Secretary Elaine Chao

 
 
 

How to Enter and Engage More in Mainstream America

Thank you for that very nice introduction.  What a great pleasure it is to be here with you today to celebrate this auspicious occasion!

Congratulations to World Journal on its 40th anniversary!  What a milestone this is!  For so many immigrants, the World Journal is their lifeline to the world.  The World Journal helps immigrants stay connected with the old country, while understanding what is happening in their new country, America, and within their local communities.  Our family has a subscription to World Journal.  It arrives every morning and my father reads it instead of the New York Times! 

Speaking of my father and family, I am so pleased to be accompanied by my father, Dr. James S. C. Chao (趙錫成博士), my sister, May Chao (趙小美), daughter #3, and youngest sister, Angela Chao (趙安吉) daughter #6.  This is the first time all four of us have appeared in public together in decades! 

As I speak to Chinese-American audiences throughout this country, I get lots of questions about my family and how we made the transition from newcomers to mainstream America.  So to help others making this transition, allow me to share the story of my incredibly inspiring parents, Dr. James S. C. Chao and Mrs. Ruth Mulan Chu Chao (趙朱木蘭女士) and their journey to America.  It is a beautiful love story, and I never get tired of sharing it. 

As you may have heard, my mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, and my father, Dr. James S.C. Chao, met each other when they were young people in China.  My father was a young man of great diligence, perseverance, optimism, and promise.  My mother was a beautiful young woman from a prominent family that valued education for girls.  In fact, she was one of the few young women of her generation to receive an education, having attended Ming De Girls High School in Nanjing. 

But my parents lived during a tumultuous time in China, marred by civil unrest and war.  My mother was such a courageous young girl during those difficult times.  I don’t know if I would have had the maturity and calm to do what was asked of her.  At one point, my mother’s family had to flee their native province, leaving everything behind.  My mother was chosen from among everyone in the family to make her way back to the ancestral home to retrieve family valuables.  She was just a young girl, traveling alone on roads filled with desperate refugees and warring troops.  But she was not named Mulan for nothing!  She was brave, stoic and self possessed.  She calmly retrieved the family’s treasures and brought them safely back—she knew they were key to helping her family survive.  All throughout her life, my mother displayed this same strength of character and calm resolve in the face of adversity.  She was the foundation of our family, and there is not a day that goes by when I do not miss her. 


But back to the love story!  In the chaos of those days, my mother and my father left China for Taiwan, taking separate paths.  In most cases, that would have been the end of the story: young lovers are parted by war and never meet again.  But one day my father read a little newspaper story about my mother graduating from school.  He used the clues in the story to search for her until they were reunited.  So finally, at the age of 21, my parents were able to marry.

For the first seven years of their marriage, my father worked as a merchant mariner.  Mother was proud of him as he made steady progress to become one of the youngest acting sea captains in Chinese history at the age of 29.  She was proud of his success despite the fact that his career took him away from home for months at a time.  But my mother managed the household and raised their growing family with love and without complaint.  One of her favorite stories was telling us that when she was about to give birth to me, my father only had time to drop her off at the hospital and then had to rush to board his ship before it sailed!  He was gone for a month, so my father did not see me until I was one month old!  At the time, mother did not know that they would endure many separations—like so many immigrants today.  But that is just the beginning of their story, not the end. 

Like most Chinese, my parents always emphasized education.  My father wanted to pursue higher education so he could advance and find more opportunities.  So he took the National Mariner Examination, scored number one and broke all the records.  The good news was that his achievement received national recognition.  The bad news was that he won the opportunity to come to America, meaning he and his family would be separated again.  So even though my mother was seven months pregnant at the time, and did not know how long he would be gone, she supported my father’s decision to seize this opportunity and go to America.  Just like the little girl sent to retrieve her family’s belongings years ago, she instinctively knew that going to America would open up new opportunities for our family. 

