Imported Gems

The migrant experience has been the topic of libraries full of books: some good, some poor; some true, some fictionalised. The archetypal story sees a family or an individual leaving behind a country troubled by famine or war or oppression to seek a better life. On arrival in their new homeland, they work hard to establish themselves but encounter linguistic and cultural difficulties, if not open racism. Eventually they triumph through a mixture of assimilation, ethnic pride and hard work.

For nations built predominantly by migration, such as Australia, Canada or the United States, these stories are part of the founding myths: the tales of Pilgrim Fathers, Huguenots, Irish potato-farmers and Eastern European peasants. Yet the stories have become possibly more dramatic as the twentieth century brought with it unprecedented levels of dislocation. The refugees since World War II have been almost of a different kind: more different to the people they are joining than previous groups and scarred by atrocities that their new neighbours cannot even conceive.

Australia, a nation that a mere forty years ago was excluding migrants on the basis of skin colour, has had a troubled relationship with these newer arrivals. The influx of Vietnamese and Cambodians in the 1970s and 1980s was met with caution and even hostility. Yet those who fled Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot have been in Australia for a generation and have adult children born and raised in Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne.

Unpolished Gem
by Alice Pung
Black Inc Books
August 2006, 304 pages

Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem tells the story of one such second-generation Australian. This slight remove from the typical migrant experience is apparent from the first sentence: “This story does not begin on a boat.” As a twenty-something, born after her parents’ arrival in Australia, Pung’s experience has been one of tension between family and environment. This memoir tells the story of growing up in a Cambodian Chinese household in western Melbourne and straining under the expectations and rules of a family partially disconnected from the surrounding culture. Unpolished Gem tells the story of a girl finding an identity as someone both Asian and Australian. As the old cliché goes, she had to learn to live between two worlds.

Pung’s book is remarkable for its flair and its eye for the little quirks of migrant life: the grandmother and her disbelieving gratitude for government pensions; and the family’s progression from hostels and charity clothing to suburban one-upmanship. Her depictions of family members are affectionate but cutting. The fact that she has written this memoir while both parents are still living is courageous, to say the least.

Similar in many ways is Nam Le’s story “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”, published in Zoetrope: All Story in 2006 and collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. The title of the anthology suggests something interesting: Nam Le is a Vietnamese-born Australian, now living in the USA.

“Love and Honour” tells of a young Vietnamese Australian writer studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (as the author did) and receiving a visit from his elderly father. The narrator is reluctant to write stories about migrant life or Vietnam, preferring zombie fiction. Even as he tries to capture his father’s stories of war-time Vietnam as a response to writers’ block, he is conflicted.

This is a dilemma common to many second-generation migrant writers. They have spent much of their lives fighting against stereotypes and seeking to define a new identity as something more (but not less) than the children of foreigners. The last thing that a talented young writer wants is to be pigeonholed as an “ethnic” voice, with all the restrictions that would entail. Yet at the same time, these stories are part of their make-up, defining who these writers are. The best path seems to be to write about it once and then move on.

I can only suppose that Alice Pung’s next book will be about zombies.