UNPOLISHED GEM by Alice Pung
Kirkus Star

UNPOLISHED GEM

My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me

KIRKUS REVIEW

An Australian writer grapples with her Asian heritage.

First published in Australia in 2006, Pung’s wry debut memoir depicts the struggles and successes multiple generations of her family experienced in their migration—much of it on foot—from Cambodia’s killing fields through Vietnam and a refugee camp in Thailand to a suburb of Melbourne, where the author was born soon after their arrival in 1981. “I was manufactured in Thailand but assembled in Australia,” she writes, and the crux of her story centers on the challenges she faced as a girl growing up in a culture completely foreign to her parents and elders yet native to her. Pung is fascinated by the immigrant realities of adaptation and assimilation, processes she lived through painfully but often triumphantly as a young girl. She developed her sense of self with one foot testing the comparatively laid-back standards of Australian society and the other planted in the tradition-bound soil of her family’s ethnic Chinese roots. With a painter’s eye for detail and the heightened sensibility of someone caught between lands, Pung poignantly describes the contrasts of her family’s brave new world: “The refugees staying at the Midway Migrant Hilton hoard packets of sugar, jam and honey from the breakfast table. So used to everything being finite, irrevocably gone if one does not grab it fast enough, they are bewildered when new packets appear on the breakfast table the next day.” Perhaps the most intriguing transformation she notes is assimilated immigrants’ attitude toward the newly arrived. “We felt pity and resentment and plenty of embarrassment for their eagerness and their countryside errors. But most of all, unacknowledged envy of their pure, rooted-to-the-moment, every-day-is-a-wonderland existence, because it reminded us of a distant self we once were, we of the wide-eyed, shut-mouth stupor, we of the wide-mouth, shut-eyed delirium, when things were louder and funnier and lettuce was greener and gleaming concrete seemed newer.”

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

Pub Date: Jan. 27th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-452-29000-6
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Plume
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2008




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