We were separated three long years from my father before he was able to save enough money and get the necessary papers to bring us to America.  We came on a cargo ship instead of an airplane. So once again my father did not see his third child, May – who’s here today – until she was three years old!  Our first home in America was a small apartment in Queens.
  Like all newly arrived immigrants, our initial years in America were challenging.  At that time, there were far fewer Chinese or Asians in America, and not very many in our neighborhood.  In fact, the Asian population in America totaled less than 1% of the overall population.

As you can imagine, we didn’t understand the language or American food:  sandwiches, hamburgers, hot dogs and pizza were foreign to us!  We had a lot to learn about American culture and traditions, and we had no relatives or friends nearby to explain them to us.  But throughout these challenges, my parents always maintained their optimism and hope for a better future.  They worked very hard, did everything themselves, and made many sacrifices so their children would have greater opportunities.  Because we grew up in such a secure and loving family environment, we never doubted our futures would be bright. 

Throughout her life, my mother steadily worked in the background, helping to make our home a place of solace and comfort.  In the 1960’s, Chinese vegetables and condiments were hard to find in supermarkets near our home. So my parents made weekly trips to Chinatown from Queens to buy the necessary food items.  Every night, my mother was able to make delicious and nutritious meals for us.  Our home was modest, but it was a place of comfort, peace and joy.  She made sure that we celebrated all the major Chinese holidays and understood their meaning, in addition to celebrating the American holidays. To this day, I will never forget what a shock Halloween was to us!  Children coming to the door demanding sweets and fruit?  We couldn’t believe it! 

My mother passed along to us her belief in the transforming power of education, especially for girls.  And that’s a good thing because there were six of us!  Her own studies were interrupted by the wars which ravaged China at the time.  But, she never gave up her desire to finish her education.  At the age of 53 years old, she went back to school and earned a Masters degree in Asian Literature and History from St. John’s University in Queens.  Graduation was one of her proudest days!  And she showed us—by example—that it’s never too late to learn. 

Mother also taught us to have pride in our dual heritage as Chinese-Americans.  We never thought it was a conflict to possess Chinese and Western values.  Quite the contrary, my parents taught us to take the best from East and West.  This is quite doable, because there are so many similarities between these two great cultures.  Both Asians and Americans place a high value on the family, share a love of learning, and believe that hard work is the foundation of achievement.

The story of my mother’s courage never seemed to end.  She received the news of her ultimately fatal illness on the same day President Bush announced my nomination as Labor Secretary.  Yet so typical of her modesty and dignity, she said nothing, not wanting to spoil the moment for her family.  She attended my swearing-in at the Oval Office the week she began chemotherapy. Despite the wrenching side effects, she refused to be a victim or to complain.  She said nothing about her pain, not wanting to spoil the atmosphere for everyone else.  After a valiant struggle, my mother passed away August 2, 2007. But, the lessons she and my father taught us will live forever in the hearts of her children and grandchildren.  That’s because they used the most successful teaching method ever known: they taught by example.

As I mentioned earlier, so many things have changed since my family immigrated to America in the 1960s.  Today, Asian Americans are the fastest growing subgroup in America.
Asian Americans now make up 5.8% of the nation’s population, up from less than 1% in 1965.  In 2010, 36% of new immigrants to the U. S. were Asian, up from 19% in 2000. And this shows no sign of slowing down: nearly three-quarters (74%) of Asian-American adults were born abroad.

As the debate on immigration takes center stage, let me note that most Asians in this country are documented, and two-thirds of recent adult Asian immigrants are either college students or college graduates.  In an economy that increasingly relies upon high skilled workers, this bodes well for our country and for the Asians who are immigrating here to work and contribute. 

Let me close by noting again that we are the recipients of two of the world’s great cultures: Asian and American.  As the globalized economy brings us closer and closer together, it is more important than ever before to continue to build bridges of understanding between East and West and to create win-win scenarios that benefit everyone.  It is ironic that as the information revolution brings people together, it also has the potential to create misunderstanding.  So let us be instruments of harmony and set a positive example of giving back and contribution to our country and to the world—just like my parents did for us.

Thank you.