Image Credit: Collins Books Whitford City
For some time in the excitement of discovering a nice library I had neglected my personal collection of unread books. So now I thought I must alternate between one personal book and one library book. That’s how I chose Alice Pung’s “Unpolished Gem” from my shelf. Here is the summary of the book from the cover –
With a home grown accent and an imported heritage, Alice Pung grew up straddling two worlds. By the time she was born, her family had already made the perilous journey from revolutionary China and the killing fields of Cambodia to their new home in a prosperous Australian suburb. But even as Alice dives headfirst into life in the only country she’s even known, she also understands her father’s wonder at the magical workings of escalators, her grandmother’s fervent blessings for the generosity of Father Government, and her mother’s determination to toil every hour of the day and night. Warm-spirited and wonderfully wise, Unpolished Gem is a vibrant, irreverent portrait of the foreigner’s fumbles, the everyday successes and the bittersweet bonds that hold one small family together in a big new country.
Alice’s story begins in a refugee camp where her father and mother live for a year. They are soon offered a chance to move to Australia or Canada and not knowing anything about either of the countries, her father randomly chooses the former. Alice is born a month after they shift. Thus begins her journey through three different worlds and cultures – Vietnamese, Chinese and Australian.
Alice has a protected childhood and a typically Asian upbringing. Despite living in a Western atmosphere, she is a timid and shy child who doesn’t have many friends. Through Alice we not only learn of the lives of migrants but we also get an uncanny picture of Asian culture with all its quirks. There is a basic mistrust of everything foreign. White people are referred to as “white ghosts” and Alice’s father would always caution her,
“You never know,” my father would say shaking his head, “what kind of people are out there.”
Alice would have to think twice about chatting to a boy over the phone, let alone meeting him. Asian wisdom from her mother would prevent Alice from having her privacy when it came to friends of the opposite sex,
“Boys should not talk too much…Boys who have too many words are no good…People talk…Boys talk to you, you talk to boys, and people talk.”
Cheap deals and bargains were opportunities not meant to be passed. Alice’s mother was not one to let go of a bargain if there ever was one, including buying 20 bars of chocolate just because they were priced low. Many small details such as these make up a very true portrait of Asian beliefs and systems that are prevalent even today all over Asia including India.
While Alice’s family clings firmly to their traditions and beliefs, Alice tries to adapt herself more to the country. She yearns to go on a date, speak confidently to others her age and generally have thoughts of her own. But independence is not a virtue in her family’s eyes. Her mother laments that,
“She is filled with foreign thoughts and she thinks these foreigners have all the answers!”
The book shows the disconnect that occurs between individual and society, individual and family and individual and self. Alice embodies all three. The tug between wanting to respect family norms and wanting to accept aspects of the culture of the country that she is staying in, which creates a rift between her and her self. This constant battle coupled with the pressure of passing exams so that she can go to university takes a toll on Alice, benumbing her from inside.
Migrant experiences are varied and different. Alice alternatively swings between happiness and depression and frustration. Written in a language that combines her mother’s typically Chinese expressions and her own good English, Unpolished Gem is a small peek into the complex world of people who have to adapt. Not just to the country they have come to but to their own selves as they change over time.
Verdict: A quick read that is laced with humor and insights into migrant life