Unpolished gem, p.1

Unpolished Gem, page 1


Unpolished Gem

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Unpolished Gem

  Unpolished Gem

  PRAISE FOR Unpolished Gem

  “There’s something striking on every page of Unpolished Gem.” —HELEN GARNER

  “A memoir so vivid that images from it linger behind your eyelids.” —The Age

  “Unpolished Gem is virtuoso storytelling”

  —The Australian

  “… an intelligent and touching insight into the culture-hopping that so many first-generation Australians undertake.” —The Herald Sun

  “Unpolished Gem is a delightful read – a funny, touching debut … You can feel a new Australia in its pages.” —The Courier Mail

  “Alice Pung writes well, and with wry humour”

  —The Bulletin

  “… a very interesting new talent” —HAZEL FLYNN, ABC New South Wales

  “Pung has a seductive way with language, an eye for telling detail and a gift for comic dialogue”

  —Australian Book Review

  “… fresh Australian writing” —Bookseller and Publisher

  Unpolished Gem Alice Pung

  Published by Black Inc.,

  an imprint of Schwartz Media Pty Ltd

  Level 5, 289 Flinders Lane

  Melbourne Victoria 3000 Australia

  email: [email protected]


  © Alice Pung 2006.

  Reprinted 2006, 2007, 2008 & 2009.


  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior consent of the publishers.

  The National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

  Pung, Alice.

  Unpolished gem.

  e-ISBN 9781921825385. Print ISBN 9781863951586.

  1. Pung, Alice. 2. Children of immigrants - Victoria -Melbourne - Biography. 3. Asians - Victoria - Melbourne -Biography. 4. Asians - Victoria - Melbourne - Social life and customs. I. Title.


  Book design: Thomas Deverall

  Printed in Australia by Griffin Press

  To my family, for this story.

  And to Rebecca, who loved to read.










  This story does not begin on a boat.

  We begin our story in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, in a market swarming with fat pigs and thin people. The fat pigs are hanging from hooks, waiting to be hacked into segments, and the thin people are waiting to buy these segments wrapped in newspaper over a glass counter. When they haggle over the price of trotters, there is much hand-gesticulating and furrowing of brow because the parties do not spick da Ingish velly good. “Like a chicken trying to talk to a duck,” my mother calls these conversations. But she is not here today to quack over quality pigs’ paws because she is lying in a white hospital room waiting for me to arrive.

  So it’s just my father, standing smack-bang in the middle of this market, and his shoes are getting wet because of the blood diluted in the water that comes from the huge hoses used to wash away the mess at the end of the day. He looks down at the grates and thinks about pig’s blood jelly and whether he’ll ever buy it again. He likes the taste, but Ah Ung told him that he worked in the abattoir when he first came here and the carcasses were hung from hooks with buckets beneath to collect the pigs’ blood. Because they were not washed properly, they would sometimes leak with piss and other filthy drips. My father does not think back to Phnom Penh, where he would be eating brains in broth made by street vendors stationed across the road from the homeless leper coughing out half a lung in the doorway of some derelict shopfront, but looks up and points at the pink and red appendages behind the glass. With his other hand, he holds up two fingers.

  This is the suburb where words like and, at and of are redundant, where full sentences are not necessary. “Two kilo dis. Give me seven dat.” If you were to ask politely, “Would you please be so kind as to give me a half-kilo of the Lady Fingers?” the shop-owner might not understand you. “You wanna dis one? Dis banana? How many you want hah?” To communicate, my father realises, does not merely mean the strumming and humming of vocal cords, but much movement of hands and contortion of face. The loudest pokers always win, and the loudest pokers are usually women. My father’s moment is lost when a middle-aged woman with Maggi-noodle curls points at the man behind the counter with a flailing forefinger and almost jabs out an eye as she accuses the other Non-English-Speaking Person of selling her furry trotters. “Why yu gib me dis one? Dis one no good! Hairy here, here and dere! Hairy everywhere! Dat nother one over dere better. Who you save da nother one for hah?” Bang on the counter goes the bag of bloodied body parts, and my father knows that now is the time to scoot away to the stall opposite if he wants hairless ham.

