Symbol for Success

We all want to be successful whether or not it involves materialistic wealth. In striving for success, we often have something to symbolize our achievement or the path to reach that goal. It can be something as small as a baby taking his or her first step with little help, or something as big as owning a new car. Whatever that symbol is, it helps us to bear the weight of achieving success. Published in 2007 and written by Charles N. Darrah, James M. Freeman, and J.A. English-Lueck, the book, Busier Than Ever!: Why American Families Can’t Slow Down, studied 14 families in Silicon Valley. The focus of the study was on the “conventional views of the relationship between work and family” (247). One of the topics these anthropologists came across was the use of material things, such as places and objects, as buffers of busyness. They found that these material things helped families to cope with their busy lives regardless of the negative connotations that came with them.

In the case of a Vietnamese family, the Trans, it was their catering truck. The truck symbolized their path to success, both in economic and familial terms. Economically, the catering truck gave both parents, Binh and Sheila, the chance to have their own family business and provided a route to purchasing a new house and cars. This insured their family success as well. Both parents wanted their family to remain close together under one roof and retain “Vietnamese values and practices” (188). They worked hard, instilling the ethics of hard work in their children and hoped that one day, the act would be repaid. However, things did not always turn out well: the catering business was competitive, and the route Binh and Sheila chose brought in little income. The number of customers was also heavily dependent on the economy, and Binh had to take on small side jobs to help pay for truck repairs. In the end, their catering business failed, and they had to find other jobs to support their family.

By studying the Trans family, the anthropologists attempted to show that the need for materialistic things is not always a bad thing. If it helps to cut back on how busy we are as humans, then so be it. Material objects are “[valued] for what they might allow us to do” (193). We do not necessarily want them because it is in our nature, but because they convey something about us or to us. The use of the catering truck was the Trans’ way of reflecting upon themselves what they had achieved and what they are capable of achieving. Binh and Sheila were so caught up in trying to provide for their family and becoming economically secure that their worries about having a secured future were subdued with the purchase of the truck. It became the anchor that further helped them strive for success.

Family-wise, the Trans family still had each other. Both Binh and Sheila had made their dreams vivid enough that their children were pursuing their own dreams. Their oldest child, Ron, “wanted to make [his] Dad proud” by completing his education, getting a job, and “live with [his] parents” (188). Binh and Sheila’s children did not feel that hope was lost when their parents gave up on the catering business. In fact, they had more reason to move forward. The Trans had carried and passed on their Vietnamese values to their children. As much as the catering truck helped the Trans combat a busy lifestyle, it also secured their family together as one.

Drawing from my own experiences, I can say that the use of materialistic things as symbols of success is quite accurate. My parents, just like the Trans, worked hard and taught the rest of our family that hard work was important and family should remain close. The main driver was my father, who wanted to own a new home with new cars lined up in the garage. Just like the catering truck, owning a new house was my father’s symbol of success. It marked a big step forward in his vision of achieving the American dream. After 10 years of working at a job that barely paid above the minimum wage, my father took his chances and bought a newly built two-story house. The “good” times prevailed for a few years until my parents could no longer make the house payments and our house fell into foreclosure. Similar to the Trans family, we had embarked on this vision of success without knowing the repercussions.

In terms of familial success, we still had each other. We felt motivated to get a good education and provide for our parents as they had done for us. Although there was the loss of the new home and my parents’ life savings, having possession of the house provided a sort of relief. It showed us that trying to reach the American dream and moving upward on the societal scale was possible. The loss of the house, if anything, only motivated us to be stronger. My parents’ unconditional love and hard work really had an effect on us despite the hardships that the house may have imposed on us financially.

So for once, maybe it is not all that bad to have materialistic things as symbols of reaching for success. The material object really is the thing that anchors us and allows us to continue our path to success, however we define it. It is the symbol that gives us the energy to work hard and move past hardships that others would look at differently. In some ways, we are also able to use material objects to help us cope with our loss. So really, we cannot always stick a bad name to an item of use, when sometimes it is all we have to move forward.

by Chi Chang

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