Secretary Elaine Chao


American by Choice Award

Director Gonzales, Principal Teitel, faculty, students, the Honor Guard from Lt B. R. Kimlau Memorial Post 1291, family and friends of the new citizens, and new citizens:

Congratulations! You are now an American citizen!

What precious words these are! Most of you have worked all your life, daring to dream that someday, you would be a citizen of this wonderful country of freedom and opportunity.

Today, your dream comes true. You are a bona fide American. From now on, wherever you go, anywhere in the world, you can proudly claim the mantle of being an American.

And, today is a day you will remember for the rest of your life.

As you’ve heard, I am an immigrant as well. I came to America with my mother and two sisters when I was eight years old.

My father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, and mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, are Americans of Chinese descent. They grew up in early 20th Century China ,which was buffeted with domestic turmoil, natural disasters, foreign invasions, instability and insecurity.

In 1949, after the Civil War, they resettled in Taiwan. There, they met, got married and had three children. When my mother was seven months pregnant with my third sister, my father had an opportunity to come to the United States. He had scored number one in the national examinations, was written up in the newspapers, and a benefactor offered to sponsor him for study in the United States.

Did my young parents hesitate? Because my mother was seven months’ pregnant? No! Of course not!

In fact, my mother encouraged my father to go to America to pursue a life of greater opportunity for our family.

My father left the day after Christmas and landed in the United States without friends or family. He rented a room in an apartment of an elderly American woman in a deteriorating neighborhood on the upper west side. He tried to study but the universities would not admit him because he couldn’t produce his college transcripts, which were impossible to obtain in a China closed to the world.

With his hard earned dollars, he was allowed to enroll in Colombia University, but only as an “audit” student. He did not understand that this status would never lead to a formal degree.

Meanwhile, my mother wrote him faithfully every day. But, not understanding English, she didn’t copy the address in English correctly.

For six months in this new country, my father, alone and despondent, heard nothing from my mother.

Few people in Asia had telephones in those days. How worried he was. I don’t know how he did it, but he kept on going.

Three long years separated my father from our family before he was able to save enough resources to bring us to America.

Even so, all he could afford was passage for us aboard a cargo ship. So, my mother, sisters and I sailed from Kaoshiung to Tokyo Bay across the Pacific Ocean, stopping in Los Angeles, across the Panama Canal, up the east coast and landed at New York Harbor, a sea journey of over 11,000 nautical miles.

But, the distance didn’t faze us. We were so excited to finally arrive at our new home and to be reunited with our father.

Our first home was a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York. We had an elderly woman living below our apartment. Whenever my sisters and I would make a little noise, she’d take her broom and bang the ceiling to tell us to quiet down.

My mother, sisters and I didn’t speak English. Looking back, I don’t know how my mother managed to survive daily life.

How did she manage to go to the supermarket with her meager budget to do the weekly shopping when she didn’t read or speak English?

How did she manage to cook delicious Chinese meals when supermarkets then did not sell Chinese vegetables or ingredients?

How did she get the courage to maneuver the unfamiliar streets? With three little kids in tow, no less.

There were no family or friends who could help us. Gradually, we found other Chinese immigrants and joined a Chinese Church whose members provided help and support.

The initial years, I don’t have to tell you, were very difficult.

And, we endured a wait of over 10 years to get our citizenship papers.

Later, wherever I’ve traveled around the world, as Peace Corps Director and as Deputy Secretary of Transportation, local people sometimes thought all American officials looked the same — not like me. When they found out I am an American, they would treat me with respect and admiration.

I share these stories with you because I know you have similar stories of hardship and sacrifice of your own. You know what I am talking about when I mention the difficulties and challenges because you’ve experienced through them, too.

A wonderful gift has been bestowed upon you today — American citizenship. I know that, each of you, in your own way, will find the American dream and America’s promise of opportunity.

You are all Americans by Choice.

Although I am being recognized today as an “American by Choice”, I’m not really the one who should be honored because I didn’t really make the decision. The person who really made the courageous and momentous decision to come to America was my mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao who encouraged and supported my father to come to America first.

She had a comfortable life in Asia yet she saw her husband, a young man of promise and talent, and knew that he’d find better opportunities for himself and our family in America. She had faith in the promise of America.

My mother, father and I were invited to participate in this ceremony in 2006, but because my mother was very ill at the time, we could not. I had hoped that by delaying our participation, my mother would recover and all three of us could be here together.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. My mother returned home to the Lord last August 2, 2007 after a 7-year brave and valiant struggle against lymphoma.

Selfless and beloved, my mother is the foundation of our family. Because of her choices, her sacrifices, our family has been able to achieve what we have. It was her courage, independent spirit, sense of adventure, and love for her family that enabled her to survive in this new country.

So I am here today on behalf of my mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao. I dedicate this special recognition to her because without her our family would not be where we are today and I would not be where I am today.

Thank you. God bless you and God bless America.