The value of family is well established within Alice Pung’s memoir, Unpolished Gem, and it drives the narrative throughout the book. Alice begins her story in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where her parents and her paternal grandmother and aunt walk across three countries on foot to escape a state-sponsored genocide. Kuan and Kien, Alice’s parents, are determined to start their own family away from the violence and destruction of Cambodia, and the sacrifices they continue to make after arriving in Australia reflect this same dedication to family. Kuan works hard as the owner and operator of a local electronics store—which he “builds up from scratch”—and Kien spends countless hours making gold jewelry in the family’s garage. The dangerous chemicals that Kien works with blacken her fingers and eat away at her skin, and Alice is left with a lasting sense of guilt over her parents’ devotion to the betterment of her life. This devotion is present within Kuan and Kien’s relationship as well, and Alice comes from a long line of successful marriages. With her loving depiction of the Pungs in Unpolished Gem, Alice effectively argues that within Chinese culture there is nothing more important than family—and family begins with a loving marriage.
Much of Alice’s life—including her grandmother, Huyen Thai’s, stories—revolves around her family, which underscores the value of family within her Chinese culture. Most of the Pungs work and live with, or near, each other. Multiple generations live under the same roof, and Alice and her aunts often work in Kuan’s electronics store. Even Kien works in Kuan’s store when she is not busy making jewelry, and the entire family pools their labor and resources to ensure that everyone is cared for. Much of what the Pungs do each day is a family affair. This family-centered working environment is also noted in Alice’s grandmother’s stories of the old country. Back in Cambodia, all the Pungs worked in their family-owned plastic bag factory, which further emphasizes the closeness of the Pung family. After Kien’s sisters, Ly and Sim, come to Australia from Cambodia, they spend much time talking about suitable men to marry. As the women talk, Alice notes that they never refer to any of the men by name, and instead talk only of “the son or cousin of so and so.” Alice claims that they do not use names because these men “do not exist in isolation of their family.” The individual identities of these men are not as important as who their families are, and this too reflects the importance of family within Chinese culture.
In addition to the importance of family, the relationships of Alice’s parents and grandparents also imply that true love is a required element within any family. The first marriage of Alice’s grandfather, An Pung, was arranged by his father. Back then in Cambodia, marrying for love was “a luxury that few can afford.” While Alice’s grandfather is a poor man by most standards, he marries Alice’s grandmother anyway because he loves her. While he often wonders if “he did a wise thing, considering the crazy things this second wife does,” he is nevertheless in love with Alice’s grandmother. Similarly, An also arranges Kuan’s marriage to a woman named Sokem in Cambodia. Sadly, Kuan’s father dies of starvation under the tyrannical rule of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s political leader, and recognizing her son’s true love for Kien, Thai allows him to break the arrangement. Both Alice’s parents and her grandparents approach marriage not as a business transaction, but as a deep connection between two people. When Kuan marries Kien, he has little to offer her other than “a promise, something for her to picture in her imagination.” This promise is the love that Kuan has for Kien, and it is this same promise that leads them, and their family, safely to Australia. Without Kuan and Kien’s love, Alice’s life in the “wonderland of Australia” wouldn’t be possible, and it is this love that sets the standard for marriage within her own life.
Alice’s Chinese culture places strict guidelines on whom she should marry and when, and as she gets older, marriage and family are frequent considerations. Alice’s father tells her that “a family is like a snake. If the head of the snake is set straight, then the rest of the body follows straight. However, if the head is crooked, then the body gets as bent as ginseng and it is doomed.” Alice’s parents deeply affect how she approaches her life and relationships, and when she begins to date and fall in love with Michael, a kind and caring young Australian man, Alice ultimately breaks up with him. Alice believes that “love is this ‘one true love for ever and ever’ kind of thing,” and she does not feel equipped to make life-long decisions at such a young age. Additionally, Kien does not accept Michael because he is an Australian, or “white ghost” as she calls him, and she views their differences as “insurmountable.” Alice’s devotion to her family, and her belief in true love, guides her decisions and life—even when that decision is painful—and it is in this way that Alice argues the importance of family and marriage within Unpolished Gem.
Family, Love, and Marriage ThemeTracker
Family, Love, and Marriage Quotes in Unpolished Gem
Many old folk who became family friends take good care of them, tell them who are the good boys, and the old women watch with a cunning eye to see which young woman would be best suited for the son or cousin of so and so. “Ah Ly, I know a good young man for you.” And they sing the praises of someone’s son or someone’s brother—never mentioned by name, they are always someone’s son or someone’s male relative, because they do not exist in isolation of their family. No one exists in isolation of their family, and if they do, there are plenty of old people to look after them […].
