Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me


After Alice Pung’s family fled to Australia from the killing fields of Cambodia, her father chose Alice as her name because he thought their new country was a Wonderland. In this lyrical, bittersweet debut memoir—already an award-winning bestseller when it was published in Australia—Alice grows up straddling two worlds, East and West, her insular family and the Australia outside. With wisdom beyond her years and a keen eye for comedy in everyday life, she writes of the trials of assimilation and cultural ...
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Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me

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After Alice Pung’s family fled to Australia from the killing fields of Cambodia, her father chose Alice as her name because he thought their new country was a Wonderland. In this lyrical, bittersweet debut memoir—already an award-winning bestseller when it was published in Australia—Alice grows up straddling two worlds, East and West, her insular family and the Australia outside. With wisdom beyond her years and a keen eye for comedy in everyday life, she writes of the trials of assimilation and cultural misunderstanding, and of the tender but fraught relationships between three generations of women trying to live the Australian dream without losing themselves. Unpolished Gem is a moving, vivid journey about identity and the ultimate search for acceptance and healing, delivered by a writer possessed of rare empathy, penetrating insight, and undeniable narrative gifts.

Download a revised version of the Pung and Chia family trees that appear in Unpolished Gem.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a sophisticated and fiercely intelligent book… There’s something striking on every page."

Helen Garner, author of Postcards from Surfers

“Alice Pung is a gem. Her voice is the real thing.”

Amy Tan, bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club

“Revelations about her painful adolescence and bouts with depression are brutally honest and recounted with superlative narrative skills.”

USA Today

A fascinating book about the place that is known only by the second-generation immigrant—the place between. Alice Pung tells her story with a keen intelligence, an observant precision, and a transformative grace.”

Karen Joy Fowler, bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club

“Poignant, provocative, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, Pung’s rollicking tale of two worlds is not to be missed.”

Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

Publishers Weekly

"I was doomed, early on, to be a word-spreader," Pung writes, and her special burden was "to tell these stories that the women of my family made me promise never to tell a soul." The stories are not of scandalous secrets or shocking revelations, but of the struggles faced by three generations of Asian women as they settle in a culturally Western country. Pung, a lawyer, recounts the journey her family made over the decades-from China, her grandparents' birthplace, to Cambodia, where her parents are born, through Vietnam and Thailand to Australia where, one month after their arrival, Pung is born. In retelling her grandmother's stories, the imagined is rendered credible; Pung captures her "form of magic, the magic of words that became movies in mind." In recollecting her own story, Pung loses that magic in the ordinariness of adolescence, and as the family moves toward achieving the "Great Australian Dream," it passes through familiar stages-the hard work of both parents, the distance created between generations and the anxieties suffered by the younger generation ("I had done everything right, and I had turned out so wrong"). The non-European-immigrant-girl-grows-up story is a familiar one to American readers. What's new about Pung's book is the Australian setting. That twist of focus reveals how more alike than different the experience is. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Each immigrant has a story to tell, and that story usually touches on efforts to mediate between family and society and the uneasy knowledge of the older generation's painful memories. Add to this the quirks of particular relatives, the brand names and fashions of a particular time and place, and some specific coming-of-age experiences, and you have Pung's memoir, first published in Australia in 2006. In 1981, Pung's parents and grandmother fled Cambodia to Australia, where she was born one month after they arrived. Predictably, young Pung struggled to bridge home culture and school culture. As a teenager, she endured depression and near mental breakdown before being drawn out of her misery by academic success and the promise of a bright future. Some readers will enjoy Pung's light touch and casual tone; others will find the insights bland. No new ground is covered with this memoir, despite its being one of few written by Southeast Asian refugees to Australia. Recommended for public libraries with larger Asian populations or high demand for memoirs.
—Lisa Klopfer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452290006
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/27/2009
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,439,158
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

ALICE PUNG was born in Australia in 1981, one month after her parents migrated from Cambodia. She is now a Melbourne-based writer and lawyer. Unpolished Gem is her first book.
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Read an Excerpt


In 1980, my father, mother, grandmother, and Auntie Kieu arrived in Australia by plane. They arrived with one suitcase. There was nothing in the suitcase, and the only person who was carrying a heavy load was my mother, because she was eight months pregnant with me.

My parents were both born in Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country less than half the size of California and bordered by Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. In 1953, Cambodia gained independence after nearly one hundred years of French colonial rule. My parents lived in the capital, Phnom Penh. During the 1960s and 1970s, Phnom Penh was a beautiful city, with buildings left over from the colonial era, and under the rule of a prince.

