Alice Pung’s memoir, Unpolished Gem, begins when her parents, Kuan and Kien, arrive in Victoria, Australia with her paternal grandmother, Huyen Thai, and her aunt, Que. Alice’s story “does not begin on a boat,” she says, but on the streets of Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, where the streetlights stop traffic. As the Pungs watch the local Australians push a button on the large poles and safely cross the street when the “little Red Man” turns into a “little Green Man,” they know that they are in a “Wonder Land.” Kien soon gives birth to Alice, her and Kuan’s first child, and they name her for the “enchanted” place they now live. The Pungs move into their first home in Footscray, and after much adjustment and confusion, they settle into their new life and continue to grow their family.
Soon, Kien gives birth to a son named Alexander, and Kuan works hard at a local factory. Huyen Thai lives with them as well, and Alice grows up listening to her grandmother’s stories of the old country. Alice and Huyen Thai share a special connection, but Kien fights with her mother-in-law constantly. Huyen Thai dictates every aspect of their lives—she manages Kien’s money and her daughter—and Kien is suffocating under her control. As a young child, Alice is stuck between the women and their fighting. She loves them both, but they each use her to make the other angry. The women constantly talk behind the other’s back, and as Alice “moves from camp to camp,” Kien accuses the girl of being a “word-spreader.” Kien escapes her unhappiness through work, and she begins to sell gold jewelry from the family’s garage. She works long hours, and Huyen Thai effectively raises Alice, always teaching her to be proud of her Chinese heritage. Alice tries, but her grandmother always dresses her in a padded Mao suit, and the other kids at school make fun of her. Alice doesn’t quite fit in, and since English is her second language, she is often afraid to speak.
It is not long before Kien is pregnant again, and Huyen Thai moves out to live in Que’s new house. Once Kien gives birth to Alison, she immediately goes back to work, and Alice is stuck taking care of her new sister. She must do everything now, and since Huyen Thai has left, there is nobody to make Alice breakfast or take care of her. Kien quickly gives birth to another baby, Alina, and Alice’s work doubles. All she does is go to school and take care of babies, and she grows tired of sacrificing all her time. What’s worse, her parents don’t appreciate how hard she works, and they only seem to notice when she does something wrong.
Meanwhile, the chemicals that Kien works with begin to bother her skin and lungs, and she must stop working to recover. At home all day without her work, or “purpose,” Kien spirals into a deep depression. She can’t work and she can’t speak English—Kien is certain that she is useless. She becomes determined to learn English and work in Kuan’s new electronics store, but she quickly gives up and stays home.
The stress of Alice’s home and school expectations continues to wear on her, and then Huyen Thai suffers a stroke. She is left incapacitated, and spends each day staring at Que’s ceiling with her one good eye. She soon catches a cold and quickly dies, and Alice’s own depression takes a turn for the worst. She can’t concentrate on her upcoming exams, and she is sure she will fail. Kuan and Kien take Alice to a doctor and he sends her home with a bunch of pills that Alice pretends to take but actually spits into the toilet. She thinks everything is hopeless. When the day of Alice’s final exams arrives, she oversleeps and nearly misses them. Alice is convinced that she will have no academic options, but it doesn’t really matter—all that is expected of her is that “she make a good pot of rice, has a pretty face, and is fertile.” Kuan convinces her to call and check on her exam grades, and she is shocked to find out that she has scored well. She will be starting the University of Melbourne next year, and Alice thinks for the first time that her life will be okay.
The summer before college, Alice works in Kuan’s shop along with Kien, who becomes the leading salesperson despite her language barrier. Alice is finally happy, and then she meets Michael, a white Australian boy. Alice and Michael begin to date, and slowly the two fall in love. She even introduces him to her parents, and Michael tries exceedingly hard to win their approval. Kien, unfortunately, thinks that their differences are “insurmountable.” Michael is, after all, a “white ghost,” and Kien tells Alice that all Australian men “sleep around” and are no good to marry. Alice loves Michael, but she doesn’t feel equipped to make lifelong decisions at just eighteen years old. She ultimately breaks up with him, and while he says understands, Alice doesn’t think he really does. She is heartbroken, but she knows that it is the right decision. As Alice and Michael go their separate ways and Huyen Thai is finally laid to rest, Alice is truly happy for the first time. Her future is bright and exciting, and her grandmother has left her with a deep respect and appreciation for her family and Chinese culture.