Coming to America

Elaine Chao came to America with her mother and two younger sisters on a cargo ship after a 37-day ocean crossing.  At the age of 8, she entered the third grade, not understanding English.   Her father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, had immigrated to America three years prior to seek better opportunities for the family.  James was born in a small farming village in Jiading District outside Shanghai, to parents who emphasized the importance of education.  An able student, he relied upon scholarships to obtain his education.  He was a popular student leader and an outstanding athlete.  Elaine’s mother, Ruth Mulan Chu, was born in Lai’An County, 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.  Elaine’s parents came of age when Civil War, societal upheaval, and foreign invasions made daily life fraught with hardships, instability, and uncertainty. 

When I was just a little girl my parents  had a dream of a better life that took my father across the Pacific Ocean to a land called America.  Three long years passed before my mother, two sisters and I boarded a cargo ship to join my father here. It brought us to this magical country and reunited our family.

Elaine Chao
Time Magazine

Subsequently, her parents separately relocated to Taiwan.  There, James searched for Ruth for two years before finding her.  They married and started a new life together.  James subsequently became one of the youngest ocean-going captains at the age of 29.  But a merchant mariner’s life was hard, often having to be away at sea for months at a time.  Hoping to find a better life, he took a 4-day National Master Mariner Examination and achieved the highest score ever recorded.  This accomplishment gave him the opportunity to try to go to America to further his studies.  Even though Ruth was then seven months pregnant with their third child and the family didn’t know how long they would be separated, she bravely supported her husband’s decision to seek a better life.  

The family was separated for three long years before James was able to bring Ruth and by then, their three daughters to America.  James did not meet his third daughter until she was three years old.    

Adapting to American life was difficult for the Chao family. They didn’t know anyone and had no friends or family to turn to.  Other kids made fun of Elaine and her sisters.  Every day, Elaine went to school and sat quietly, not understanding anything her teacher or the other students said.  When the teacher wrote on the blackboard, Elaine dutifully copied the strange-looking letters into her notebook.  Every evening, after a long day’s work, James would sit with his eldest daughter, patiently going over each day’s lessons.  And that’s how Elaine Chao learned English.

Despite many challenges, James and Ruth Chao never lost their faith in the promise of America.  Their hope, optimism, and hard work formed the foundation that enabled Elaine and her sisters to thrive in their new country. Throughout their lives, Dr. and Mrs. Chao emphasized the importance of education, family, faith, hard work, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, self-reliance, determination, and contribution to Society.  Dr. and Mrs. Chao are lifelong inspirations to their six daughtersElaine, Jeanette, May, Christine, Grace and Angela.

