Trailblazer from Syosset recalls life leading up to becoming 1st Asian American in a Cabinet position

Elaine Chao became a trailblazer as the first Asian American to be a member of the president's cabinet and one of the most powerful women in Washington.

News 12 Staff

May 11, 2021, 2:43 AM

Updated 1,166 days ago


She was a young immigrant from China who settled in Syosset with nothing but hope for a better future. Elaine Chao became a trailblazer as the first Asian American to be a member of the president's cabinet and one of the most powerful women in Washington.
In 1961, 8-year-old Elaine Chao left her native Taiwan for the promise of America.
Her 37-day journey aboard a cargo ship with her mother and sisters to the U.S. foreshadowed a life of possibilities, challenges and achievements.
Forty years later, Chao made history when she became U.S. Secretary of Labor - the first Asian American woman to hold a Cabinet position.
For Chao, it marked the fulfillment of the American dream. A dream she credits her parents, James and Ruth Chao, with helping to make come true.
"My father and my mother were such patriots and they believed in America, they believed that all the sacrifices were worth it," she said. "Our initial days in America were very, very tough. My father held three jobs to make ends meet. We lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Queens."
Every night after a hard day's work, Chao's father helped her learn English. He says his eldest daughter was a quick study.
Chao started eighth grade at Syosset High School when her family moved to Long Island.
"To us, that house seemed to represent that we were finally on our way," Chao said.
Chao says people were not always welcoming. She says she was bullied in school because she's Chinese.
"I was called a racial slur, but I didn't know what that racial slur meant so I actually went to another group of kids and asked them, 'Hey those kids just called me X, what does that mean?' I kind of had a feeling that it was not a good term," she said.
Both then and now, Chao finds strength to rise above barriers by looking back on her roots. A photo of her father's ancestral village gives her inspiration.
"I think to myself, if my father could have emerged from this tough, modest environment and get to where he is today, his blood runs in my veins, I surely have the courage to overcome and not succumb to the challenges I am facing now," Chao said.
The shy Chinese girl who hadn't known a word of English when she arrived in the U.S. - became a trailblazer.
She was the first Asian American to serve as chair of the Maritime Commission, deputy secretary of transportation, director of the Peace Corp and president of the United Way. In 2017, Chao was sworn in as Transportation Secretary in the Trump administration. She resigned after the Capitol riot in January.
Chao says her mission now is to inspire others to reach for their dreams.
"America's a wonderful country. It has so many opportunities. So find your passion and work hard and I'm sure you'll get to where you want to go," Chao said.
Chao has been married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for 28 years.

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