Opening Ceremony of the McConnell-Chao Archive - Remarks by The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
Given by Secretary Elaine Chao on November 11, 2009 at the University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky
Sen. McCain, Dr. Ramsey, Gary, Debbie, family, friends and of course, the love of my life, Mitch McConnell:
Thank you all so much for being here today. Senator McCain, it is very special and poignant to have you in our Commonwealth on Veterans Day. Your presence and all of your presence here today mean a great deal to me and to Mitch.
When my father arrived in America - alone - the day after Christmas in 1958, he left behind in Taiwan two young daughters, and his beloved young wife, Ruth, who was then seven months pregnant with their third child.
For a young couple of talent, determination, and dreams – even though they lived in a country halfway around the globe – they knew that America was the land of opportunity. When my father scored number one in the national examinations, my parents realized their dream of winning the rare opportunity to come to America. It never occurred to this young couple to delay my father’s departure so he could be present for the birth of his third child. In fact, my brave mother unhesitatingly urged my father to go abroad to seek a better life of opportunities for our family, even though she knew hardships and years of sacrifice lie ahead first.
It took my father three years before he was able to bring my mother, my sisters and me to America. My mother, two sisters and I came to America on a cargo ship as this was the only passage my father could afford. And, yet we considered ourselves the lucky ones because we were ultimately, finally reunited. There were other families who waited many more years before they were reunited, if at all.
Our initial years were very difficult as you can imagine. We didn’t speak the language, we couldn’t eat the food (Chinese are not used to eating sandwiches; we like hot food. Hamburgers and hot dogs, staples of this new country, were so foreign to us.) My father worked three jobs to make ends meet. Looking back at my mother, who was so much younger than I am today, I marvel at how she maneuvered through daily life – how she managed to find the shops, use public transportation, buy food items labeled in English when she didn’t speak nor read the language. Yet, somehow aided by her deep faith in the Lord, she succeeded in making our home a haven of love and security.
We had such humble dreams when we first arrived. We lived in a small one bedroom apartment in Queens, New York, in an immigrant enclave with primarily other new arrivals. Mainstream America was a world away.
Like so many Chinese who endured 20th century Chinese history, my parents witnessed the worst in humanity, societal upheaval, domestic chaos, civil war, foreign invasion, forced departure from the land of their birth and having to adapt to foreign lands. Yet, they never lost their optimism and faith in the basic goodness in people. And, through all the adversity, they never lost their faith in America’s promise of opportunity for all.
The archives we are here to inaugurate today note these stories not to emphasize my family but to remind that indeed, our family’s story is one of millions that mark the history of this great country. These stories are told with the hope that they give hope and inspiration to those who live in this wonderful land that allows anyone of any background who is willing to work hard, dream, and never give up to realize the American dream. We hope the archives will remind visitors and future leaders of our Commonwealth of the unique country we live in and how lucky we are to live in a land of freedom and opportunity.
I have traveled throughout the world as Director of the Peace Corps, President and CEO of United Way of America. Nowhere else in the world is there a country of greater tolerance, freedom, and opportunities. Even today, especially today.
I am an adopted daughter of Kentucky and I am proud to be a Kentuckian. I am proud of my husband, Mitch McConnell, for his leadership in the United States Senate and for having the fortitude and strength to carry his beliefs into building a better America for all of us. We are blessed to have leaders like Senator McCain who sacrificed grievously and who has dedicated his entire life to protect our country and our liberties. Great leaders must understand themselves, and their environment. The purpose of this archive is to contribute to the cultivation of new generations of great leaders to lead our beloved Commonwealth.
On a personal note, I am also grateful to be the daughter of Ruth and James Chao, community leaders, philanthropists and true patriots who – in a blind leap of faith - moved halfway around the world because they believed that America would offer great opportunities for their daughters - even though they could never have imagined what those opportunities would be when we first landed on these shores.
My father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, and my sister, Grace Chao, and her husband, Gordon Hartogensis have traveled from New York to be with us. I hope you will let me acknowledge them and give them a hearty Kentucky welcome.