Written by CAPA-JRC reporters Joy Jiang, Doris Wang, Andrew Dai
On July 28, 2022, the Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA-JRC) headed into the Capital Hilton Hotel in Washington DC to attend an annual gala hosted by the International Leadership Foundation (ILF). As part of the event, the JRC attended the ILF’s Fireside Chat with Elaine Chao in which she discussed her heritage and the impact her culture and family have had on her life.
Secretary Elaine Chao speaking with Chiling Tong, the founding President of ILF. Image credits: ILF.
Secretary Chao, the 18th U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the 24th U.S. Secretary of Labor, was the first Asian woman in the United States to be appointed to the President's Cabinet. She has served in numerous public service positions, including as the Director of the Peace Corps and the President and CEO of United Way of America.
Growing up, Secretary Chao’s father had a significant influence on her. She described Dr. James S. C. Chao as a very optimistic and diligent man. “If you were to go to his village…it is so modest that such a harsh upbringing taught him a lot about how to appreciate other people and how to be thankful,” Secretary Chao said. “He always rises with a cheerful disposition.”
She shared that trust in others was an important factor in her father’s career. Her father’s childhood, in which he “had nothing”, taught him the importance of gaining trust in order to secure jobs and build relationships. This year, in recognition of his service, Dr. Chao was granted ILF’s Person of the Year Award.
“In public service, you have to have patience, you have to know when to fight, how to fight, and how not to be afraid to fight,” Secretary Chao said. And trust, as Dr. Chao demonstrates, is a part of that process.
Likewise Dr. Chao, Secretary Chao’s mother, Ruth Mulan Chu Chao, was a significant figure in her life. Ruth originated from a wealthy family. During the Chinese civil war, her family entrusted a financial advisor with their entire fortune. But after landing in Taiwan, it was discovered that the financial advisor had run off with the money.
Despite this major setback, Secretary Chao’s father believed the loss to be a great boon. In China, it was believed that if two people were of different socioeconomic status, they could never be together. Secretary Chao said that, “had things remained the same, [my father] would never have had the opportunity to marry my mother.”
Family was–and remains–important to Secretary Chao. Growing up, she said, “[my siblings and I] were always taught to be proud of our culture[, to] be united as a family, so I always defended my family.”
Secretary Chao’s father moved to the US in 1958, and her mother joined him three years later. Together, they raised six daughters, the oldest of whom is Secretary Chao.
She grew up with a set of firm beliefs, instilled in her by her parents. “[They] brought [my siblings and I] up to be very humble, to be very modest,” she said. This way of living encouraged her to think of others instead, she added, fueling an early interest in public service. She was also taught to be proud of her family and culture, one aspect of which is filial piety, a concept which she thinks westerners do not quite understand.
Secretary Chao believes that because of her heritage, she has become a better leader. Asian Americans, she asserted, are “90 percent input, 10 percent output.” Western society, on the other hand, is “90 percent output and 10 percent input,” she said. “But the concept of leadership is changing, where if you want to be the leader of a diverse workforce, you have to listen and understand. And I think [Asian Americans are] naturally prone that way so I think it helps us.” The habits that Secretary Chao was raised with – respect, modesty, and cultural pride – have shaped her into the leader she is today and driven her to the achievements she has made throughout her career.
And she has achieved quite a lot over the past few decades. Having worked extensively in the US government, Secretary Chao still claims that making policy was the easiest part of her job. “You know what is the most difficult?” she asked, before answering her own question. “It’s getting along with other people.”
Secretary Chao proceeded to tell the rapt audience of the many lessons that she learned from her parents and from her own work. Two of the main topics she emphasized were striving to improve oneself and having confidence in her culture. “When I was working… going into the government… I always knew that if I failed or got fired, I could always go home. That gave me an incredible amount of assurance, confidence, and security.” This sense of certainty empowered her to continue to advance her career and take more risks.
But the moderator, Chiling Tong, the founding President of ILF, noted that not everyone has this security. Immigrants who have newly arrived in a country, for example, often don’t have much to fall back on, and they are afraid.
“I’m afraid,” said Secretary Chao quietly. “I understand that.”
“But how do we conquer that?” Tong pressed.
“You have to fake it,” said Secretary Chao. “And pretty soon, it becomes reality.”
It is this sort of hard work-philosophy that has brought Secretary Chao into the spotlight of national government, and it is one of the last messages that she leaves her audience with. And this mindset seems to be a family trait, shared by her siblings. It is one of many lessons their father taught them as children, one that is now as ingrained in them as their cultural heritage, and a part of who they are.
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 25 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.