Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Unpolished Gem

Sometimes, the best way to appreciate your own country—your own time and place—is from someone who has no reason to take it for granted because they are here, yet come from somewhere else.

Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung is a memoir of growing up in Footscray, in a Cambodian-Chinese family. The tale moves back and forth between the experiences of her parents and grandparents, family life from the inside and her experiences at school, university and work.

The prologue is of her father, working in the Footscray Markets, remembering the family first experiencing traffic lights with pedestrian crossings that were actually obeyed. We then move to that experience. The family, newly arrived in Australia, staggered at the wealth handed to them (clothes from St Vincent’s) standing at traffic lights staggered anew as the cars stopped for pedestrians, no matter how unimportant, merely because the lights changed; working out how things worked.
The little Green Man was an eternal symbol of government existing to serve and protect. And any country that could have a little green flashing man was benign and wealthy beyond imagining
(pp8-9). In simple, vivid prose Alice Pung shows us the wonder of things we take for granted because they were so very, very not things to take for granted for her family and what they had come from. By making their story, and her story, so alive she helps us see ourselves.
Weaving back and forth in time and place, from person to person, Pung builds up her tale, so we slowly spiral into understanding their experiences. Happenings, experiences and reactions are touched on lightly but powerfully. The description of looking down from the Rialto it is what is not seen that gives what is seen its real power:
It is a country where no one walks like they have nothing to hide … No Khmer Rouge-type soldiers dressed like black ants prodding the inhabitants of the Central Business District into making a mass exodus to Wangaratta …
Back in the refugee centre which is their first experience of Australia, they learn not to hoard the packets of sugar, jam and honey from the breakfast tables because there are always more next day:
they learn that here, no one dies of starvation (p.9).
(p.9). Alice Pung is perhaps too polite to mention that the theories that destroyed their countries came from the West (though not from Australia as such). But then, perhaps that is far less important than that the people whose implementing of them was so murderously vile did not:
After Ah Pot’s revolution, people from the Land of the Golden Tower no longer greeted each other with “Have you eaten yet?” No, now it was “Who is left in your family?” (p.112).
Or perhaps it is simpler still: countries with good institutions did not suffer those disastrous ideas, even if they did spawn them and produce local devotees, and it is simply how different societies work which is the crucial thing.

Alice Pung makes her family, her parents, grandparents (particularly her Father’s Mother, with whom she was very close and her Mother), their loves, their hates, their hopes, dreams and fears very vivid. Including the emotional claustrophobia of it all, which she experienced so strongly as the first born and eldest daughter.

Through her experience and her families, she makes brings the migrant experience alive, in its hopes and fears, understandings and misunderstandings. Her father takes various jobs eventually ending up a very successful Retravision™ franchisee. Her mothers works as a jeweller, at home, providing jewellry for various Chinese jewellery shops: an outworker who never thinks of herself as a businesswoman, despite being precisely that. Sometimes she gets gypped, particularly when clients go bankrupt. Pung provides a vivid description of commercial life in the East Asian communities, such as in an anecdote about how her mother got money owed from one jewellery business that was going out backwards. They probably didn’t know that in Australian law outworkers are not protected debtors. Maybe that didn’t matter anyway for
we all came from countries where the laws were scattered and broken, and where they could be bought with bribes, where wars happened and currency was rendered worthless at the flash of a bomb, so that the only dependable commodity of trade was gold (pp138-9).
So they just went on good business practice, mostly, though the extremis of bankruptcy could be a different matter.

Her mother and her grandmother (who seemed to have been perpetually at war, mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law) are particularly vivid. In many ways, her grandmother—secure in her authority, toughened by a life of survived adversity (starting with the error of being a genuine peasant activist in Mao’s China leading to an escape to Cambodia where Leninism destroyed her life all over again), surrounded by devoted children and grandchildren, a great storyteller—coped better than her mother.

Pung describes well the slow morphing of herself, her father and siblings into not only English speakers, but thinkers in English: more and more her mother, who spoke five languages fluently but not English, was surrounded by aliens at her dinner table (p.139). The more her husband’s business prospered, the less reason she had to work, particularly as the chemicals she used were not the safest. But, if she did not work, what use was she who could neither speak nor read English? She was one of pattern of wives and mothers who had no idea how to live lives of idleness and luxury (p.147). Her mother’s struggles—declining into depression—and triumphs become one of the spiralling themes of Pung’s tale. The writing is so effectively evocative, one recognises the pride of depression in her mother’s self-sabotage.

The claustrophobia becomes all too for Alice herself, who has an emotional breakdown towards the end of Year 12, becoming an emotional deadzone. Too much pressure, too much fear, too many expectations. But then she does brilliantly in her exams, and the sudden prospect of university and hugely expanded possibilities breaks the emotional logjam and she steadily recovers.

Another of the spiralling themes is the migrant’s complex view of the society around them—particularly the white ghosts as the “skips” are called. There is a brilliant passage of the valedictory night at her posh grammar school where the non-skip parents realise with a shock that their children are, like them, Watchers. That they are not in the midst of the social swirls, that they do not go up on the stage. That paying for an expensive education has not meant their children now “fit in” (p.186). Pung explains that children like her do not party with the beautiful people, nor debate with the studious; parental strictness precludes the former and cultural distance the latter:
We were funny that way, always believing that we were rescued by white people even when the white people did not see themselves as our rescuers – in fact, they probably thought that we were self-sufficient, hard-working heroes from Hanoi or Hunan who manufactured their T-shirts and married their sons.
But we were also hypocrites. We loved them for their easy-going natures, their laid-back generosity, their simple acceptance of our culture, or whatever we told them constituted our culture. We fed them fluorescent yellow lemon chicken and sludge-black beef in black-bean sauce and they lauded our fine Chinese cuisine. Anything nuanced, like brown braised chicken’s feet (we were never wasteful) was also cultural but in an idiosyncratic “only Chinese eat that” sort of way. We loved their country, their supermarkets and their sheer genius in inventing Glad-Wrap; and the more we loved these things, the more it made us realise how much we hated the dirt, the sludge and the smells of our homelands, the squelchy grottiness of our markets and the self-abnegation of our souls.
And, most of all, we hated ourselves for loving them (pp 226-7).
The spirals come together in the last part of the book, which is a very funny (I often laughed out loud), and very touching, description of her relationship with her first ever boyfriend. A vegetarian country boy skip. The debates with herself are often hilarious:
because then he will know you are insecure! That you blow little things into big grotesque carnival floats that cast shadows over perfect summer afternoons (p.250).
There is so much in this book; the observations of the people who come into a store for reasons which have little to do with shopping, the passing comments that make things familiar seem new and vivid, her grandmother blessing Father Government for amazingly providing money for old people every fortnight. The way Alice went to Mao-Bin university for:
their pronunciation made the place sound like a shonky university in China for discarded communists (p.233).
It is a book to read and enjoy for many reasons, But above all for how well, with what a sure, light touch, Pung conveys the immense richness of her subject matter.

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