Good afternoon! I am so happy to be able to join you today! Congratulations on this day! Today is literally, as that saying goes – the first day of the rest of your life!
Today, you will become an American. It is an emotional and long journey for most of you – a day that you and your family will remember for the rest of your lives.
My husband, the United States Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell sends his best wishes to you and your family. The lead person in his office for casework, Patrick Foster, is here. He and his staff are the ones in Mitch’s office who help Kentuckians with their problems with the government – social security, immigration, labor certification, etc. Patrick and his wife, Esther, are the parents of three lovely girls.
I am also a naturalized citizen. I came to America when I was 8 years old. It took 11 years before I received my citizenship. I was 19 when I became a citizen.
I still remember the relief I felt that day. It was as if I had been holding my breath for 11 years, waiting and hoping, along with my family, for the chance to stay permanently in this country, to be able to travel outside the country whenever I wanted, and to carry the blue passport which would give me such status and protection as an American.
But, my story doesn’t begin with me. It begins with my parents, Dr. James S. C. Chao, and Ruth Mulan Chu Chao. My father was born in a small farming village of 10 families outside Shanghai; my mother came from a distinguished family in Anhui Province, China. During their youth, China was torn by civil war, foreign invasions, and economic and political upheaval. We are so lucky to live in a country of stability and peace.
My parents met when my mother and her family relocated from Anhui province to Shanghai in an effort to find safety. They were introduced through mutual schoolmates. But, war disrupted their courtship.
At the height of the Civil War, they both relocated to Taiwan. There, my father looked for her for 2 years. Finally, he found her. They got married and started a family. My father was a young man of great ability. He worked very hard, got promoted quickly, and became one of the youngest sea captains of his time at the age of 29. But life on the sea was difficult for the family because he was often away 10 month of the year at sea. He and my mother wanted to improve their lives. So, he took a national examination, scored #1 and set a new record! With this accomplishment, he wanted to go America to seek greater opportunities for himself and his family. But, he didn’t have documentation for the family. My mother who was then seven months pregnant with their third child was very brave and encouraged him to go. She said she would take care of the family during his absence.
It took 3 long years before my father was able to bring us to America. Our initial years in America were very difficult. We didn’t know anyone – we had no relatives nor friends. We didn’t speak English. We didn’t understand the culture and traditions. We couldn’t eat the food – meat between bread? Like hotdogs and hamburgers so ubiquitous in American cuisine….cheese on flat bread? Pizza? We’ve never seen this kind of food. Barbecues and picnics – cooking and eating outdoors?
But we learned, we adapted. As a sign of confidence in this new country, my parents subsequently had three more daughters. There are six daughters in my family. My sisters are all doing well. We have attended the best universities in America. They have their own families now.
And, it all started with the courage of my parents, James and Ruth Chao, to take charge of their own lives and forge their own futures.
My mother returned home to the Lord on August 2, 2007. This past June 6, 2016, Harvard University dedicated the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center on its campus, the first building named after a woman and the first building named after an Asian American in Harvard’s history. When we landed in America so many years ago, we could never have believed that our family would be where we are today. And, your life will be so much better than you ever imagined possible in America!
I mention my story as an example to reassure you – that all your hard work and sacrifices are worth it. In this land of opportunity – America – anything can happen. You and your family will face a bright future. I remember how afraid I was when I was starting my career. Don’t be afraid. This is a good and decent country. Americans are a welcoming and generous people. You have provided a wonderful foundation for your family for them to soar in this country.
There is a Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao museum exhibit at the University of Louisville in Ekstrom Library. I hope you will visit it. It is not only a story about our lives, how we grew up, how we met….but it’s the story of America. It is YOUR story as well.
Congratulations again! God bless you and your family and God bless America.