Dr. and Mrs. James S. C. Chao look lovingly at each other during their reunion in America after a long, three-year separation.
When I entered the workforce, there were not many women, nor many Asian Americans.  So I have pretty much been the “first” in every job I’ve ever had.  But being different has also given me a different perspective, an outsider perspective which makes me a more compassionate, empathetic, stronger leader.
- Elaine Chao
"Women to Watch" Podcast Interview
My parents had confidence that America would offer tremendous opportunities for their daughters, even though they themselves would not know what those opportunities were.
- Elaine Chao
"Women to Watch" Podcast Interview
I have a  picture of my father’s village: huts with thatched roofs, chickens and pigs running around.  I look at that photo and think, if my father can come from that kind of environment and overcome so many difficulties, surely I, as his daughter, can survive.
- Elaine Chao
The Washington Post
I have never forgotten what it feels like to be on the outside looking in.  To feel that sense of vulnerability and fear that we would never find our place in America.
- Elaine Chao
The Washington Post
Leadership is a skill that can be acquired.  You get better with experience and practice.
- Elaine Chao
"Women to Watch" Podcast Interview
I didn’t have a lot of role models, but that didn’t hurt me.  Just because there are no role models doesn’t mean that you can’t be the future role model that you now seek.  Do what you really love and the path forward will unfold.
- Elaine Chao
She had this balanced, quiet confidence that she knew what she believed in, and stood for, and her principles.  But she also understood she had to work with other people and listen to others to get something done.
- Former U. S. Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
Commenting on Elaine Chao’s leadership of the Peace Corps
My goal at United Way was to create a new reverence for integrity and respect for donors.
- Elaine Chao
I remember Secretary Chao just absolutely doing everything possible to help.  In there, you could see her passion and her energy in the way she commits herself to a cause.
- Carlos Gutierrez, 35th United States Secretary of Commerce
On Hurricane Katrina
[U.S. Secretary of Labor] Elaine Chao is showing what government can do in times of crisis – when it has somebody in charge.
- Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Commenting on Secretary Chao's leadership in the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina
Credit Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for easing the restrictions governing the number of successive hours logged by truckers transporting food and other vital materials, and waiving penalties for expired commercial driver’s licenses.
- The Wall Street Journal Editorial
Commenting on actions during COVID-19
Our country’s transportation infrastructure is the underpinning of our world-class economy. It’s a key factor in productivity, and it has provided us with unprecedented mobility, safety, and security.
- Elaine Chao
Truckload Authority Magazine
The Department has invested over $300 billion over the last three and a half years to rebuild, refurbish, and revitalize America’s infrastructure to strengthen America’s economy vitality and competitiveness, job creation and quality of life, so our economy can continue to grow, create good-paying jobs for America’s working families, and enhance our quality of life.
- Elaine Chao
Truckload Authority Magazine
I want to give a big shout out to the truckers of this country because they kept the supply chains open and allowed the rest of us to stay at home safely.  60 percent of freight is carried on trucks, so truckers have done a great job, as have the workers in the railroad sector which carry the remaining 40 percent.
- Elaine Chao
POLITICO Playbook: On the COVID-19 Emergency Response
Secretary Chao is committed to eradicating the horrific act of human trafficking.  The action taken today highlights her commitment to bringing attention to this issue.
- Sherri Garner Brumbaugh, President of Garner Transportation Group
Transport Topics
There is so much innovation occurring in the transportation sector that will restore mobility and freedom to the elderly and the disabled.
- Elaine Chao
Secretary Chao and the Department of Transportation should be commended for again spurring the development of innovative safety technologies.
- Mitch Bainwol
President of Washington D.C. based Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers
Thanks to Secretary Chao’s leadership, this guidance ensures that technological progress will not outpace the formation of key safety policy.
- Chris Spear, President and CEO of American Trucking Association
Transport Topics
We are gratified that the Department of Transportation, under Secretary Chao’s leadership, is promoting public safety and providing regulatory certainty for the self-driving industry.
- Dave Ferguson, Co-Founder and Vice President of Nuro Politico
Venture Beat
Thanks to your (Secretary Chao’s) leadership with the historic Non-Traditional and Emerging Transportation Technology (NETT) Council, we have been able to expand on these developments at the local, state, and federal level.
- Sir Richard Branson
There is nobody better qualified to be Secretary of Transportation than Elaine Chao.  Throughout her time in government, Elaine Chao has long been a steadfast friend to the SIU and to maritime labor.
- Michael Sacco
President of the Seafarers International Union (SIU)
As the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Chao is well aware of the concerns of working people and economic competitiveness.
- Richard White
Acting President and CEO of American Public Transportation Association
Secretary Chao not only understands our industry, but also truly cares about the American worker.  She is a tremendous leader and is universally respected, admired and trusted throughout our industry…
- Seafarers International Union
Secretary Chao brings a depth of varied hands-on transportation policy experience to the table.
- Linda Bauer Darr
President American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association
Rural America has long been overlooked and neglected, and yet a disproportionate number of roadway fatalities occur in rural areas.  So, this is a matter of safety, on top of equity.
- Elaine Chao
Transport Topics
The Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center was given in tribute to the life and legacy of the late (Mrs.) Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, beloved matriarch of this most prominent and accomplished Chinese American family.
- Harvard Business School
On the Announcement of the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center Gift
The Chao family is the embodiment of the American dream.  Giving back in the way they have through public service and philanthropy speaks in equal measure to their individual and family values.
- Nitin Nohria
Dean, Harvard Business School
