Unpolished gem shines brightly

Alice Pung, Unpolished Gem, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2006. RRP $24.95, 282pp. Paperback, ISBN 1-86395-158-X

Unpolished gem shines brightlyThe controversy over proposed English tests for prospective Australian citizens suggests an essentially selfish attitude to immigrants. When most migrants face huge cultural barriers to resettlement, it seems highly Anglo-centric to think that tests are more appropriate than encouragement and sensitive assistance. In Unpolished Gem, narrator Alice and her mother overcome a huge range of difficulties in their lonely efforts to pursue the "Great Australian Dream".

Alice is born in Melbourne shortly after her parents and her paternal grandmother and aunt arrive from a refugee camp in Vietnam. Chinese Cambodians, they are already twice displaced and are desperate to succeed in Australia. The story opens with the "Wah-sers" agog at the city sights and sounds, thrilled with the cheap plastic products, and grateful for the largesse of "Father Government" and Brother Laurence. Through hard work they move from a hostel into rented accommodation in Footscray, a modest house in Braybrook, and on to the home they build in Avondale Heights.

Alice’s father manages electrical appliance franchises. He chooses this kind of retail because "every Lee and Lah" opens Asian grocery stores. Her mother however, works in more traditional Indo-Chinese style as an "outworker", making jewellery at home and hawking it to shops. Unfortunately, Alice’s mother is unhappy because she feels oppressed by her mother-in-law. Her heart is variously described as "a little red bullet, poking around in her chest, searching for a way out", and a "demented red bullet ... Going ballistic and making holes everywhere, holes in places where no hole should be".

The grandmother insists on the maintenance of Chinese traditions. Alice sleeps in her bed, and addresses both mother and grandmother as "Ma" although "two tones different". Telling tales of both, she becomes a "word-spreader" until realising that her grandmother’s words contained sharp "bones" and that being thought a spy would bring disaster.

Words and their importance permeate this story. When Alice goes through a stage of wetting her pants, she cannot find the language to tell the teacher she must go. She says that "foreign words do not seem to slip out of me as easily as the contents of my bladder". In senior high school, she finds that she lost so many Teochew words that there seemed no hope of recovering them. "Although I ticked 'English as a second language' on all official forms, I was beginning to think in English."

Unpolished gem shines brightlyThe more she studied, the less she was able to answer her mother’s questions. Indeed, she was heading for a nervous breakdown and abandoned her journal writing as she "had no words left". Alice even found reading difficult as "sentences suffocated me … strung together like code". In these depressed times, a kind of cultural schizophrenia gives her a "false skin" and she feels stalked by a "dark shadow".

Alice’s mother, who is, significantly, referred to throughout in exactly that relational term, thinks that learning "the English" will change her life. In a spasmodic campaign, she has some success. Alice notes that many of the houses of middle-class Cambodians were empty during the day because the women could not stop working, even when there was no financial necessity: "used to working for others all their lives, they did not know how to be idle without guilt". But the real spur for her mother is to try to "enter the world of her children’s minds".

Despite her parents’ close attention, Alice changes and adopts new cultural practices. They place great responsibility on her as a first child to set a "straight’ example for those to follow because "if the head is crooked then the body gets as bent as ginseng and it is doomed". They present her with "my first love. His name was Janome. He had a beautiful cream coloured complexion, and all the pieces of my life began to fit together after I met him." But they were fearful of the "Lee and Lah loiterers" and seemed determined to make her a "darling geisha behind glass".

Alice emerges from her depressed state when she achieves good examination results, but her self-confidence remains fragile. Her grandmother warned her against "blandly-dressed banana children—children who were yellow on the outside but who believed they could be completely white inside". But Alice felt hollow, "a void to be filled by others". When her grandmother dies, Alice says "we were both going the way of the ghosts, except my ghosts were the white living ones and hers were unknown". Again, Alice’s self doubts plague her. When a fellow student shows her romantic attention, she assumes that the "poor amateur Asian-asker-outer" must be a sinophile acting out a fantasy.

In less-skilled hands, Alice’s bouts of adolescent introspection could make stifling reading. Fortunately, Alice Pung writes so refreshingly that the self-deprecating humour and optimism triumph. Unpolished Gem explores the situation of children who experience not just a generation gap but also a distance from parents whose migrant inheritance includes a "million scruples that made no sense". It examines in great balance also, the complexities of inter-cultural relationships. Alice notes that "Cambodians have a saying: 'A girl is like cotton wool—once dirtied it can never be clean again. A boy is like a gem—the more you polish it, the brighter it shines'." All Australians must benefit from the addition of such gentle people to the local gene pool. Australian readers will find that Alice Pung’s first book is so unclouded by cynicism that it shines very brightly indeed.



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