Members of Alice Pung's family left China for Cambodia but then fled to Vietnam during the Pol Pot regime. Other family members endured the 'killing fields' before arriving in Vietnam some years later. Alice's parents then moved to Thailand before emigrating to Australia. Alice was born shortly after her parents arrived in this country. Alice's memoir is the story of the survival of the family as they seek sanctuary in another country plus the wonderment of family members at the opportunities available to them in their new home. Over the years other family members join them.
It is a story of assimilation as members of the family adapt to living in Australia but it is easier for some members to adjust to the new life than others. Her father learns English and with the partnership with other family members manages electrical appliance stores. Alice's mother however, largely due to her lack of English, finds her new life especially challenging. Alice, on the other hand, discovers that she is losing her connections to the Chinese language. Sacrifices are made to ensure that the children receive a good education creating additional pressures on the students to do well academically but also to help the family business in any spare time. These pressures faced by children of many immigrant families ensures that the students, although they may do well academically, are always on the fringe at school. Despite these challenges Alice studies law at Melbourne University.
The conflicts between Asian ways, including the demands and expectations of the extended family, and adjusting to the customs of a new country are a major theme of the book.