One of the best things about Melbourne is its multiculturalism, so this memoir is an appropriate start to a Month of Melbourne! A lot of great art and writing has been coming out of Melbourne’s West lately, of which this book is an example: this is the true story of a young girl of Cambodian-Chinese background growing up in Melbourne’s West (Footscray and then Braybrook), and struggling between two cultural worlds, both of which exert a lot of pressure on her. As well as having been possibly the cutest kid ever (see photo on cover), Pung is a talented writer with a distinctive voice – and she’s funny. She can really see the lighter side of dire situations. With finesse she highlights the absurdities, the clashes of cultures and the misunderstandings that occur when people migrate from one land to another. She paints lively portraits of her immediate and extended family and makes us see Melbourne and its suburbs through fresh eyes – the eyes of her parents, the first generation immigrants and refugees, relieved to have escaped the tragedies of Cambodia and not yet jaded about such First World wonders as the ‘little green man’ who tells you when to cross the road:
This 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…
Australia does not, of course, turn out to be quite the rich utopia it seems at first: there is loneliness and racism and marginalisation to contend with. Pung’s family tries valiantly to ‘fit in’, as she describes:
We are trying to assimilate, to not stand out from the neighbours, to not bring shame to our whole race by carrying over certain habits from the old country, such as growing chickens in the backyard or keeping goats as pets.
(It’s interesting that we are currently in a time when keeping chickens in the backyard is becoming increasingly popular and seen as the height of environmental responsibility! Back then, it was just a mark of ethnic ‘otherness’.)
Pung set out to write a non-typical Asian memoir – it’s not about fleeing Cambodia’s war or Mao’s cultural revolution or any other dramatic world-changing event, but about the domestic (yet still dramatic) events of a life lived in the suburbs. As she explains in an interview:
I thought, damn it, I’m going to write a book about yellow people aspiring to become white middle class! It’s not going to start with the struggles of war, but something more ironically Marxist – it would be about a working class family and their petit bourgeois dreams. And damn those who perpetuate the stereotype of the joyless Asian. My characters are going to laugh…
And this memoir strikes just the right balance between humour and pathos: Alice is a spunky, strong character who tries to be a hero for everyone in her life and live up to the weighty hopes of new migrants that their children will have every opportunity that they were denied. Alice is both extraordinarily brave and an ordinary, vulnerable girl, and we follow her development through a series of increasingly posh schools (government school, Catholic school, selective school, Grammar school), proceeding dutifully up the steps from working- to middle-class. Of course, the moment she draws breath the middle-class dream starts to crack – especially when it becomes clear that no amount of study and perfect scores will gain a non-Anglo person anything other than ‘outsider’ status among the privileged partying blondness of the grammar school top cliques (think Ja’mie in Summer Heights High!).
The teenaged Alice struggles valiantly and, at times, comically to achieve academic results and be the perfect supportive daughter at the same time, helping out regularly in the family electrical appliances business. But all this perfection comes at a cost and before she can sit her Year 12 exams she finds herself having a nervous breakdown…
I was seventeen, and all the right things seemed to happen to me at the right time. I had got into a good school. I got the usual Asian High-Achiever marks. I had even been asked out by a boy. But the “right” things, like everything else in my life, had their false, unsettling undertones…
Although told with a gentle voice, this memoir contains some serious messages about valuing the human person over the academic achievements. It also leads the reader to a greater appreciation of the first- and second-generation migrants who contribute to, but don’t reap, the full benefits of Australia’s prosperity. A particularly timely reminder is to be had in the fact that, as Pung has described elsewhere, Pung’s father paid a people smuggler to come to Australia in the first place. This is the reality of war and dispossession that Australians need to understand: if you’re not justified in paying a people smuggler to get away from the Cambodian killing fields, when are you ever justified? Anyway, without such movement of people Australia wouldn’t have had the fabulous Ms Pung! Now, that’s a sad thought.
Free the Refugees.
Verdict: Witty and intelligent memoir of growing up Asian in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Entertaining, with serious food for thought.
Read more: Pung edited a collection of essays on a similar theme, called Growing up Asian in Australia (2008), and she’s just recently filled in the details of her father’s horrific experience in Cambodia, in Her Father’s Daughter (2011). See her website for details.