  This suburb, Footscray, has possibly the loudest and grotti-est market in the Western world, although that term doesn’t mean much when you’re surrounded by brown faces. Footscray Market is the only market where you can peel and eat a whole mandarin before deciding whether to buy a kilo; where you can poke and prod holes in a mango to check its sweetness. My father does not even bat an eye at the kid who is covering her face with one hand, holding out a wet peeled lychee with the other, and wailing “Aaarghhh! My eyeball!” to her little brother. He watches as the baby in the pram starts howling and the mother pulls off some grapes from a stand to shut him up while she goes on with her poking and prodding and justified pilfering. Parsimonious women aren’t going to spend four dollars on sour strawberries simply because they were too stupid to taste-test them first. “Cause you more trouble coming back the second time!” declares my mother. “Ayyah, no good to be tormented by four dollars! Try and avoid it if you can.” But there is no way to taste-test these trotters, my father thinks as he looks through the clear plastic bag, so he has to take the word of the shouting woman in the opposite stall. He will bring these trotters home for his sister to boil into a broth, and then he will take the broth to the hospital for his wife.

  He steps out onto the footpath, away from the damp smells of the market. This is the suburb of madcap Franco Cozzo and his polished furniture, the suburb that made Russell Crowe rich and famous for shaving his head and beating up ethnic minorities, so it doesn’t really matter that these footpaths are not lined with gold but dotted with coruscating black circles where people spat out gum eons ago. “Don’t swallow the rubber candy,” mothers say to their kids. “Spit it out. Spit it out now – that’s right, onto the ground there.” Ah, this wondrous new country where children are scared of dying because they have swallowed some Spearmint Wrigley’s, not because they stepped on a condensed-milk tin filled with ammunition!

  So in the beginning it doesn’t matter to my father that there may be pee in the pig’s blood jelly served in the steaming bowls of Pho rice noodles, or that you can’t spick da Ingish very well, or that there are certain vegetables you can’t get in Tatsing grocery that you could get in Vietnam. No, it doesn’t matter at all, because in this suburb he watches grandmas with faces as blunt and brown as earthed potatoes hobble along in their padded jackets. As the wheels of their cloth-covered trolleys roll by, they tell the jabbering children to spit out the gum. My father looks, and smiles, wondering whether his firstborn will be a girl or a boy. He presses the black rubber button on the traffic lights and remembers when they first encountered these ticking poles.


  HERE they all are, standing carefully on the curb at a road crossing – my grandmother, my father,
my mother and my Aunt Que. It is early morning, and their grins are so wide that it seems they all went to bed with clothes-hangers shoved in their mouths to save storage space at the Midway Migrant Hostel.

  “Wah! Look at that!” cries my grandmother as they meander down the street draped in their De Paul finery, exclusive new arrivals from the St Vincent line. A polyester peasant blouse covers my mother’s protruding belly with purple pansies, and she has carefully co-ordinated her white low-heeled pumps with pink Adidas pants. Aunt Que sashays around in a brown dress and a fifty-cent jacket that has real fur on the collar and real mothballs in the pockets. She is followed by my father, sauntering in his fine denim bell-bottoms with brown plastic thongs. He is wearing one of those shirts with the wide flapping collars that point like two arrows at the women on either side of him. Woohoo, look here at my stunning sister and my spectacular wife. Finally, my grandmother pads along in a light-blue cotton pyjama suit she has sewn herself. A pair of sunglasses sits on top of her head – a second pair of eyes gazing skywards, beseeching the Lord Buddha to bless St Vincent and his kind fraternity for vesting the family with such finery.

