish to deny her own voice and independence in choosing her husband. Alice’s heart feels small because she obviously does not love Ah Bukien’s son.
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One day, Ah BuKien again comes into the shop and tells Kien that her son is no longer going to school. Instead, she says, he is working at the factory. “What!” Kien yells. “You mean your rice-noodle factory?” Smugly, Kien tells her at least he is making money for her. Kien and Kuan have five years of law school to pay for. As Ah BuKien walks out of the shop, Alice knows she won’t be back.
Kien’s comment to Ah BuKien is a subtle dig at the failures of Ah BuKien’s son. Alice knows Ah BuKien won’t be back because Kien has made it clear that Ah BuKien son’s is not good enough for Alice. Kien will not have a son-in-law who works at a noodle-factory, and as happy as this makes Alice, her decisions are still being made for her.
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In the meantime, Alice is walking with a young white boy named Michael. He is kind and funny, and they fight when he insists on escorting her home. Alice worries about her family spying on her—she is “more scared of interloping Indochinese ‘aunts’ than the local drug-dealers, because the latter generally left her alone.”
Alice knows that her family, especially her mother, will not approve of her dating a white boy, and since she is accustomed to having very little freedom, she is convinced that her family is spying on her.
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Michael asks Alice if she would like to have dinner with him. Alice thinks he might like her, but part of her thinks he’s just a “sinophile,” and she is “his third-world trip or something.” She has never been on a real date before, and she’s not sure how all of this works. In her mind, Alice tells him that she doesn’t “do conventional Karate-Kid-Part-II romances,” but out loud she says, “Umm, yeah, okay.”
A “sinophile” is obsessed with Chinese people and culture, and Alice worries that Michael is not interested in her for the right reasons. Alice’s reference to Karate Kid Part II, a movie in which the main character, a white boy, falls in love with an Asian woman, potentially mirrors Alice’s own circumstances.
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At dinner, Alice fights with her inner “Voice of Reason.” She tells herself that she is “turning into one of those anxious killjoy Asian women,” and she tries to relax and enjoy herself. Not everything has to be so “serious.” Michael looks at her and says, “What will your father say when I ask you to be my girlfriend?”
Ironically, Alice’s inner voice too relies on stereotypes of Chinese women being anxious, which is the very thing she is rebelling against. Additionally, Michael’s question implies that Alice requires the approval of her father and is not capable of making her own decisions.
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In the meantime, Alice’s cousin, Melanie, marries a white man, and most 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 “because you know how they sleep around.”
Of course, Kien’s opinion of white men, or “white ghosts,” equally relies on racial stereotypes. There is nothing about white skin that makes these men more promiscuous then other men.
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Melanie’s father loves her new husband. “The white skin did the trick” because Uncle Frank “can never escape the counter-effects of colonialism.” He tells the family that when Melanie takes this new husband to Cambodia for their honeymoon, “they will be swamped by kowtowers from all sides, heh heh!” Alice says that her family believes that they “were rescued by white people even when the white people didn’t see themselves as our rescuers.”
European colonialism operated under the assumption that Western societies were superior to those in the East, and Uncle Frank’s remarks reflect this same opinion. His belief that his son-in-law will be “swamped by kowtowers” in Cambodia assumes that they will respect him simply because of his white skin.
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Alice says that her family are “hypocrites.” They love the white people for accepting them here in Australia, and they certainly love Australia. But “the more we love these things,” Alice says, “the more it makes us realize how much we hate the dirt, the sludge and the smells of our homelands […] But most of all, we hate ourselves for loving them.”
Just like Uncle Frank, Alice and her family have begun to view white people as superior to Asians, even though they know that this is ridiculous and overall damaging to society.
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“So…umm, how about it?” Michael asks. Alice sits silently. Alice thinks to herself that he needs a “bowl haircut” and a “shirt-and-tie combo” before she can be his girlfriend. She wants to know if he is only asking her out because she is “exotic,” but she doesn’t ask. “No,” she finally says out loud. “I can’t.” Michael becomes self-conscious. He’s never asked anyone out before like this. Maybe he’s doing it the wrong way. She assures him he isn’t and they both agree to start over.
Alice thinks that Michael will need a “bowl haircut” and a “shirt-and-tie-combo” because these things are stereotypical attributes of Chinese men. This implies that Alice believes that Michael is too good for her as he is, and must be made to look more awkward, or Chinese. Of course, Alice is only being sarcastic, but her thoughts are not too far from the widespread stereotypes of Chinese people.
