Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me

Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me

by Alice Pung
     
 

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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… See more details below

Overview

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.

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

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)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781440662058
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/27/2009
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
File size:
0 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

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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What People are saying about this

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)

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