Another Example of Symbolism Over Substance

I’ve lived in Asian for most of the last twenty years in both Vietnam and Malaysia. And while their cultures and histories are varied to say the least, there are some common themes which are obvious to me in many ways. One of these cultural themes which I have experienced on countless occasions in both countries is something I call symbolism over substance.

I ran into it again today as I was taking my son to register for his motorbike license.

Now before I give away the clear example, let me clarify what I mean by symbolism over substance. There are times (many in fact) when an outward gesture or a symbolic overture or a acknowledgement of a procedure is much more important than the actual substance of what we we are talking about. One has to show deference to authority. You don’t have to believe it in your heart. One has to put on an outward show regardless of what you might really think. One has to make symbolic attempts to make it look like something is actually getting done, when it actually isn’t. (Such as the 100 meter bike line symbolically put outside our school which will never be extended, is not used, and regularly used for parking spots for cars. There was a great ceremony when it was put in, however.)

Symbolic gestures is simply more important than having a substantive, and quantitative measurement behind it. And please, don’t get me wrong. This is not a judgment against Asian culture. Not at all. It’s an acknowledgment that east-west have very different cultural orientations. I’ve had to learn how to live with these differences as I’m sure an Asian living in America will have to learn the flip side of the coin.

In today’s episode, we learned that my son will need to attend a lecture on driving theory. It’s six hours long, and it covers all the basics he’ll need to know. Sounds fine and logical. Kind of like a driver’s ed course. Makes sense. Except for one thing: it’s in Bahasa Malaya and not English. My son doesn’t speak Bahasa. They don’t translate. They don’t provide English material. He just has to sit there. The lady at the driver’s school said, “Yes, these six hours mean nothing. You just have to do it to get the certificate.” Others have told me to “make sure your son bring’s his phone or ipad. He’ll get very bored.” It doesn’t matter what he does during that time. He doesn’t have to pay attention, nor is he expected to. He just has to be there to get the certificate.

It reminds me of my friend in Vietnam and one day I asked what she was doing this weekend. She said that she had to take an English test. I said, “What test?”

“Oh,” she replied. “It’s not my test. I need to take it for my cousin. Her English is terrible, but she needs the certificate so she can get a better job. So I’m taking the test for her.”

All right then. Symbolism over substance strikes again.

Using Imagery in Writing: The Example of the Phuong Flower

I’m holding a writing workshop on Monday so I thought I’d unpack a few items I will be talking about. I’ll start with imagery.

When I started writing Beauty Rising, I didn’t want it to be an interconnected mess of episodic writing. I wanted overarching themes and imagery which would, hopefully, drive home what I was getting at while providing a richness that goes beyond mere storytelling.

That was my goal. I won’t begin to give a self-assessment as to whether I achieved that or not. Once again, that’s up to my readers. I will, however, give an example of what I am talking about in hopes it might be helpful to readers of my work or other writers.

The image I want to talk about is the phuong flower.

See Picture of phuong flower HERE!

The phuong flower is one of Vietnam’s most beautiful. In my novel I described it as “… brilliant red in the shape of fan with a serrated edge.”

The phuong flower became a symbol of Martin’s trip to Vietnam. It was the symbol of “the Vietnamese girl he could have gotten if he would have had money.”  He put it in his Vietnam book and looked at it often to remember his dad and his trip to Hanoi.

Then into his life walks My Phuong. The second part of her name means ‘phuong flower’ but also ‘phoenix’ – the mythical bird that rose out of its own ashes.

So I use the imagery of the flower to keep Martin’s thoughts of his dad alive, but also to bring the story along once My Phuong comes on the scene. So whatever happens to the flower in the story becomes very important to what is ultimately going to happen to Martin and My Phuong.

***** Warning! Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t read the book, stop here! *****

So the Phuong flower of a symbol of both My Phuong and his journey for redemption for his dad; it becomes crucial to the story.

In walks his Martin’s mother. His mother lived with a husband who had been emotionally destroyed by the Vietnam war. He left his heart in Vietnam, at the place where he met a special Vietnamese girl, and the place where his comrades died.

So when My Phuong walks into Martin’s life, Martin’s mother makes a determination that she will not allow ‘Vietnam’ to destroy another person in her life. The stakes for her become extremely high. She will do whatever is necessary to keep My Phuong away from Martin.

The imagery and foreshadowing of what is to come is wrapped up in the phuong flower. Martin’s mother discovers a book about Vietnam that Martin has been keeping in the house. She throws it in the trash. In the process, the phuong flower falls out of the book and she throws it in the ‘burn trash’. The flower ends up being destroyed when she burns the trash one evening. The  flower is now nothing but ashes. (Now I’m playing off both the flower imagery and the Phoenix imagery.)

The flower being destroyed is a subtle foreshadowing of what is to become of My Phuong. She will be destroyed by the hands of Martins’s mother.

But out of the ashes of her destruction, Martin will be finally able to rise out of the ashes and shadows of his parents and finally become the man he was meant to be.

So a simple flower petal becomes a powerful and important image which is woven throughout the novel to add richness to the story.

Images, such as this, can be a simple way to add symbolism and interesting depth to any story.