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 After their initial dinner, Alice’s relationship with Michael gets “easier.” She decides to “loosen her small and tightly coiled life” and date like a normal person without worrying about “being under the spotlight of the Indochinese (in)security cameras.” Each time Alice goes out with Michael she tells her parents she is going to the university library. They don’t ask questions because she is “trading on her reputation as a studious daughter.” They never mind if she is studying as long as she is home by six P.M.
Even though Alice decides to “loosen up,” her life is still very tightly controlled by her parents. While she may ignore the fact that her family is probably still spying on her, her parents only allow her to go to the library and she must be home long before it gets dark.
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“Have you ever hopped on a random train and got off at a place you have never been before?” Alice asks Michael later. He hasn’t, and neither has she; Alice has never been out of Melbourne. As the two chat, Alice tells Michael how she was “brought up to believe that the fall of man was Adam’s fault entirely.” He laughs, but Alice swears it’s true. Kuan has always told her that Eve warned Adam not to eat the apple, but he did anyway. That’s why men have an Adam’s apple, to remind them of their bad decision-making.
The fact that Alice has never been out of Melbourne underscores her small and confined life. Kuan’s story of the fall of man, further use of storytelling within Unpolished Gem, also implies that he respects women, since the fall of man is traditionally viewed as Eve’s fault. Kuan’s use of a Bible story also reflects his assimilation to Australia’s overwhelmingly Christian culture.
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Alice tells Michael that it doesn’t look like he even has an Adam’s apple. “Yes, I do,” he says, taking Alice’s hand and placing it on his neck. Alice freezes. She has never touched a boy before. “What a very nice neck you have,” she says awkwardly. Michael easily shifts the conversation, making her feel better. “Did you always want to be a law student?” he asks. She hasn’t, but law is “practical.” As a child, she wanted to be an artist or a teacher. He tells her he has wanted to be a lawyer since he watched Gandhi in the tenth grade.
The fact that Michael wants to be a lawyer because he genuinely wants to help people highlights his good nature, which makes Alice’s rejection of him based on their cultural differences all the more powerful. In this vein, he appears to be more idealistic than Alice, who only wants to be a lawyer because it is a “practical” profession.
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Michael tells Alice she should get home before her “tracking device goes off.” Kuan usually calls when it gets late, and it is about six o’clock. “Don’t you feel frustrated sometimes?” he asks. Of course she is, but she doesn’t want to tell him that. “I’m not afraid of the dark, you know,” Alice says, staring him down. “Don’t ever give me that patronizing ‘poor you’ look!” she says firmly. He quickly apologizes, saying he had only wanted to get her home so that he could see her again. “Oh,” she says.
Alice responds poorly to Michael’s comment about her “tracking device” because she views him as just another man who is trying to tell her what to do. When he tells her that it is time to go home, he assumes a certain level of power over her, and Alice is determined to make her own decisions, no matter how small.
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After several dates, Michael 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 Michael is terrified. “I’m scared of your parents and I haven’t met them yet!” he says. There is not much to fear in Kuan, Alice thinks, but Kien is a different story. She sees Alice and Michael’s cultural and racial differences as “insurmountable.”
Kien is sure to see Michael as a “white ghost,” and she has made plain to her daughter her opinions of white men. At this point, Michael seems to be more concerned with Alice’s father (Kuan is the one Michael has specifically asked about), as he assumes that Alice’s father has the majority say because he is a man. Of course, this is not the case.
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Alice thinks about Kien. In her face there is a “simplicity” that stands out, and she has a beautiful laugh and smile. But when she is angry, “her face literally darkens.” She can never hide feelings of suspicion either, and she is suspicious when Alice brings Michael to dinner with them in China-town.
Kien’s facial expressions and her inability to hide her feelings also underscore Alice’s predominant argument of the importance of communication in Unpolished Gem—even non-verbal communication.
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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 for the animals.” Michael immediately takes a few prawns, and some chicken, and then some venison. “Oh, I love Bambi,” he says. Kuan tells him how “impressed” he is with his chopstick skills.
The fact that Michael is willing to eat meat as a vegetarian just to win the approval of Alice’s parents further implies that he is an exceedingly nice guy. He is willing to suffer just to make this initial meeting go better, which will make this situation easier on Alice.
