After the attacks of 9/11, Hui Chen, then an attorney for Microsoft, volunteered to work at a family assistance center, set up to help victims’ families. Her job involved helping next-of-kin obtain death certificates, and it changed her life.
One effect of the experience was an examination of what exactly family is. "We ran into situations where someone was estranged, in the middle of a bitter divorce," she recounts. "The parents would come in, but we couldn’t do anything about it." It was the spouse, possibly the deceased’s least favorite person, who had to file all the papers, who could claim the remains.
As she observed the range of people coming through the center, she also took note of her emotional reactions — and those of her fellow volunteers.
"When people came in and said ‘I lost my spouse,’ we assumed that they had lost a part of themselves. When they said, ‘I lost my fiance,’ we assumed that they had lost a promise. When they said, ‘I lost my partner,’ it felt different. It gave me perspective on what that little piece of paper means."
These musings led Chen, now a third year student at the Princeton Theological Seminary, to organize a full-day of seminars on marriage. It takes place on Thursday, February 18, at 8:30 a.m. The first session is held at Mercer County College’s Conference Center. The second two, at 2 p.m. and at 7 p.m., take place at the seminary’s Princeton campus. The price for each seminar is $25. Call 609-586-9446 for more information.
Speakers look at the full range of family options, including gay marriage, and cohabitation without benefit of "that little piece of paper."
Fascinated by what marriage means, Chen recently boiled it down for a young man she met at church, a fellow who had been with his girlfriend for three years, but was uncertain of whether to marry or not. What does marriage mean? he asked. Given her post-9/11 experience, it is not surprising that Chen answered, "It means that she won’t get your ashes. It means that if you’re unconscious she won’t have a say in turning the machine off."
On a more mundane scale, there is a balance between freedom and partnership. This is something Chen — and her single 30-something friends — weigh all the time, and it represents perhaps the biggest social shift of the early-21st century. "There are so many things I love about my single life," she says. "I’m job hunting now, and I don’t have to take anyone else’s career into consideration."
She has formed a close group of friends, and says that such support is essential to a happy single life. She thinks that television does a good job in portraying the phenomenon on shows like "Sex and the City," "Friends," and "Will and Grace," pointing out that the relationships "really are families." But while Chen, like the TV sidekicks, enjoys the bonds formed by groups of close friends, she is at least somewhat attracted to the benefits of a lifelong partnership. Of one thing she is sure: "I’m happy with my life now. It would have to be someone who could add to that. It would have to be a value-added proposition. I won’t settle."
Chen has not settled in any other aspect of her life, but rather has found abundant delight in her work, and has moved on before anything like tedium sets in. A native of Taiwan, she came to the United States at age 10. Her father, an airline pilot, moved the family to Ohio looking for work. After a year or so, however, he decided that all of the re-licensing the shift would require was not worth it. So the family returned to Taiwan, where her mother’s varied career interests included writing and co-founding the first health food store on the island. But Chen returned in two years, at age 13, to attend the
Pennington School, where she is now president of the alumni association.
"It was trendy among my parents’ friends to send their children to the United States when they were young, and more able to adapt to the language and the culture," she says.
Chen earned her undergraduate degree at the University of California at Berkeley (Class of 1988) and her law degree from UCLA. Then it was on to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Justice Department, specializing in organized crime and in international affairs, especially in regards to Mexico and Russia. Then in New York, she worked for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, mostly on narcotics and terrorism cases.
A headhunter came knocking in 1997, and Chen joined Microsoft in Europe. Posted to Munich, she became the corporation’s regulatory attorney for central and eastern Europe. Three years later she came back to New York, taking similar position for the eastern United States. The work was not as interesting as it had been in Europe, and she was beginning to cast around for a change even before 9/11. The strongest possibility was teaching at a law school. She had already been approached about positions, and was leaning in that direction.
Upon returning to the States, she had also decided to take a more active role in her church. During her volunteer work she combined ministry with law. "People were devastated," she says. Nearly all of the families with whom she worked were either Christian or Jewish. She offered to pray with all of them. "They all accepted," she says.
One day a new widow and her 15-year-old daughter came in. "I ended the prayer the way I always did," she recalls. "I said ‘please give them the hope that comes from your resurrection.’" In this instance she got a reaction she had not seen before. "The girl looked me right in the eye and said ‘Do you believe that?’ I thought about it, and it hit me. I said ‘I think I have to say yes.’"
Shortly thereafter, Chen, emotionally exhausted from her work at the family center, went to see her minister. After she recounted what she had seen, and how she had tried to help, her minister said, "’I feel you are showing a passion for the ministry.’
"Never in my life had I thought about it," says Chen. But in less than a year she had enrolled in the seminary.
Her parents, now retired in Lawrenceville, were "shocked," she reports. And while they have adjusted to her career shift, they are still restive about her marital state, or lack of same. "They’re very traditional," she says. "They were married in their 20s." Does she talk to them about marriage? "They talk to me!" she says. While Chen is ambivalent about "the little piece of paper," her parents are unambiguously pushing for a walk down the aisle.