As part of the continuing series, “Outstanding Chinese-Americans,” World Journal interviewed former Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao and her youngest sister, Angela Chao, on the subject of the Chao family recipe for success. The goal of the interview was to offer Chinese-Americans words of inspiration from one of America’s most successful families.
Elaine L. Chao served as the 24th U. S. Secretary of Labor from 2001-2009. She was the first woman of Asian-American descent to ever be appointed to the President’s cabinet in American history. She is also the only member of the Cabinet to serve for the entire eight years or two terms of President George W. Bush’s presidency. Her journey to the White House was not without obstacles, however, and in this interview she shares what she believes were the critical tools given to her by her parents, which enabled her to advance in life.
Q: What are the most important principles you learned from your father?
My father, Dr. James S. C. Chao, taught Angela and me and his other children many, many valuable and important life lessons. He taught not only by verbally telling us but by his own behavior and example. Our father gave us a great gift and that is to cultivate a sense of curiosity about the world and to try to see situations, issues in its totality. My father grew up during a time when simply going to school was a luxury due to the wars that beset China. Schools were shut down because of the wars. My father grew up in a small farming village. He learned to learn from everyone and everything around him. Nothing bored him; everything interested him. He loves people! But, because he was an outsider, it was hard for him to gain entry to many places. Yet, he ultimately succeeded at every step because he learned how to learn from his powers of observation, ability to listen, absorb and adapt. He was very observant to everything around him. He learned by watching others. My father is a man of energy, study, preparation, and then action. When we were young and newly arrived in this country, so much was foreign to us. Yet, my father had such optimism and confidence! Looking back, he seemed fearless! Being around him was always so interesting and exciting. He always had so many projects going on – things were always happening! He always encouraged his children that there is a much bigger world out there – far larger than the small immigrant community that we were confined to at the time. He taught us to see beyond our immediate and limited surroundings, to expand our view, and to embrace the limitless horizons that await discovery. He challenged us to explore, to have a sense of curiosity (in a responsible way). He said we should always try to do things in a comprehensive manner which requires an understanding of the whole picture. His sharing his philosophy was a wonderful gift that enabled me, to this day, to be a better problem solver, a better thinker, to try to understand a situation or issue comprehensively and thoroughly rather than in a piecemeal fashion, and to be a better leader. He gave us tremendous self-confidence to enter new situations, no matter how different they may appear and to do so with enthusiasm and excitement.
Q: What role does family play in your life?
For most Chinese-Americans, the family is the foundation of our lives. It is not a burden but a wonderful gift and an asset in life. I believe that this is one of the values Asian Pacific Americans can share with mainstream America: the tremendously strong love and support of the family and the important role that the family plays in a person’s advancement in life.
When my mother, two sisters and I first arrived in America to join my father whom we had not seen in three years, everything was so foreign to us. We didn’t understand the language, customs, or culture. We couldn’t get used to the food. We never ate meat stuck between bread before, like hamburgers or hotdogs. We never ate bread before. We never saw pizzas before. Looking back as an adult, I marvel at the courage of my parents, especially my mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, who didn’t speak English well, who didn’t know anyone here in America. When my father left the small apartment we lived in Queens, New York, she would not hear from him until he returned home at night. How frightening that must have been when her husband left her alone with three children every morning! What if something happened to him that day?! Yet, she created such a secure, loving home for her husband, and her children. She cooked delicious Chinese meals when it was difficult to find Chinese ingredients in American supermarkets. I don’t know how she did it. So, as a child, frightened as I was going into a foreign environment, entering a new school when I didn’t speak English, learning to navigate my own little world – I was comforted deeply by the security and love that enveloped me from my family.
My parents are great Americans. They love this country which offered such opportunities to their family. Yet, they never forgot the land of their birth. They taught us to be proud of our cultural and ethnic heritage. Rather having to choose, they believed that we should combine the best of East and West, and recognize that both cultures have much to offer and much to learn from one another. We do not need to abandon our Chinese roots to become part of mainstream America, but rather the world needs people who understand different cultures and can help to be bridges of understanding between America and the rest of the world.
Q: Did you face any difficulties or setbacks in life, and how did you deal with them?
Yes, of course. I experienced difficulties and setbacks. Everyone does. When I first arrived in Washington, I wanted to work as a volunteer on the re-election campaign of President Ronald Reagan. But because I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t even accepted as a volunteer! But, eventually, I found a way. No one has a problem-free life; everyone faces difficulties one time or another in their lives. When I was being considered to be in the Cabinet, everyone thought I was going to be selected as Secretary of Transportation because my background was in transportation. In the initial round of selection, I wasn’t selected. It was only after a nominee dropped out that I was asked to join the Cabinet as Secretary of Labor. When disappointments or challenges occur, I think it’s important to remain calm, stay balanced – don’t be too discouraged, keep on going, keep on smiling and eventually, if it’s meant to be, it will happen.
Q: Many Asians exert great effort to succeed, but they are not as successful as you. What would you say is the “soft-power” that is most important to have?
Well, first of all, thank you for saying that I am successful. I don’t think I am, actually. I never thought of success as the goal. I have always just tried to do my best in every job someone had entrusted to me, to contribute to society and be a credit to my family, and the Asian Pacific American community so more opportunities will be available to other Asian Pacific Americans and all Americans.
I do have amazing parents who always encouraged and taught their daughters that we could achieve whatever we aimed, so long as we planned ahead and were willing to work hard. They were also very positive thinkers. So, we were always very positive as we approached each challenge. I am often asked by reporters – how did you achieve all this when you are a minority or when you are woman or when you are so young. I never thought I wouldn’t succeed because I was a woman, or young or a minority. I didn’t know whether I would be totally successful in a job but I always wanted to try. I was always challenging myself to tackle new responsibilities. Looking back, one can say that I always pushed myself out of my own comfort zone to take on new challenges and situations. So, again, I would not say that I am so successful, but rather that through the strength of our parents’ guidance, Angela, the rest of my sisters, I have been fortunate enough to be able to contribute to society and be a part of building a better future. I have been very blessed to have my parents see me advance with each new position and be with me every step along my life journey. Before my mother passed away, I spent a great deal of time accompanying her at the hospital and at her chemotherapy treatments. I am blessed with loving and supportive parents, wonderful younger sisters like Angela and a great husband – these are the truly important treasures in life and this is what “success” means to me.
I often speak to Asian Pacific American groups. I encourage them to not be afraid to try. We have such great cultural values which are tremendous assets that we should share with mainstream America. America does have a different culture. No one in America is going to “invite you in.” It is ok to enter an organization without being invited. America responds to energy. If you are interested in something, go for it. If you get rejected, no big deal. America has so many opportunities. If one doesn’t work out, there will be plenty of other opportunities. So, don’t be afraid to try, to interact with mainstream America. If you think you made a mistake, don’t be embarrassed. Probably, no one else noticed. If you want to do something, study, plan, and then do it. If you want to be part of an organization, join. Always try to be optimistic and positive. My parents taught their children to always move forward, keep trying and never give up. This has been a great lesson in my own life. Thank you for your int