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“This fish reminds me of the Pol Pot years when the starved, dead bodies floated up the river during the flood,” Kuan says. He goes on to talk about his job dragging the bodies away from town, but his story is sprinkled with jokes and laughter. Most people who have conversations with Kuan about Cambodia don’t know “whether to laugh or cry,” Alice says.
Kuan’s story of his life in Cambodia further stresses the cultural differences between Michael and the Pungs. Likely, Michael is not able to relate to such a tragic story, and the fact that he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry emphasizes his discomfort.
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After dinner, Michael gives Kien a lovely, “understated” arrangement of flowers. “Tanks you velly march,” Kien says. Alice can tell that Michael is trying to figure out if Kien likes him, but even Alice doesn’t know yet. She does know, however, that Kien has no idea what Michael is saying to her.
The fact that understated things are often more valuable than loud or brightly colored things is completely lost on Kien. She assumes that Michael’s understated gift, while thoughtful and likely expensive, is cheap.
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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, and she thinks Cantonese men gamble too much. Vietnamese men “spend too much,” while Teochew men are “stingy.” Just don’t “remain unmarried,” Kien warns.
Kien finds fault with all men, to the point that there really isn’t anyone left for Alice to choose from. At the same time, she insists that Alice must get married, humorously contradicting herself.
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Kien tells Alice that Michael probably “splits everything in half.” Alice lies and says he doesn’t. The truth is she “hates splitting bills” too, but she doesn’t want to tell her mother that. She would rather pay it all than split the bill. All or nothing, she thinks. She tells her mother that “some non-Asians” think splitting the bill is “true equality.” “Hah!” Kien laughs. “What kind of relationship is determined by a calculator?”
To Alice, true equality is not splitting the dinner bill after a date. True equality is expecting that women will occasionally pay for dinner. Splitting the bill makes it easier to remain uncommitted, according to Alice, and she would rather pay then be only half-dedicated to her partner.
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Alice thinks about Michael’s female friends. She has met a few, and they always hug and kiss him when they see him. Alice knows it is “innocent,” but still it bothers her. “They don’t have issues with physical contact like we do,” Alice thinks. “Are you listening to me?” Kien yells, interrupting her thoughts. She isn’t.
This too underscores Alice and Michael’s cultural differences. Alice is deeply bothered by Michael’s female friends kissing him, even platonically.
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Kien continues to give Alice a hard time about Michael, and when they walk downtown by the jewelry shops and the Kims ask if her daughter has a boyfriend yet, Kien says, “No.” One day, Kien tells Kuan that Alice was seen kissing Michael at Alina’s birthday party. “I gave him a peck on the cheek!” Alice yells. “What shame!” Kien yells. “And you stop kissing that boy!”
Kien considers it inappropriate for Alice to kiss Michael, even on the cheek. Kien’s insistence that Alice “stop kissing that boy” is further evidence of her stifled existence and the control her parents assume over her life as a young, and presumably vulnerable, woman.
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One night, Alice pulls up to Michael’s college at 10:30 P.M. “Ummm…look what time it is,” he says uncomfortably. Alice knows she should go home. They are surely waiting up for her. Plus, they let her see Michael as much as she wanted—he just had to come to their house, and they are not to go upstairs to her room.
Michael is uncomfortable because it is way too late for Alice to be out, and he knows that her parents do not approve. However, this is can also be viewed as Michael telling Alice what to do. Of course, she knows that she should go home.
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Alice says her parents are worried that Michael will “deflower her,” but that is unlikely, and her room isn’t even that exciting. It is painted all white with heavy pink curtains and looks like it belongs to a “blonde-haired sixteen-year-old sweetheart” “in an American movie.” Other than the same bed she shared with Huyen Thai, it is completely empty.
Alice’s parents are concerned that if Michael “deflowers” Alice, she will be less desirable to other men because she will be considered tainted. This assumption relies on sexist ideals that women must be chaste and pure, which is an unfair stereotype since nobody is concerned with Michael’s purity.
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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 her room—then she could say that she had broken one rule at least. Michael had been hesitant, as he didn’t want to break any rules, but he agreed. On the way back down the stairs, Kien walked in and caught them.
The fact that Michael is hesitant to break the rules again suggests that he is an exceedingly nice boy, and her parents’ concerns are unwarranted and based only on race and culture. Alice, on the other hand, is looking to break the rules just to push the boundaries and feel some semblance of power over her own life.