In the Vietnam War, Cambodia became part of the battlefield. More bombs were dropped on Cambodia by American B-52 bombers than were dropped on Germany during World War II, in an effort to destroy suspected North Vietnamese supply lines.

In 1974, the dictator Pol Pot took over Cambodia with his Khmer Rouge army. He ruthlessly imposed an extremist program to reconstruct Cambodia on the communist model of Mao's China. The entire population was forced to work as labourers in one huge federation of collective farms. Anyone in opposition—and all intellectuals, professionals, and educated people were assumed to be—was persecuted or eliminated. Minority groups, victims of the Khmer Rouge's racism, were also victimized, including ethnic Chinese (like my family), Vietnamese, and Thai, as well as Christians, Buddhists, and Chan Muslims. Civilian deaths from executions, disease, exhaustion, and starvation have been estimated at well over two million. This was an epic holocaust.

My family walked by foot from Cambodia, across Vietnam, to Thailand. There, they settled in a refugee camp in Thailand for one long, hot year, during which I was conceived. So I was manufactured in Thailand but assembled in Australia. I was born here a month after my parents arrived, and I grew up in the working-class suburbs of Braybrook and Footscray, in the Australian state of Victoria.

Less than ten years before my family arrived in Australia, the White Australia Policy, which severely restricted the immigration of nonwhites to the country, was abolished by the Whitlam government. I was born in a country that had begun to enthusiastically embrace multiculturalism as part of its national identity. Because Australia fought on the side of the Americans during the Vietnam War, this new policy of multiculturalism meant that Australia began to accept many refugees from Southeast Asia. My family experienced kindness like they had never known before from the Australian government and the Australian people.

Braybrook in the early 1980s looked as if it could have come from a Michael Moore documentary, with smog rising from its carpet factories and correspondingly high incidences of cancer among the elderly who lived most of their lives in the housing commission estates. Footscray was the suburb in which many migrants set up their first businesses. After World War II, Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived there. Next came the wave of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. Today in Footscray, our most recent arrivals are the migrants who have escaped the wars in the horn of Africa—Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea. In a way, I grew up in a world very similar to Sesame Street, though not many people spoke English as well as Maria and Luis.

My father named me Alice because he thought Australia was a wonderland. And it is in this land of wonder that my story begins.

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Reading Group Guide


When Alice Pung’s family survives the killing fields of Cambodia and escapes the poverty of a Thai refugee camp, arriving in Australia with the clothes on their backs and little else, they think themselves blessed with good fortune. And they are—the Australian government provides them with housing and food, and soon Alice’s father finds a job that will support him, his mother, and his very pregnant wife. It is the 1980s, and little Alice is born into her family’s newfound luck and prosperity.

But economic and social prosperity come with a price—not one exacted by their new host, Australia, but one that they impose upon themselves. Adapting to life in this wealthy new land is more difficult than they imagine, as they learn to deal with displacement and life as outsiders, even in a community filled with fellow immigrants. Alice’s mother and her paternal grandmother face a special adversity—living with each other. And caught in the middle of it all is Alice, who realizes, perhaps better than anyone, the contradiction and complexity that come with living a dual life: the life of an Asian and the life of an Australian.

Funny, charming, moving, and unfailingly honest, Alice Pung’s memoir Unpolished Gem captures the best and worst of life in a new country. Her perspective of three generations—her grandmother’s, her mother’s, and her own—presents moments of great humor as well as moments of acute emotional pain. In the end, her tale of three women surviving a new land—and each other—is enlightening and memorable, reaffirming for us the indomitable, lasting character and strength of family.


Alice Pung was born in Australia in 1981, one month after her parents migrated from Cambodia. She is now a Melbourne-based writer and lawyer. Unpolished Gem is her first book.


Q. How does your family feel about your memoir?

Firstly, my mother can’t read anything I write. People then often ask me, ‘well why don’t you read it to her?’ That is a very reasonable question, but among other things, Unpolished Gem is a book about the things in life that matter more than words.

It is also a story about being illiterate, and about the importance of the non-verbal truths in life. Even if I were able to read it to my mother, she would think it were a waste of time, as she spends her time in productive work; not telling stories. But ironically, telling stories – and telling didactic stories - is what she does best. I learned how to write from a woman who could not read and write – because she taught me how to see the world, beyond the attachment of words.

My father, on the other hand, has read my book about three times – each time armed with a heavy dictionary, as English is of course not his first language. He speaks Teochew, Khmer, French, Cantonese, Mandarin and English (my mother also speaks five languages – unfortunately none of them are English). Growing up my father never censored my writing, and always gave me a sense of liberty and security to speak or write what was on my mind. My father is one of those rare sorts of parents who believed – and still believes - that one’s children can teach you much about life.