  “Wah!” exclaims my grandmother again and points to an old man pressing the squishy black-rubber button. The rest of the gang turn to look. “The cars stopped for that old one!” my grandmother cries. Tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic-tic goes the traffic light, and as the green man flashes, the old man casts a suspicious look at the crew pointing at him before hobbling away quickly to the other side of the road.

  “Wah!” exclaims my mother. “Look over there! On the other side! The cars even stopped for those little girls!” Two bored ten-year old girls with flouncy balloon skirts sewn to the elastic waistband of their neon biker-pants walk across the road, dappling the bitumen with pastel dribbles from their melting Peters ice-creams.

  My father stands in front of the yellow pole and presses the little rubber button again. “Even Mother can do it! Watch me do it again! But try not to gawk like Guangzhou peasants, please.” My grandmother ignores the comment and looks up at the lights. “We wait for Mao Ze Dong man to disappear before we move,” she instructs. “He stops everything.” She is getting the hang of this. As the little Red Man disappears and the little Green Man reappears, the crew hobble to the other side in beat with the ticking traffic light.

  Back where my father came from, cars did not give way to people, people gave way to cars. To have a car in Cambodia you had to be rich. And if you had money, it meant that you could drive at whatever speed you pleased. If the driver zipping down the country road accidentally knocked over a peasant farmer, he knew he had better zoom away quick because the whole village might come and attack him with cleavers. 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.


  Wah, so many things about this new country that are so taken-for-granted! It is a country where no one walks like they have to hide. From the top floor of the Rialto building my parents see that the people below amble in a different manner, and not just because of the heat. No bomb is ever going to fall on top of them. No one pissing in the street, except of course in a few select suburbs. No lepers. No Khmer Rouge-type soldiers dressed like black ants prodding occupants of the Central Business District into making a mass exodus to Wangaratta. Most people here have not even heard about Brother Number One in Socialist Cambodia, and to uninitiated ears his name sounds like an Eastern European stew: “Would you like some Pol Pot? It’s made with 100% fresh-ground suffering.”

  Here there is sweetness, and the refugees staying at the Midway Migrant Hilton horde packets of sugar, jam and honey from the breakfast table. So used to everything being finite, irrevocably gone if one does not grab it fast enough, they are bewildered when new packets appear on the breakfast table the next day. So they fill their pockets with these too, just in case. Weeks later, the packets still appear. The new refugees learn to eat more slowly, that their food will not be taken from them or their bowls kicked away. They learn that here, no one dies of starvation.

  So in the beginning there are many wahs of wonder, and when my father returns home swinging his bagful of swine hocks, his ears are assailed with even more. “Wah! Look at this water from the tap!” cries my grandmother, handing him a steaming mug. “So clean and hot you could make coffee with it.” When they walk to the Western General Hospital with my mother to get the blood tests done, bitumen roads are a source of wonder. “Wah! So black and sparkling like the night sky! Rolled flat by machines and not by stones pulled by a hundred people!” When they catch the tram to declare Australian citizenship, the orderliness of the streetscape does not escape my father, who has proudly memorised all the names of the roads, and in the process the chronological order of this colonised country’s monarchs – “King Street, William Street, Queen Street, Elizabeth Street.”

  My parents become pioneers navigating a new land. Although they travelled through three Southeast-Asian countries by foot, nothing can prepare them for travelling up and down escalators. “Go down!” the rest of my family urge my mother. But she stands firmly at the top, blocking off entry for all other embarkers. She stares down at her husband, her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law, who have already arrived at the bottom. “Ahhh. I’m scaaared!” My father finally steps on, growing larger and larger as he approaches the top with a smirk pasted on his face, like a slow zoom in a cheesy Chinese film. “Just step between the yellow lines,” he instructs. “Come on, you’ve gone up before, so you can come down too! Weeee, wahhh, see what fun!” Up and down and down and up they ride the escalators at Highpoint Shopping Centre – this 32-year-old man, his eight-months-pregnant wife, his 27-year-old sister and the old Asian grandmother in the purple woollen pyjamas. Every journey is one small step for Australians, but one giant leap for the Wah-sers.

