Sunday, 12 August 2007

Unpolished Gem - THANK YOU, ALICE!

Years upon years ago, when I read books the likes of Amy Tan's Kitchen Gods Wife, and Jung Chang's Wild Swans, I appreciated their voices in bringing forward to a wider audience the trials and tribulations of Confucian-Chinese culture. However, after reading a handful of these books, I quickly tired of all the moaning and groaning, and misty euphemisms.

Then I chanced upon Claire S Chow's, Leaving Deep Water: Asian American Women at the Crossroads of Two Cultures, which was a better effort. Less moaning and groaning but still, not enough bite for my liking. After all, so much of the culture is insane and I had yet to find a voice that truly captured the absurd within the culture: 'love' and 'affection' being largely governed by money, different treatment between boys and girls, troubled relationships among family members, philandering men, filial piety i.e. people older than you demanding respect just because they're older than you, even if they behave like asses - and that's an insult to the four-legged kind, emotionally distant adults, physical and/or psychological abuse and nutty politics among parents, children and extended family, the list goes on.

No doubt, these are not problems that are exclusively the realm of Confucian-Chinese families. But there must be something to it when, after thinking carefully through the yellow families that I have met and known well in the countries in which I have lived, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia (I didn't have close contact with local families in Shanghai, hence the exclusion), and listening to the stories of friends over the years, I can only identify three families in which the parents and children truly loved each other and enjoyed each other's company without all the usual-suspect shenanigans: and one of them was a Canadian family with a yellow dad and white mum, so they were always a somewhat different equation.


So, my search continued for voices that told it like it was. I eventually found this gem. Yell-Oh Girls! Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American by Vickie Nam. Women engaged in the balancing act between two cultures, telling it like it was. Rough, ugly, angry, funny and hopeful.

I have since waited for an Australian voice the likes of the women in Yell-Oh Girls! My 7-year wait recently ended in the form of Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung. Here it is: an intelligent Aussie woman telling it like it is. My experience of growing up Yell-Oh in Australia is different from hers. We come from very different backgrounds, but there are similar themes that I immediately identify with as I read her words.

The best line I have read so far is, "
Constantly sighing and lying and dying - that is what being a Chinese woman means, and I want nothing to do with it." :D

And another gem, "To raise a girl, I realised, you'd need gallons of Social Conditioner with added Spirit Deflator. Rub onto every limb until limp, put the child into a chair and wait until she sets. When appendages harden, you know you have a perfect young woman - so still and silent and sedate that you could wrap your precious one in cotton wool and put her in a cabinet. Ah, look at the darling geisha behind glass."

More links: a description of Alice which made me smile, written by a lady who met her at a reading - Unpretentious Gem

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