Unpolished Gem

My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me

Alice Pung - Author

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ISBN 9781440662058 | 304 pages | 27 Jan 2009 | Plume | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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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.


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.

"Alice Pung is a gem. Her voice is the real thing." -
Amy Tan

"This is a sophisticated and fiercely intelligent book... There's something striking on every page."
-Helen Garner, author of Postcards from Surfers

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