64. Unpolished Gem

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

Pages: 282
Ages: 18+ (though entirely suitable for teens)
Finished: Mar. 20, 2009
First Published: Jan. 27, 2009
Genre: memoir
Rating: 4/5

Reason for Reading: I received a review copy from the publisher, Penguin USA.

First sentence:

In 1980, my father, mother, grandmother, and Auntie Kieu arrived in Australia by plane.

Comments: A Chinese family escapes communism by moving to Cambodia, only to find some years later that the next generation must escape from the dictator Pol Pot. This Chinese-Cambodian family of grandmother, brother, sister, and brother's eight-month pregnant wife are given a choice of Canada or Australia. Knowing nothing of either country they chose Australia because the father does know it doesn't snow in Australia.

This is a story of three women from three different generations with very different life experiences and especially the life of a second-generation immigrant. Alice, the daughter born shortly after arrival in Australia, tells the story of her life living between two cultures. Her beloved Grandmother, from China, was the second wife of a Chinese man and very traditional in her Chinese religious beliefs. Her mother, a product of Chinese rearing, even though born in Cambodia, remains within the Asian community in the new land and never learns English beyond a few words and phrases. Alice, an Australian by birth, goes to a ghost (white man's) school and finds her culture clash of being an Australian girl within the confines of her old Chinese way upbringing.

While concentrating on Alice's life, we learn a bit of the Cambodian and Chinese way of life through off-hand comments and brief explanations of the mother and grandmother's past. However, the book is mostly concerned with the here and now of Alice's life in Australia as she lives with her mother and grandmother (and father, of course) being raised with Chinese religion and morals, while being pushed to become a part of the white man's world and yet keep her Chinese heritage and dignity.

This is a very entertaining memoir and full of interesting details of the Chinese way of life. Alice's grandmother and mother are very strong characters both, though in very different ways, smothering her with the strict rules of Chinese behaviour and the Chinese beliefs. The mother makes Alice's life very difficult as she does not learn English and Alice, though taught to speak Chinese as a child, slowly looses much of her ability to speak the language as she goes to school and interacts with her own new culture.

A truly wonderful read, the book is very humorous and yet at times touching and tragic. In a way, I found this memoir to be like an Amy Tan fiction in the way it deals with the mother/daughter relationship and having read all Tan's books I can wholeheartedly say that Amy Tan fans will surely enjoy Alice Pung's writing and the story this book has to tell. I'm very impressed with Ms. Pung's first book and wonder if she'll turn to fiction for her next book. I can certainly see her following in the footsteps of Amy Tan and Lisa See. Recommended!


  1. Nicola, wonderful review! This one is on my TBR.

    BTW, you actually still have one more book to go for the ARC challenge, overachievers. It is for 25 books or more. I know you can do it!


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