My parents are very different – my mother the strong practical keeper of didactic stories, my father the silent but reflective thinker; but they are both very proud of me. Writing my book – and it is a book that contains many family secrets and discards the obsession with face-saving – has made me realize how unconditional my parents’ love is.

Q. In the memoir, you say to Michael that you like the way studying law allows you to help your community. Can, or does, your writing serve in the same way? What motivated you to begin writing and publishing in the first place?

There is a strong element of saving face in our community, and sometimes this is to the detriment of genuine compassion and understanding. So, although I admittedly did tell certain stories that weren’t the most fitting to the migrant narratives of ‘success’, I thought it more important to tell the truth – that sometimes people can toil and toil for two decades in a back shed and lock themselves out of a language for the sake of their children’s futures, that when Asian high achievers have meltdowns they sometimes quietly implode rather than dramatically explode, and that things that happen to us in life are cyclic, not linear. Sometimes what you think is the end really is the beginning.

My father is an amazing man – he survived the Killing Fields and still retains a humour and optimism about life. So first and foremost, I wanted to inject my writing with humour. In the end, the most touching realization to emerge out of this book came from Michael, my former boyfriend in the story. After reading my book, he said to me: “Alice, this book is a love letter to your community.” And this is true.

Q. You’re also the editor of Growing Up Asian in Australia, a collection of essays and stories. How does this book work as a companion piece or supplement to your full-length Unpolished Gem?

I edited Growing Up Asian in Australia to show to a wider audience that there is more than one or two Asian Australian voices out there. This anthology hopes to bring together the different experiences of Asian Australians – from different states, ages and circumstances. Because there had been a dearth of Asian Australian literature when I was growing up, I compiled this book with the hope that it would alleviate the loneliness of young Asians growing up in Australia. In America I know there are departments dedicated to Asian-American studies. We don't have anything like that here yet, despite the efforts of some very dedicated academics and individuals, and despite the fact that Asian Australians have been in Australia since 1810.

Q. What are you working on currently?

I am trying to write my next book. I generally start off with a feeling – an emotional truth I want to convey, and go from there. I end up in unusual and unexpected places – but somehow in retrospect, they seem exactly where the writing should take me. Sometimes you have to just let go and let the story carry you where it needs to. The expression ‘taking you out for a ride’ has really shonky connotations, but sometimes it is just nice to be taken out for a ride!


  • When Alice’s mother, father, aunt, and grandmother arrive in Australia, they are amazed by the shared wealth of its citizens and the generosity of the government when it comes to housing, feeding, and educating the fast-growing immigrant population. How does Pung convey the extent of her family’s first impression of Australia and, as her grandmother calls it, “Father Government”?
  • Pung describes in great detail how her mother and paternal grandmother used her as a weapon against one another. Who did you sympathize with more—Alice’s grandmother or her mother? Was either woman more or less justified in her suspicion of the other? Was any of their behavior concerning Alice justified?
  • As a result of her grandmother’s contentious relationship with her mother, Alice formed very different relationships with each woman. Compare and contrast Alice’s relationship with her grandmother to the dynamic that existed between Alice and her mother.
  • Pung provides the story of her deceased aunt, Little Brother, as a kind of evidence to support or explain her grandmother’s actions later in life, during Alice’s childhood. What did you find most moving about this passage? How does the chapter work toward changing or deepening your understanding of Alice’s paternal grandmother?
  • Partly because of the family’s economic situation and partly because it satisfies a psychological need, Alice’s mother works out of their home by making and selling gold jewelry. This leaves young Alice responsible for the upbringing and care of her younger siblings—a situation that is not uncommon for children of immigrants, but one that deprives her of an extended childhood and a carefree adolescence nonetheless. Discuss the conflict that Alice feels throughout her primary and secondary school years—how she feels the desire to lead the “normal” life of an Australian child, but her family’s traditions, expectations, and economic and social situation prevent this from happening.
  • Similarly, discuss the scene at Alice’s graduation from high school, where her parents and the other immigrant parents realize that their children’s experience has not been that of typical Australian teens. What irony is present in this moment? Do you think Alice derives a kind of satisfaction or validation from her parents’ epiphany?
  • Eventually, the rigors and dangers of jewelry making outweigh the benefits it brings to the family, and Alice’s mother is forced to put this vocation aside. At this point, her husband’s business provides them with a strong income, so she doesn’t need to take on another occupation—but she wants one desperately. Discuss this need to continue working and the effects it has on her relationship with her family. Consider, too, her relationship to employment: Why is it important to Alice’s mother that she continues to work? What does her refusal to retire reveal about her emotional and psychological state at this point in her life?
  • Alice’s romantic life as a teen and a young adult is dictated less by her own whims and desires and more by those of her parents and neighbors. Consider the limitations this places on the relationships she forms outside her family, and in particular her romance with Michael. How easy or difficult was it to understand her choice at the end of the book, when she breaks up with Michael? How great a toll would Alice have had to pay if she had continued dating him?
  • Likewise, Alice’s program of study while at college and her career choice are dictated by her parents’ desires and expectations. Do you see any of her acquiescence as a survival tactic?
  • The book’s epilogue takes place during the anniversary of her paternal grandmother’s passing. How is this a fitting capstone to Pung’s memoir? What aspects of the book does it highlight or signify, and what does it indicate about Alice’s future? What, too, does it reveal about the different generations of Pung’s family and the power of her heritage?
  • Discuss the ways Pung combined humor with the more serious aspects of her story. Was her voice unique? At what points in the book was it most engaging?
  • What did you learn from this book that you didn’t know before? Weigh the importance of the memoir in our culture today: What does creative nonfiction offer us that other genres do not? How many memoirs have you read before this book, and how does this story compare with those others? How does this tale compare with fiction you’ve read previously?
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 8, 2009

