Alice Pung begins her story at a marketplace in Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and she is quick to point out that her story “does not begin on a boat.” Alice’s father, Kuan, is shopping at the market full of “fat pigs and thin people,” and all around him migrants negotiate in broken English. Alice’s mother, Kien, is not at the market—she is in an Australian hospital waiting to give birth to Alice.
Alice’s desire to make plain that her family does not arrive on a boat dispels popular racist stereotypes that all Asians immigrate via boat. The assumption that all Asians arrive on boats implies that Asians are less advanced and civilized than those living in the Western societies they immigrate to.
As Kuan walks through the market, the ground is saturated with watered-down blood from the butchers’ cleaning hoses, and he thinks about pig’s blood jelly. Kuan loves the jelly, but now he thinks about the unsanitary way the blood is collected from a hanging carcass, allowing urine and other unappetizing bodily fluids to drain into the blood and become part of the jelly. He does not think about his former life in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he frequently ate food contaminated with dirt and disease.
Kuan’s thoughts about the pig’s blood jelly reflect his assimilation as well as the differences between Australian and Cambodian society. By this point, he has only been in Australia for roughly one month, yet his eating habits are already changing. Kuan could not afford to be a picky eater in Cambodia—food was far too scarce—but in Australia he has the luxury of turning down food he considers unsanitary or unappetizing.
The shoppers and vendors speak a wide variety of languages, and many do not understand each other. In order to communicate, they shout and make hand gestures, poking their fingers in the direction of their desired commodity. Kuan notes that “the loudest pokers always win, and the loudest pokers are usually women.”
The multiple languages spoken at the market underscore the diversity within Australia’s Asian community. These languages also highlight the power of words to divide and exclude, while the hand gestures and finger pointing suggest that all communication is valuable, even the non-verbal kind.
Kuan leaves the Footscray market after purchasing a bag of pigs’ feet and walks through the crowd of people. Mothers are busy scolding their children and yelling at them to not swallow their chewing gum. In this “wondrous new country,” children and mothers worry about chewing gum instead of stepping on “a condensed milk tin filled with ammunition.”
The mothers’ benign worry over chewing gum emphasizes the stark differences between Australian and Cambodian society. Condensed milk was a popular field ration during the Vietnam War, and a surplus of empty cans made it an ideal container for explosives.
As Kuan watches the mothers and their children, he wonders if his new baby will be a boy or a girl. He smiles to himself as he pushes the button on the traffic light and remembers the first time that he “encountered these ticking poles.”
Typically, Chinese culture values boys over girls; however, Kuan’s smile suggests that he does not hold to this this opinion—he will be happy either way. Instead, he values the idea of family.