Florence Chen, partner at the Yau Law Firm in Jacksonville, Fla., is a second generation Chinese-American and a current member of the Florida Bar. Chen visited Jacksonville District May 16 to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. She shared her insights on being raised by a ‘tiger mom’ and how it impacted her career and cultural values.
“I never thought about the differences between [me and] someone else until being asked to come here…I’ve never been asked to speak about my ethnic background,” said Chen.
Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published in 2011, shocking many Americans with a look inside the authoritarian style of parenting common to the Asian culture. The book recounts instances of forcing her seven-year-old daughter to practice the piano for hours without a bathroom break and rejecting the birthday card her daughter made for her, because she felt enough thought and effort hadn’t been put into it.
Chen was raised in a similar environment, and she explained the concept of ‘face’ in the Asian culture. Face is earned through social standing, academic prowess, employment and marriage. Asian children are expected to go to the top schools, be the best in the class and receive first place in awards ceremonies. They are only to associate with good people, to bring honor to their families. They must pursue a position of prestige, such as doctor, engineer or lawyer. Their choice of spouse directly reflects on their family.
Historically, passing the Imperial Exams in China was considered a ticket out of poverty. Over the centuries these collective memories didn’t fade. Individuality was considered counter-revolutionary and education a top priority.
The Chen children constantly wanted to impress their tiger parents, but their parents were exceedingly difficult to please. Coming in second place and earning almost straight As was never enough. In the Chen household there was a belief that there are two kinds of children: the obedient kind and the kind that lived on the street.
Chen never saw herself as a minority, and said she was treated the same as everyone else. It was not until law school that she saw differences, while studying individual and constitutional rights.
Her parents pushed math and science careers so she could make top dollar. Finally, resigned to the fact that math was not her skill, they said, “If you can’t become a doctor, be a lawyer.” Instead, she spent years pursuing her passion, wanting to be an actress and studying broadcast journalism at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah before deciding to become a lawyer.
Neither her parents’ persistence, nor her need to make them proud led her to this decision. It was after seeing the injustice of human trafficking while in San Francisco that she knew she needed to become involved in fighting against it by practicing law.
“My childhood may have been lost, but it was regained two-fold as an adult,” said Chen.