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

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.)

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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 Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/27/2009
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 304
  • 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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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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