One of the great values of ‘reading’ an audiobook occurs when there is a distinct accent that knits the story together. This is certainly the case for Unpolished Gem, which I have been enjoying recently on my way to work.
The story is the memoir of Alice Pung’s immigrant family – their heritage including past lives in Vietnam and in Cambodia under the regime of Pol Pot. Alice, now a successful writer and lawyer, recounts her impressions of life as a child living across two very different cultures in suburban Melbourne.
Her family arrives in Australia and is in awe of all it has to offer – so different from their homeland experiences, and indeed, so different from the current migrant experience. For them, the suburban streets, shops and government support systems provide so much. In fact, every day her grandmother blesses ‘Father Government’ for giving old people money.
As refugees from the Pol Pot regime, her parents have great expectations of their new homeland, not the least of which is the value of education for their family. The family works hard – her mother as an outworker, while her father eventually becomes a ‘business entreprenuer’ embracing the miracle of franchising.
Naturally, though they embrace the Aussie dream, theirs is tempered by many strong cultural ideals. Insights into the Chinese culture are given with snippets of family conversations revealing their thoughts on how things should be done, must be done, as Alice struggles at times to bridge both cultures.
Listening to Unpolished Gem was fun – to hear Chinese expression, and the repetition and patterns of stilted Chinglish. The frustrations and struggles of Alice’s childhood also feel very authentic in the audio version, as her voice switches from recounts of the things she needed to learn, and things she needed to help her parents (particularly her mother) understand. Pung also loves language and Unpolished Gem is full of quirky sayings, and vivid playful language, so also dipping into the physical book was immensely satisfying.
Published in 2006, Unpolished Gem received much acclaim, and I imagine it would be an interesting contrast to the refugee experience of today. With the authentic insights it gives of a cross-cultural childhood, it is an unforgettable story with moments of tenderness, humour and bittersweet struggles well worth revisiting.
In an interview Writers Talk, Pung reflects on her family, inspiration for writing the book and the migrant experience:
A great book for concepts of belonging, cultural identity or journeys. Or simply a great read!