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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 her parents the truth, nothing happened anyway, he said. Alice knows her mother would never believe her anyway. “I’m just going to stick with my story,” she said. “Tell her I told you to go upstairs,” Michael ordered. “No, no,” he said. “Tell them that I made you go upstairs.” He wants to save me, she thought.
Again, Michael is willing to take the blame to save Alice, which implies that he is nice guy; however, his willingness to take the heat also implies that Alice can’t handle it on her own.
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Now, as Alice leaves Michael at school, she knows the vacuuming story will work, just “as she knew it would from the beginning.” Kuan is too embarrassed to say a thing to Alice when she gets home. “Some things” he thinks he’s “better off not knowing.”
Stereotypically speaking, Chinese culture is not comfortable speaking about sex and sexuality, and Alice is banking on this stereotype when she tells her parents such a ridiculous lie—a lie that also happens to depend on the stereotype that Chinese people are obsessively clean.
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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 tells him to watch television. “You know,” he says, “if we ever…errr…live in a domestic-type relationship, you can’t do this. It unbalances things.” Alice doesn’t want to live with him, but if she did, she “would do anything to make his life easier.” She felt indebted to him for his kindness and understanding. She is probably just wasting his time anyway, so she wants to “make it up to him.” So, Alice begins to wash his clothes and cook his meals, and she even packs his bags when he goes back to college.
This too underscores Alice and Michael’s cultural differences. Michael, who is trying hard to overcome Western society’s own sexist tendencies, specifically tries to respect Alice’s gender. While Alice deeply wants to be considered an equal, she is more concerned with the respect Michael has shown for her culture. Ultimately, Alice feels guilty because she knows she has no intention of committing to Michael. Plus, there is always the chance that her overly domestic actions will actually push him away.
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Each night Alice drives Michael home, and if it is past 10:30 P.M., Kuan usually goes with them. Tonight, they opt for “quality, not quantity” time, and they drive back early so they can be alone. His room is a mess, so Alice cleans it. She finds old photographs of an ex-girlfriend, yearbooks, and even a few condoms, which she puts between the pages of 2001: A Space Odyssey. She knows that he has had sex before, and she has no intention of having sex with him. That will “be the end,” she thinks.
Michael’s copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey is another not to outside examples of storytelling, but it also represents Alice’s feelings as an outcast, or an alien, in Australia’s western society. Alice and Michael have a very different approach to sex, among other things, and when Alice places the condoms inside the book, she metaphorically acknowledges these differences.
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Alice is sure that Michael will not understand why she doesn’t want to have sex. It isn’t “only to do with her parents” either. “I only get one go in this lifetime,” Alice says to him, “and I don’t want to screw it up, literally speaking.” Still, he tries to understand but doesn’t get anywhere. “Do I make you happy?” he asks. Alice lies to him and begins to cry.
Alice isn’t ready to make these decisions, but she clearly isn’t ready to break Michael’s heart either. However, if she continues to see Michael, she may jeopardize her future chances for true love—like Kien and Kuan’s.
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In the following days, Alice helps Michael pack and get ready to return to Perth for college. Alice takes him to a park nearby and they sit in the silence. “You brought me here to tell me something,” he says. Alice tells him that she loves him, and she thinks that “love is this ‘one true love forever and ever’ kind of thing,” but she is not ready to make that kind of decision. Michael begins to cry. Alice reaches over and wipes his nose with her sleeve. “Come on,” she says, “it’s snot that bad.”
Alice frequently responds to uncomfortable situations with humor. When Alice breaks up with Michael it is evidence of her commitment to her family (and her mother’s disapproval of Michael), but it also shows her respect for the idea of true love—she is not sure that her love for Michael is the “forever and ever” kind.
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Alice and Michael laugh and then sit in the silence. “Well,” Michael finally says, “I’m going to miss you.” Alice says she will 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 life” and “see their lives multiply into four new ones.”
Michael’s easy acceptance is further evidence of his decency and of his respect for Alice. He doesn’t try to change her mind or become angry, and he is kind up until the very end. Alice’s thoughts about her parents prove that she is still optimistic regarding her chances for true love.
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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 so late tonight,” Kuan says. “Let them eat their mango in peace,” Alice thinks to herself as she goes upstairs to her room.
Kuan and Kien sitting quietly on the couch sharing a mango with each other is a reflection of their deep love. They are comfortable together and still in love after all this time, and this is the kind of relationship that sets the standard for Alice’s own future.
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