Elaine Chao’s jour­ney


Elaine Chao was 8 years old and un­able to speak English when she ar­rived in the United States after a jour­ney from Tai­wan on a freighter.

She wasn’t alone on that 37day trip in 1961. With her were her younger sis­ters, Jeanette and May, and their mother, Mu­lan Chu Chao.

And await­ing them in Queens, New York City was the girls’ father and Mu­lan’s hus­band, James Si-Cheng Chao, who had saved enough money and filed all the pa­per­work to bring the fam­ily to the US three years after say­ing good­bye to them.

He had be­come a sea cap­tain in Tai­wan, and re­ceived the high­est-ever score on the Mas­ter Mariner Ex­am­i­na­tion. He was selected to study abroad and had to leave his fam­ily in Tai­wan to go to the US.

The fam­ily joined James, who had en­rolled as a stu­dent at St. John’s Uni­ver­sity, and later founded a ship­ping com­pany, what is now the Fore­most Group, an in­ter­na­tion­ally re­spected ship­ping com­pany in New York. They set­tled in Ja­maica, Queens, liv­ing in a one-bed­room apart­ment.

While in Amer­ica, Ruth gave birth to three more daugh­ters: Chris­tine, Grace, and An­gela. When the ship­ping com­pany pros­pered, the fam­ily moved to af­flu­ent Westch­ester County north of New York City.

Al­most one year ago, on Dec 12, Elaine Chao and sis­ters May and An­gela, all grad­u­ates of Har­vard Business School, re­turned to Queens with their father and talked about the strug­gle of Chi­nese im­mi­grants in the US.

“They make many sac­ri­fices, so their chil­dren can have greater op­por­tu­ni­ties,” said Elaine Chao, dur­ing the 40th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of the World Jour­nal, a Chi­ne­se­lan­guage news­pa­per serv­ing overseas Chi­nese in North Amer­ica, at the Sheraton ho­tel in Queens.

Stand­ing on the stage with a back­drop of “THE AMER­I­CAN DREAM” in red and blue, Elaine Chao, the first Asian-Amer­i­can woman in US his­tory to be ap­pointed to a US pres­i­dent’s cab­i­net, shared sto­ries of her fam­ily’s im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence.

She re­called the years her mother raised her and her sis­ters in Tai­wan while her father pur­sued a fu­ture in Amer­ica.

“My father did not see his third daugh­ter, Xiaomei, un­til she was 3 years old,” said Elaine Chao, the old­est of the six sis­ters.

“At that time, there were so few Chi­nese, Asians in Amer­ica,” she said. “We didn’t un­der­stand the lan­guage; we couldn’t eat the food; we didn’t un­der­stand the cul­ture or the tra­di­tions; we had no friends or rel­a­tives nearby. But through­out all th­ese chal­lenges, my par­ents al­ways main­tained op­ti­mism - their hope for a bet­ter fu­ture.”

Her par­ents com­muted to Man­hat­tan’s Chi­na­town ev­ery week for food and in­gre­di­ents, and her mother brought out de­li­cious dishes to the dining ta­ble in their first, tiny apart­ment in Queens.

“We grew up in such a se­cure and lov­ing fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment,” said Chao.

“My par­ents taught us to take great pride in our Chi­nese her­itage. They taught us to take the best from East and West. There is no con­flict,” said Chao. “Armed with this com­bi­na­tion, they said, this will be our com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage in an in­creas­ingly in­ter­na­tional world.”

The six sis­ters also were largely in­flu­enced by their hum­ble and hard­work­ing mother, Mu­lan, who re­ceived her mas­ter’s de­gree in Asian lit­er­a­ture and his­tory from St. John’s Uni­ver­sity at age 53.

She was di­ag­nosed with can­cer on Jan 11, 2001, the same day Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush an­nounced Elaine Chao’s nom­i­na­tion. The el­der Chao said noth­ing so as to not ruin the mo­ment for the fam­ily.

She died of lym­phoma in 2007, and nine years later, on June 6, 2016, at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, where four of the six daugh­ters pur­sued de­grees, the Ruth Mu­lan Chu Chao Cen­ter was ded­i­cated — the first build­ing named after a Chi­nese Amer­i­can and a woman at Har­vard in its 380-year his­tory.

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