Synopsis: A Chinese family flees war and conflict in Vietnam and Cambodia for the Western suburbs of Melbourne. A young girl grows up Asian in Australia.
My Take: I had a typically ‘old Australia’ childhood in country Queensland. Cricket, football, fishing, “Australia All Over” with Macca on a Sunday morning. It was great fun, but it wasn’t exactly a melting pot of cultural diversity. The pictures of the Queen of England in the school assembly hall didn’t really count as multi-culturalism in my book.
Since moving to Melbourne after university of course, things changed dramatically. It wasn’t long before my friendship group was teeming with those permanent fixtures of Collins St corporate law firms; over-achieving first generation Asian-Australians. In addition to dramatically improving my access to quality Yum Cha, I also managed to pick up a fiancée in the process so I feel like I’ve done pretty well from this cultural enlightenment.
So understandably, I was favourably inclined to enjoying Alice Pung’s ‘Unpolished Gem’. It had been recommended to me by a few of my Asian-Australian friends as strongly reflecting their own experiences of growing up in Australia and I was keen for an insight into a childhood experience that was very different to my own. They were right, it’s a lovely read.
Pung tells her family’s story with an elegant simplicity. Ironically enough for someone who’s edited a collection of stories titled “Growing up Asian in Australia”, I think Pung has a distinctly ‘old’ Australian voice – self-deprecating, laconic and matter of fact. Her writing is both observant and insightful without being introspective or overwrought.
The strength of this book is in the details. The book is packed with endearing little observations of immigrant life. I particularly liked I love how her family “wah”s at the prosperity in Australia and how her grandmother referred to Centrelink reverentially as “Father Government… like Father Christmas, as if he is a tangible benign white-bearded guru”. Equally amusing was her parents desire for her to study at “Mao-Bin U”. ‘Their pronunciation made the place sound like a shonky university in China for discarded communists.’
At times, Pung’s story is genuinely sad. The pressures on a young Chinese girl, whether growing up in Australia or in Asia, are not insignificant. Similarly, the strains on mother-daughter-grandmother relations of not just a generation gap, but also a growing cultural gulf are a source of much family tension. At times I just want to wrap her up and say “It’s all going to be ok! You’ll survive and even better- Eurasian kids are going to be the coolest people in the next generation”
My father’s idea of getting familiar with someone was to tell them war stories. He didn’t do it to sober them up or edify them. He did it to crack them up.
“This fish reminds me of the Pol Pot years when the starved, dead bodies floated up the river during the flood. I got the job of dragging them to higher, dryer land. We wrapped them up in a dry blanket and me and my mate grabbed on to each end. Every time we tripped, the blanket would get water-soaked and even heavier. Hah hah, so funny! And listen to this – my mate turns to me and says, “Hope you’re not going to be this heavy when it’s time for me to drag you”, and I say to him, “What do you mean when you drag me? I’m going to be the poor soul who will be dragging you!””
He finished by exhorting his guests to eat more fish.