Throughout her memoir, Unpolished Gem, Alice Pung continually struggles with her status as a woman, both within her Chinese culture and her life in Australian society during the 1980s and ‘90s. Each time Alice’s grandmother, Huyen Thai, tells a story about the birth of one of their ancestors, the father always remains outside the delivery room door, waiting to find out if their newborn child possesses the “desired dangly bits,” and Alice’s modern life isn’t much better. While watching movies like Stand by Me and Dead Poet’s Society, Alice laments that “the Coming of Age of boys is infinitely more interesting.” Within these films, boys become who they are by testing their courage and forming meaningful relationships, whereas girls are not given the same opportunities within society. Alice feels confined by her gender, and states “all that matters is that I can make a good pot of rice, have a pretty face and am fertile.” As a young Chinese woman, Alice is expected to be weak and dependent upon men; however, Alice’s story is full of women who constantly push the boundaries created by society because of their gender, and Alice is no different. It is through this representation of strong women that Alice effectively challenges and dispels popular stereotypes of women as the weaker sex.
The importance placed on boys over girls within Chinese culture is made abundantly clear throughout Unpolished Gem. Alice’s grandmother is the second wife of Alice’s grandfather, An Pung, and the time he spends with her is often a source of contention with his first wife. To quell their frequent fights, Alice’s grandfather often tells his first wife, “If you could give me sons, then I wouldn’t need to go over there!” Alice’s grandfather considers his first wife less important because she has only given birth to girls, whereas Alice’s grandmother is the mother of five sons. However, even though Alice’s grandfather is the proud father of five sons, he chooses “to forget about the first two babies who died, because they were just girls.” This again underscores that to Alice’s grandfather, the birth of his sons is more important the birth of his daughters. Furthermore, after the death of her daughters, Alice’s grandmother desires a girl so badly that she attempts to trade her newborn son for a daughter. Of course, Alice’s grandfather is enraged, not because his wife has traded their child, but because she traded their boy for a girl. “Bundling up our baby like that and setting off to sell him for a useless daughter!” Alice’s grandfather cries, making his contempt for daughters plain. Alice’s grandfather is a stand-in for Chinese culture more broadly, which clearly values boys over girls.
Alice claims that girls are expected to be “still and silent and sedate,” like “a darling geisha behind glass,” yet the women in Unpolished Gem are strong and outspoken. With each new birth of her five sons, Alice’s grandmother gains power within her family and in the eyes of society. Alice writes, “Then, when it came to her sixth, it was too much. […] She controlled these five little boys who were going to grow into men, and it made my grandfather anxious.” Alice’s grandfather is threatened by his wife’s ability to birth and control boys, and he is determined to right this imbalance of power. In an attempt to strip his wife of some of her newly gained power, Alice’s grandfather formulates a plan to give his second wife’s sixth son to his first wife. Alice notes, “Of course, like all his plans, whether they came into fruition ultimately depended on my grandmother, and this irritated him no end, but there was nothing else for it.” Alice’s grandmother is a strong and powerful woman, and her husband can do nothing without her approval, despite popular assumptions that she must be weak and submissive on account of her gender. Furthermore, Alice’s own mother, Kien, defies stereotypical gender expectations when she refuses to spend her time at home “wiping down the fridge or washing sheets.” Instead, she spends long hours away from home making and selling gold jewelry in order to provide for her family. Both Kien’s culture and society expect domestic responsibilities to be her life’s work and mission, but she is determined to define herself outside of this restricted role. Like her mother-in-law, Kien manages to exert power in a culture and society that largely seeks to silence and marginalize her based on her sex.
Alice writes, “Constantly sighing and lying and dying—that is what being a Chinese woman means, and I want nothing to do with it.” However, walking away from the confines of her gender is not that simple. Kien’s job outside of the home means that much of the household duties, including the raising of her two youngest daughters, are deferred to Alice—even though her son, Alexander, is roughly one year younger than Alice. When Alice questions her mother about the unfair division of labor in their home, Kien tells Alice that she expects more from her because she is more mature, to which Alice rightly asserts that “girls only mature faster because they have more work to do.” The stress of Alice’s responsibilities at home coupled with the expectation that she excel academically and become a lawyer leads to a nervous breakdown, for which she requires medication and months to recover. Ultimately, through the writing of Unpolished Gem, Alice implies that escaping the trappings of her sexist society and culture is unlikely, no matter how powerful she becomes. Undoubtedly, Alice’s future as a lawyer is bright; however, gender expectations within her Chinese culture will continue to dictate her role within her home and family.
Gender and Inequality ThemeTracker
Gender and Inequality Quotes in Unpolished Gem
“Your father was trying to tell them that the beds were made to be slept in, when suddenly he was told that he was needed at the hospital. Something must have happened to me, your father thought. Why would a hospital need him? He thought about bringing along his acupuncture needles just in case, but there was no time. When he arrived at the hospital, he discovered that the doctors just wanted him to be there to see the baby come out!” In Cambodia the husbands usually find a chair and sit in from of the room where babies were being born until they heard the wahwahwah sounds, and it was only then that they would know that the whole messy business was over and they could find out whether the child had the desired dangly bits or not.
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.
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.
When it came down to childrearing, they were her children, he had nothing to do with such prosaic things. Fathers were only there to plant the seeds, it was mothers who did the watering and the fertilizing. Of course, the paternal influence would occasionally return to lop off a few leaves for good measure, and smirk for photographs in front of his prize garden, but he made sure to leave immediately afterwards in case the cumquats only glowed orange but were black inside. It was never the pa’s fault if the kids went bad.
“She’s built like a boy,” said my grandfather, “and now you’ve given her that terrible name. She’s going to grow up like a boy if you’re not careful, and then no one will want her. Who wants a girl always running about this way and that? Keep that child still, and stop calling her Little Brother! What do you think it is—some kind of joke? Do you think it’s funny hah?”
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.
Coming of Age was explained to me in books, and in the books Judy Blume characters waited with delirious anticipation for their period. I didn’t see what the big deal was when it happened to me. So what? It just meant I could make babies if I felt the urge, and of course that was the last thing on my mind. So I wrote the date in my diary, and dreary life continued on as usual. Coming of Age for boys was infinitely more interesting, I thought, when I watched Stand by Me and Dead Poets Society. Boys formed friendships by discovering cadavers. They walked on railway tracks, started secret clubs, cried over their own cowardice and occasionally shot themselves in the head when pushed too far. It didn’t matter if girls were cowards, there was no opportunity or reason for us to test our bravery. All that mattered was that we could make a good pot of rice, had a pretty face and were fertile.
To raise a girl, I realized, you’d need gallons of Social Conditioner with added Spirit Deflator. Rub onto every limb until limp, put the child into a chair and wait until she sets. When appendages harden, you know you have a perfect young woman—so still and silent and sedate that you could wrap your precious one up in cotton wool and put her in a cabinet. Ah, look at the darling geisha behind glass.
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.