The story of your [Dr. James S. C. Chao’s] and Ruth’s life journey offers tremendous inspiration to millions around the world.  You both have demonstrated the importance of hope, optimism, hard work and the enduring value of education.
- President Jimmy Carter
39th President of the United States
You [Dr. James S. C. Chao] and Ruth [Mrs. Ruth Mulan Chu Chao] raised a wonderful family, and America has benefited from your immigration to this great country.
- President George H. W. Bush
41st President of the United States
You two [Ruth & James Chao] experienced wars, relocations, and new beginning; and you met these challenges with courage, determination, and love for one another, your family and humanity.  It is a story worth sharing with others, and everyone who learns of your story will be inspired and renewed by your and Ruth’s example.
- President George H. W. Bush
41st President of the United States
This beautiful facility [Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center] is a wonderful tribute to the memory of your [Dr. James S.C. Chao’s] beloved wife and her lifelong commitment to education.
- President Bill Clinton
42nd President of the United States
Arriving in a new country with very little means, the Chao family overcame great hardships and adversity and are now giving back to the country that has blessed them….
- President George W. Bush
43rd President of the United States
[Dr. James S. C. Chao’s] and Ruth’s story is emblematic of the best of America, and you have done so much to improve our country and our world.  Those who learn of your story will find inspiration, courage, and renewal in your family’s journey.
- President Barack Obama
44th President of the United States
I am confident that all who enter this beautiful building [Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center] in the years to come will be inspired by the woman for which it is named.  They will be inspired by her spirit of optimism, hope, and service, and they will try to live a life worthy of the one she led.
- Vice President Joe Biden
You just heard about her [Elaine’s] personal story.  She has done an extraordinary work for this nation, serving multiple administrations.  And I hope she proves to each and every one of you that this is the land of opportunity.
- Vice President Mike Pence
Naturalization ceremony at the White House
We are richer (as a country) because of Asian Pacific American leaders…. Count amount them Elaine Chao, number two in this enormous Department of Transportation.
- President George H.W. Bush
May 7, 1990
I am proud that Elaine served with great distinction as the Secretary of Labor during my Administration.
- President George W. Bush
43rd President of the United States
If you only think about your own advancement, your own success, you run out of steam pretty quickly.  But if we believed in something bigger than ourselves, that kind of motivation is self-sustaining.
- Elaine Chao
43rd President of the United States
What some of you may not know is that she is an absolutely tireless worker when it comes to promoting the American maritime industry.
- Michael Sacco
President of the Seafarers International Union (SIU)
We have come to know her as one of the most respectable women in government.
- Latina Style
Elaine Chao has achieved as much as she has as a workhorse rather than a showhorse.
- The National Ledger
I commend and thank Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who continuously has recognized the value of investing in our community.
- U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart Press Release and The Miami Herald
I applaud Secretary Chao’s leadership in ensuring rural America is included in the national infrastructure conversation.
- U.S. Representative Rick Crawford
Thank you for all your hard work over the last year.  You and your team have done an invaluable service and I greatly appreciate it.
- U.S. Senator Patty Murray
Secretary Chao is a tireless, unwavering advocate of the American maritime industry.  Her effectiveness and commitment to our industry are unsurpassed.  The SIU is proud and humbled to respectfully count her as a friend.
- Seafarers International Union
Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, among the Trump administration’s boldest reformers, instituted a new rule that, as the Wall Street Journal describes it, raises the bar for new regulation.
- Patrick Gleason
Elaine Chao is one of the most effective cabinet secretaries in the Trump Administration.
- Horace Cooper
Elaine Chao should be held up and honored for her incredible accomplishments.  She is the first Asian American woman in U.S. history to be appointed to the presidential cabinet…
- Penny Nance
Daily Caller
[U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine] Chao can boast tangible results from her effort to reform decades-old regulations in dire need of modernization.
- The Weekly Standard
Secretary Elaine Chao boosted Labor’s enforcement office and tightened disclosure rules.
- The Wall Street Journal
Widely acknowledged as the best Transportation Secretary ever for American maritime, Secretary Chao is known for her knowledge about, expertise in, and commitment to U.S. shipping, the epitome of an American maritime hero.
- American Maritime Heroes
I have fought so hard my whole entire life for those who are on the outside.  I have tried to be their voice, and to make sure that there’s equity at the table.
- Elaine Chao
The Washington Post
In an increasingly complex world, it is important to build a team that is inclusive and diverse.  Each person brings his or her own perspective and combined, these multiple perspectives will give leaders a richer understanding of the external environment and come to better solutions.
- Elaine Chao
We all have our experiences, which is why I take great joy in mentoring young people, especially women, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans. Because I understand and remember how hard it was.
- Elaine Chao
USA Today
Our country is so diverse that we are constantly pushing the barriers and the boundaries on what makes a leader.
- Elaine Chao
I think my first interactions were when she first came to be interviewed to serve as a White House Fellow and I was very impressed; a very bright individual, great interpersonal skills and dedicated to excellence.
- The Honorable Elizabeth Dole
Former U.S. Senator, U.S. Secretary of Labor, U.S. Secretary of Transportation
Elaine Chao has to be viewed as one of the great public servants of our time.
- Senator Rob Portman
The Labor Department should be the center of thinking about how to keep American workers prepared for the jobs that are available, not the jobs of the past and that was very much the way Elaine saw her role.
- Condoleezza Rice
66th United States Secretary of State
She also helped reform many of the laws that related to  overtime for white collar workers at a time when our economy didn't look like the old rules – giving increased overtime protection for workers.
- Andy Card
Former White House Chief of Staff
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