    An interesting memoir.

    Unpolished Gem is the classic immigrant story of Alice Pung's family. The story follows three women, Alice's grandmother and mother who fled from Cambodia to Australia, and Alice herself, born in Australia. Alice gives a clear view of the second generation immigrant's dilemna, parents who demand you adhere to the old ways, yet also assimilate to your new country. Alice is neither fully Asian nor fully Australian and her constant navigation beween the two is both funny (being sent to school in her padded Mao suit) and heart-breaking (her first love is a white boy).

    I enjoyed the memoir and felt I was a bit more exposed to what the children of immigrants and the immigrants themselves have to deal with. Clearly the immigrant experience is vastly more complicated then just finding jobs and housing! I wish that more of Alice's family history had been included. This could have helped explain the attitudes and beliefs of her mother and grandmother.

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  • Posted February 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A Young Woman's Memoir

    In her debut memoir, Unpolished Gem, Alice Pung narrates the story of her family's settling in Australia. They arrive from Cambodia with nothing except the expectation of a new baby in a month's time. When the child is born, her father names her Alice because he thought Australia to be a wonderland. This is really the story of Alice, her mother, her grandmother and their assimilation into a culture so very different from their own.

    Alice's mother and grandmother are still clinging to a lot of their Chinese heritage whereas Alice's only frame of reference is Australia. She recounts how difficult it is for her mother to acclimatize herself to the new country; learning English, conducting her jewelry business and just everyday life. Her grandmother seems to adapt more easily. Alice becomes the go- between to her mother and grandmother and this creates some tension at times. Alice feels like she is Chinese at home and Australian outside. Alice says the life of a Chinese woman is constantly, sighing, lying and dying and that she wants no part of it.Growing up amid two different cultures is not always easy.

    Throughout the story, Alice was very attached to her grandmother and her story telling. Unfortunately, when her grandmother passed away, Alice lost her sense of youthful security and knowing exactly who she was while growing up and trying to find her proper place in the world. Alice felt that her grandmother had affirmed Alice's existence. During adolescence, Alice experienced a severe depression and extreme angst dealing with the realities of becoming a young woman. Her self esteem suffered as did her hopes for the future. How her parents thought she should conduct herself and their hopes for her were not quite the same as what Alice thought. This is normally the case between parents and children but when there are different cultural ideals it is harder to deal with.

    This is where the story began to lose some of my interest. The writing seemed more rambling to me. In the beginning, there were a lot of humorous accounts of everday life and some wonderful flashback moments of life before emigration; how her parents met, their engagement and how they, along with Alice's grandmother and aunt had walked through several countries before they finally emigrated to Australia. The differences between the cultures was extremely interesting and the characterizations were very well done. It was very easy to imagine Alice's mother and grandmother. The last quarter of the book was not quite so engaging. I think I would have liked to have seen more of the back story but it was a book about blending in a new culture. Maybe Ms. Pung should consider a pre-quel because that would be an interesting stroy. Overall, it is still a good book, just not a great one. If you enjoy memoirs and cultural differences, you might like this one. 3***

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