Childhood & Family

An immigrant to this country, Elaine L. Chao arrived in this country at the age of eight, speaking no English. Her parents are Americans of Chinese descent who lived through the turmoil and tragedy that was 20th century China. Her father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, was born in a small farming village in Jiading District outside Shanghai. His parents emphasized the value of education. An able student, Dr. Chao won many scholarships. He was also a popular student leader and an outstanding athlete. Her mother, Ruth Mulan Chu, was born in Anhui province, to a distinguished and progressive family that believed in the education of women. Ruth and her sisters were educated at the well-known Ming De Christian Middle School for Girls in Nanjing. Both her parents grew up in an era marked with political turmoil, societal upheaval, foreign invasions and civil war where life was fraught with hardships, instability, and uncertainty. All they sought was peace and safety. The war destroyed everything.

Subsequently, her parents separately relocated to Taiwan. There, they met again, got married and started a new life together. By the mid-1950’s, Dr. Chao had advanced with unprecedented speed through the ranks to become one of the youngest ocean-going sea captains at the age of 29. In 1958, he shattered all previous records in Taiwan by achieving the highest score ever on the national Master Mariner Examination. This accomplishment singled him out for further studies abroad. Even though Mrs. Chao was then seven months pregnant with their third child and did not know how long the family would be separated, she unhesitatingly supported her husband’s decision to go to America to seek greater opportunities for the family.

The family was separated for three long years before James was able to bring Mrs. Chao and their daughters, Elaine, Jeanette, and May to America.

Ruth and the girls traveled aboard a cargo ship. The ocean journey from Asia to America took 37 days and was difficult and sometimes terrifying. Halfway across the Pacific Ocean, Elaine’s little sister, May, fell desperately ill. With no doctor on the ship, for three days and nights, all Ruth could do was bathe her youngest child with cold water in hopes of breaking her fever.

May recovered, and with their journey at its end, a new life beckoned. Adapting to American life was difficult for the Chao family and third-grader Elaine. They didn’t know anyone and had no friends or family to turn to. Every day, Elaine went to school and sat quietly, not understanding anything her teacher or the other students said. When the teacher wrote information on the blackboard, Elaine dutifully copied the strange-looking letters into her notebook. Every evening, after a long day’s work, Dr. Chao would sit with his eldest daughter, patiently going back over each day’s lessons. And that’s how Elaine Chao learned English.

Despite many challenges, James and Ruth Chao never lost their steadfast belief in the promise of America. That hope, optimism and the close-knit family they created provided the foundation that empowered Elaine and her sisters to thrive in their new country. Throughout their lives, Dr. and Mrs. Chao emphasized the importance of family, faith, education, hard work, self -discipline, self-sacrifice, self-reliance, determination, service and contribution to their community and Society. Dr. and Mrs. Chao are lifelong inspirations to their daughters – Elaine, Jeanette, May, Christine, Grace and Angela.

“When I was just a little girl my father had a dream of a better life for our family that took him across the Pacific Ocean to a land called America. Three long years passed and I boarded a freighter to join my father here. It wasn’t the Mayflower, it wasn’t the love boat, but it brought us to this magical country and reunited our family. ”

Elaine Chao