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Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me Paperback – January 27, 2009
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From 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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Pung’s edifying memoir illuminates not only the cultural clash experienced by her Cambodian family after they landed in Australia in 1980 just before she was born but also her personal travails as a young woman coping with a mother and grandmothers steeped in centuries-old traditions. Throughout her school years, Alice struggles to cope with being the different one, while within her own family, she is under constant pressure to be an example to her younger siblings. She regrets not being a boy because her grandmothers hint that all that matters for girls is that they can make a good pot of rice, have a pretty face, and be fertile. She achieves the usual Asian High-Achiever marks in high school, but suffers from depression her senior year, barely able to appear in public. She passes her university exams, but even in college she feels pressure to conform to her parents’ expectations, and feels as though she’s wearing a mask. Pung offers thoughtful commentary on the immigrant experience, seen through the eyes of one who has successfully emerged. --Deborah Donovan
Top customer reviews
Pung less successfully ties her life to her mother and grandmother's lives, to their upbringing and experiences in China and war ravaged Cambodia. Her intellectual connection to them comes through, especially when she tells of her mother's jewelry making career, but her emotional/heart connection does not. Her youth may be responsible for this lack; she was born in 1980. (Youth is not a criticism.)
I encourage Pang to revisit this story ten years from now. I suspect she will see greater opportunities to polish her story, opportunities she can't possibly imagine now. I look forward to seeing what she writes then.
Do I suggest you read UNPOLISHED GEM? For entertainment? Sure. As an example of a well developed memoir? No.
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 reasonably good book,just not a great one. If you enjoy memoirs and cultural differences, you might like this one. 3***
Looming large is Alice's domineering mother - though when the traditional Asian expectation that she will control every aspect of Alice's life, meets the traditional Aussie expectation of self-reliance things are bound to get ugly. When the breathtaking double standard of her parent's cultural attitudes to women is added to the mix, it's no wonder that Alice experiences paranoia and begins to question her sanity.
Until enters the 'unpolished gem' of the title - an interracial relationship which forces her parents to confront some of their deeply held attitudes. This very personal story is excellently told, it had me feeling frustrated then happy in turns as Alice gradually plucks up the courage to... well, you'll have to read it yourself!