  The first time my mother walks into a Sims Supermarket, the first moment she sees people loading the trolleys with such habitual nonchalance, she exclaims a long, drawn-out, openmouthed “wahhhh” of wonder. She would not have been surprised if the baby popped out then and there. This enormous warehouse would shock the eyeballs out of the most prosperous families in Phnom Penh! So gleaming spick-and-span clean! Such beautiful food! Such pretty packages! Packed in shelves so high and deep, all the colours so bright and all the lights so white that she does not know where to look. Aunt Que nudges her: “Ay, stop gawking like such a peasant.”

  “Wah, you mean anybody can come into this big food warehouse?” my ma asks in awe.

  “Of course.” Aunt Que has only been here once before. “See that fat man with his bumline showing through his shorts? See those little children with no socks? Anybody!” Even the local thong-wearing loiterer can load up a trolley with these treasures, without needing to pause and calculate because it is all so cheap.

  As my mother wanders and wonders up and down the aisles, she thinks about being the first in her family to see such magic. She thinks about the ones back in Vietnam. She sees her father sleeping on the floor of the monastery, her mother selling bancao at the market. Her skin-and-bones sisters beneath the tap outside with soap powder dripping from their hair. She thinks about the ones back home who are unprocessed and waiting to be processed, unlike the meat that is stacked in tins of twelve in front of her.

  “Fifty cents!” exclaims my Aunt Que. “Look, Kien!”

  “I know,” says my mother, “so cheap, eh? Packed so beautifully, too.” Back in Cambodia, every canned comestible seemed to have some kind of Lucky This-or-That animal plastered on its label. “Lucky Lion Chilli Sauce.” “White Rabbit” candy. “Golden Star Happy Dragon” noodles. My mother looks at my Aunt Que, who is holding a can in her hands and turning it round and round slowly, and she knows that my aunt is thinking of the ones back home too.

  “What do you think, Young Aunt?” my mother finally asks. “Should we buy some hah?”

Yes, let’s buy some,” determines my Aunt Que. “It’s so cheap!”

  Back in our rented weatherboard house in Footscray, my mother cuts the meat up into little pieces and makes a nice stir-fry stew. “It smells so good,” breathes my auntie as she spoons the meal onto a large plate. My mother cannot help but smile with pride. It is only later when my family sees the television commercial that they realise who – or more accurately, what – the meat is for.

  Later that evening, in the bed that fills up the entire small storeroom where they sleep, my mother and father lie thinking about their full tummies. “Wah, who would believe that they feed this good meat to dogs? How lucky to be a dog in this country!” My mother puts her hand on her sticking-out stomach and smiles. Good-oh, she thinks. Her baby is going to be born with lots of Good-O in her. Good stuff.


  “The hospital nearly gave your father a heart attack when you were born,” my mother tells me later. “Your father was at the Migrant Hostel doing his translating job, trying to explain to those countryside Cambodian migrants that the reason that they were so cold in the mornings was because they were meant to sleep under the sheets. Their beds were made so nicely when they first arrived that they thought they were meant to sleep on top of them. They were scared of mucking up the carefully tucked blankets. No one wanted to be shuffled back onto the plane.

  “Your father was trying to tell them that the beds were made to be slept in, when suddenly he was told that he was needed at the hospital. Something must have happened to me, your father thought. Why would a hospital need him? He thought about bringing along his acupuncture needles just in case, but there was no time. When he arrived at the hospital, he discovered that the doctors just wanted him to be there to see the baby come out!” In Cambodia the husbands would usually find a chair and sit in front of the room where babies were being born until they heard the wahwahwah sounds, and it was only then that they would know that the whole messy business was over and they could find out whether the child had the desired dangly bits or not.

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