When I am a bit older, I don’t know whether [my mother’s] answer is a lament or curse: “Just wait till you get older and have a mother-in-law like mine. Then you will understand. You will understand.” What will I understand? I wonder. Suffering? There are far better things to understand than the inconsolable hardships of life. Constantly sighing and lying and dying—that is what being a Chinese woman means, and I want nothing to do with it.
Or perhaps my word-spreading is also the only way to see that there was once flesh attached to these bones, that there was once something living and breathing, something that inhaled and exhaled; something that slept and woke up every morning with the past effaced, if only for a moment. That there was a good beginning, and in this good beginning the stories would come like slow trickles of truth, like blood coursing through the veins.
My grandmother was possessed of healing powers, or so it was claimed by those who knew her back in Cambodia. Five sons, people exclaimed—seven children, all of them so bright! Of course, everyone chose to forget about the first two babies who died, because they were just girls.
A lady was the most abhorred thing you could become, because ladies were lazy bums who sat around wasting their husband’s money and walked down the street with perfectly made-up mien visiting the jewelry stores to which my mother delivered her wares. My mother was certainly not a lady. She worked and worked and worked, and when she wasn’t working she was cleaning, and when she wasn’t cleaning or working she was sick. You could always tell who was a lady by what they complained about, the length of their nails and whether they put milk or butter into their coffee.
As the house was being built, my father took his only day off work to drive us to its foundations. This was our weekly Sunday trip, to watch the temple being constructed and to worship the fruits of our labour.
Nothing could look too peasanty. No dark wooden furniture, but rather white and peach and pale green. Family came to visit, not to celebrate but to do the tour so that they could get home-furnishing ideas for their own houses, so that they too would look modern and not too peasanty.
“Why don’t you get on stage too?” my parents asked me. As if I could just jump on stage with people I had never spoken three words to all year and insert myself gracefully into their picture. And suddenly the reality must have sunk in for my parents, for all the parents on our table, that their children were not more popular, that we did not talk to the beautiful people. It must have hit them hard—that we were still sticking by each other, sticking with each other, and not getting out, not fitting in. They had thought of this new life in simple cause-and-effect terms: that if they worked their backs off to send their children to the grammar school, then we would automatically mingle with the brightest and fairest of the state.
My grandmother was meant to be a part of me forever, so that I would always know that there was a life before me, and a life after me. My grandmother and her stories. What would I do without them? She asserted my existence before I knew I had one—before I was conscious I had a life beyond the present—and she told me my childhood. “Agheare, when you were small you could recite long Teochew songs and poems.” “Agheare, when you were small you could speak in Cantonese.” It seemed as if I could do anything when I was small. We slept in the same bed, and it was always warm. Now there would be 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 was gold not yellow.
At Footscray Retravision, there was a propensity for some mainland Chinese to refuse to buy items made in China. Whenever they said haughtily, “O, zhonggno zuo de wo buyao”—I don’t want anything made in China—I couldn’t help myself. I would ask with salesgirl innocence, “But sir, aren’t you made in China?” Of course, I always had to feign that little giggle that sounded like two brightly coloured balloons rubbing rapidly up against each other. Unlike my younger sisters, who grew up in tastefully bland pastel dresses, I had spent my childhood with a grandmother who packaged me into padded Mao suits and made me aware that I had to defend myself against all the other blandly dressed banana-children—children who were yellow on the outside but believed they could be completely white inside. My grandmother had warned me that those children grew up to become sour, crumple-faced lemons. I now believed her.
I thought, if I were a young man I would be scared of my parents too. Perhaps not my father so much, because he was able to sit down and reason things out. But my mother—there was no way she would be able to understand an alien, let alone an alien her own daughter had chosen. My mother saw the differences as insurmountable—she was only comfortable with the familiar, yet she still believed that Princess Diana was the most dazzling creature ever to grace the earth, and that white women were more beautiful than we could ever be.
Then, four weeks later, I decided that one of the little ones had to go. It was time. I imagined they were quivering in their cotton-wool padded prison, I was so excited. But when the drawer was opened—horror of all horrors, worse than finding my fortunes furtively stolen—ants spilled out and the bunny had melted and the goo that gushed from the eggs had wrecked my box. I didn’t care about the ants that would crawl up my arms, I pulled the whole drawer out of the cupboard and dug my hands in deep. While Alexander and Andrew watched, I started pulling out each egg one by one—or what was left of them—trying in desperation to find one that was not insect-infested, trying to sort through the foil and frustration, not wanting to believe that these squished tragedies were once my pride and joy, the things I had looked forward to most in the world for more than four weeks.