Alice Pung’s memoir, Unpolished Gem, follows her young life growing up in Australia as the daughter of Chinese immigrants from Cambodia. Removed from her Eastern heritage, Alice’s Chinese roots come alive through her grandmother Huyen Thai’s stories of the old country, and it is through these stories that Alice discovers what it means to be Chinese. Her parents are frequent storytellers as well, and Alice often relies on works of literature and films to enhance her writing and convey her feelings and experiences. Alice’s parents name her after Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and her own stress-induced mental breakdown coincides with her reading of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play in which the title character also descends into complete madness. Stories, especially didactic stories, and the words that make them up are thus central to Alice’s life and experiences. Language and storytelling prove to be powerful ways for Alice to carry her culture and history into the future; however, she also argues that language has the power to divide and exclude. Through Unpolished Gem, Alice ultimately implies that words and stories, for better or worse, have the power to influence and change one’s life.
As a memoir, storytelling is the very foundation of Unpolished Gem, and this is mirrored in the stories that Alice’s grandmother tells. Alice’s grandmother had begun her tradition of storytelling long ago with Alice’s father, Kuan, and his siblings. “And tell them stories she did,” claims Alice, “with each character coming to life as she stretched her face and contorted her mouth, furrowed her brow and brought to life people she liked and people she loathed to battle it out between the heaven and the earth.” Alice’s grandmother is a “brilliant storyteller and conversationalist,” and Alice is brought up with the same tradition. Growing up, Alice shares a queen-sized bed with her grandmother, and each night she entertains and educates Alice through stories of her early life in China and later in Cambodia. Alice claims that her grandmother possess “a form of magic, the magic of words that become movies in the mind.” Alice’s Chinese heritage is made more accessible through her grandmother’s stories. Alice claims that even after her grandmother’s death, she is kept alive by her stories. These stories prove to Alice that there is life before and after her own, and because of this, they are “meant to be a part of [her] forever.” Alice writes, “My grandmother and her stories. What would I do without them? She exerted 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.” To Alice, her life and existence are affirmed and made real through her grandmother’s storytelling.
However, while storytelling frequently brings Alice’s family together, it is language and words that often cause problems within their lives. Alice claims that her grandmother is very good at “putting bones in her words, bones to make the other person choke,” and her sharp words often metaphorically choke Kien, Alice’s mother and Huyen Thai’s daughter-in-law. While Alice’s grandmother’s words are a positive part of Alice’s own life, then, she uses the same voice to make Kien miserable. Kien’s poor relationship with her mother-in-law is further fueled by Alice’s role as a “word-spreader.” Both Alice’s mother and grandmother talk about each other behind the other’s back, and Alice is left helplessly in the middle, forced to tell each woman what the other said about her. Alice is “doomed, early on, to be a word-spreader. To tell these stories that the women of [her] family made [her] promise never to tell a soul.” Inevitably, each time Alice tells the other’s stories, the already strained relationship between her mother and grandmother worsens. Additionally, Kien never really learns English, making communication difficult. Alice writes, “Over the dinner table, she would watch as my father and his children littered their language with English terms, until every second word was in the foreign tongue.” The very language that enables Alice and her family to become part of Australian society is the reason why Kien is an outsider in her own family. Lastly, when Kien brings Alice and her father lunch while at work in the family’s electronics store, their foreign language makes the non-Chinese employees uncomfortable. Alice claims the employees “huddle over the Herald Sun, quietly scoff down their pizza or take-away fried rice and get the hell out of there as fast as possible, since they have no idea whether our yelling is about them or not.” Language here again serves to create a barrier, this time between the Pungs and the other employees. Each of these instances underscore the power contained within stories and language to divide and isolate.
Alice’s father observes that there is more to communication than merely “the strumming and humming of vocal cords,” and this indeed proves to be the case throughout much of Unpolished Gem. For example, while Alice’s mother and grandmother may spend most of their time bickering, they are, ironically, brought together by imported Hong Kong soap operas. The two connect through their shared love of stories, and these quiet hours spent together serve to mend their strained relationship, even if temporarily. From storytelling and movies, to comfortable silences and gossip, Alice ultimately argues the power of language and stories, regardless of the form they may take.
Language and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Language and Storytelling 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.
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.
“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?”
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.
I sat slumped in the back seat of the car. It was true, I couldn’t. It wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the English, it was that I didn’t have the Chinese terms in me to be able to explain. I was running out of words.
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.