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Unpolished Gem: My Mother, and My Grandmother and Me, by Alice Pung

March 20, 2013

Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me by Alice Pung.. Plume (2009), Edition: Original, Paperback, 282 pages,


A beautifully written and engaging memoir about a Cambodian Australian woman, her mother and her grandmother.

Alice Pung was born a month after her parents and grandmother arrived in Melbourne, Australia, as refugees fleeing the horrors of their Cambodian home under the brutal dictatorship of Pol Pot.  After the horrors they had known, Australia seemed a “wonderland” of abundance and cleanliness.  So her father named her Alice.

Moving back and forth in time, Pung describes her own life growing up as a Cambodian of Chinese ethnicity in Australia.  Interwoven into her own life, she tells stories of her mother and her father’s mother who lived with them before and after their migration.  Her grandmother had been born in China, where she joined Marxist rebels and then, endangered by those whom she had once supported, she migrated to Cambodia.  She became the second wife of a man she loved and the owner of a factory where her future daughter-in-law worked.  After Pol Pot took over, part of her family escaped to Vietnam, where her son again met the woman whom he chose to marry, also there as a Cambodian refugee.

This grandmother was very important to Alice Pung growing up, the person who gave her the most attention.  She practiced traditional Buddhist rituals like buying fish and returning them to the ocean.   She was the one who told traditional stories to her granddaughter.  After her death Pung realized

My grandmother was to be a part of me forever, so that I would always know that there was a life before me, and a life after me. . . We slept in the same bed and it was always warm.  Now there would be no one left to remind me of my roots, no one to tell me to be proud to be part of a thousand- year-old culture, no one to tell me that I was gold, not yellow.

Pung’s mother was a more emphatic person, “not a talker, but a shouter,”  who initially spent long hours making and selling gold jewelry.  When the work became too physically strenuous for her, she felt useless and lost.  She tried to learn English, so she know what her children were saying.  Although the family had gained a degree of financial comfort and security, she struggled before eventually becoming a gifted salesperson in their appliance store because she had retained the ability to bargain with the immigrant purchasers.

In writing about herself, Pung creates an image of a girl and young woman with little self-confidence or self-esteem, never able to live up to excessive demands of her immigrant parents.

They had thought of this new life in simple cause-and-effect terms: that if they worked their backs off to send their kids to the grammar school, then we would automatically mingle with the brightest and the fairest of the state.

In her teenage years, she became depressed and felt useless.  She had worked hard and in some ways had succeeded.  But she felt she was “a windup obedient toy, or a coat hanger for good intentions gone awry.”  Writing essays for school about King Lear was disconnected from her grandmother’s increasing disabilities.

The only sort of real that had any meaning and reality was depicted in the black-and-white pages of Shakespeare, the universality of human experience accessible only to erudite people who could read it.

Pung’s writing is sure and affective, voicing on paper what could not be explained to non-immigrant friends about her life.  Pung does not, however, express the sense of dividedness that plagues other immigrant women such as Meena Alexander. [See my review of her Fault Lines.]   The link to her past through her grandmother was never as strong as it was for those who had lived in another culture for years.  Instead she is left with a sense of having failed in both the world of her ancestors and of her peers.

I had done everything right, and still I had turned out so wrong. I had turned out empty. I had turned out faulty.

Finally, after she passed the college entrance exams and worked in the family store till her classes would start, she began to feel a bit of self-worth.  By then she has a kind, accepting boyfriend, white and never quite understanding who she is.

The title of the book, Unpolished Gem, is a reference to a Cambodian proverb stating that sons, but not daughters, were to be polished as gems.  Like her mother and grandmother, Pung was not polished, but all three women became strong individuals.

I strongly recommend this book to all readers, especially those interested in the experience of Asian Australians and in the memoirs of immigrating women.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. My Secret PhD Life permalink
    March 20, 2013 10:14 am

    Hey I really enjoy your blog & I nominated you for the Sunshine Award 🙂

  2. March 21, 2013 12:44 am

    thanks for this review, I am a real fan of Alice Pung’s work and enjoyed your take on it.

    • March 22, 2013 5:00 pm

      I am becoming a fan, too. I am ready to read more of hers.

  3. aartichapati permalink
    March 22, 2013 4:02 pm

    I read this book some years ago and admit I didn’t really enjoy it. I thought Pung was far too isolated and blamed her lack of friends, etc., on people not understanding her culture when, to me, it felt more like she was just not very friendly.

  4. March 22, 2013 5:01 pm

    That is always a danger in books like this.

  5. May permalink
    December 10, 2014 10:58 pm

    Well, this book is fantastic and well written, Well done, Alice. As I am a Cambodian migrant I understood many words in term of Cambodian language and it has reminded me of my own culture and family roots.

    • December 11, 2014 10:48 am

      Thanks for reaffirming the merit of this book with your own experience.


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