For Elaine Chao, A Tough Voyage To U.S. Leadership

Elaine Chao made history when she became the first Asian American woman appointed to a U.S. president's cabinet. She served as Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, and before that directed the Peace Corps. But making her mark on the U.S. was not easy. As a child, she spent 37 days traveling by boat to get from Taiwan to America. Elaine Chao talks about her journey and her career with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up in my Can I Just Tell You essay, I'll pay tribute to the late Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for today's Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we speak with someone who's made an impact through a lifetime of achievement and that's certainly true of our next guest. She arrived in this country from Taiwan at the age of eight, speaking no English. She went on to become the first woman of Asian descent to serve a U.S. president in a Cabinet position.

We're talking about Elaine Chao. She served as U.S. Secretary of Labor in the administration of George W. Bush. In fact, she was the only Cabinet member to serve a full eight years. She's now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. That's a conservative education and research institute here in Washington, D.C.

Recently on this program, we talked about a new report that gives new insights into the, quote, "rise of Asian-Americans," so we thought this would be a good time to hear Elaine Chao's own compelling story and she's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ELAINE CHAO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I do want to talk about the report, but I want to focus first on your very interesting personal story. Your parents grew up in China during a very...

CHAO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...tumultuous time. I just wanted to ask. What did they tell you about this? Or did they ever talk about that time with you and your sisters?

CHAO: They did and I think that is one of the most important legacies that they gave my sisters and me. They taught us about the importance of remembering what our background was. We celebrated all the holidays, but they also talked always about the opportunities in this country, so we really grew up with a full appreciation of the best of both cultures.

MARTIN: You never thought there was some conflict? You were never made to feel like there was some conflict between your Chinese heritage and your American identity?

CHAO: I know that some people, when they are growing up and they - as a person of color in a majority community - that they may feel as if they are left out or they feel a bit strange. But, to us, to my family, what was most important was our family and so long as we had the love and support of our parents and we had hope for the future, we thought it was all right and we were full of hope and optimism for the future.

We came during a very difficult time. We came when my father was just establishing himself. In fact, he came three years before we did, so our family was separated for three years until he was able to get enough money and get the documentation for us to come to America.

And the only way that he can get us to come to America was on a cargo ship, so we sailed from Asia to New York for 37 days and it was a journey that took about 14,000 nautical miles. We landed in New York City and we - little family of five - lived in a one bedroom apartment. My mother and my sisters and I really - we didn't speak English.

So we had to learn all about the culture, the country, even the food. And we're not used to eating, like, huge chunks of meat like hamburgers or hot dogs, so there were lots of things we were learning about. Barbecues and picnics. We learned about Halloween, too.

MARTIN: Very important. Key holiday. You know, I'm glad...

CHAO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: I'm glad you brought that up, though, because I was going to ask you about that period. Like many immigrants, you were separated for three years while your father got settled and to come through this kind of perilous journey and then to get here and kind of start over. I mean, he'd already kind of made the way for you, to lay the groundwork for your being here. But I was wondering, you know, years since...

CHAO: It was very hard.

MARTIN: What effect do you think that had on you and your worldview?

CHAO: I will carry with me always the deep sense of what it feels like to be an outsider and how tough it was, how hard it was to adapt to this country. And so I think, in my subsequent jobs, when I was head of United Way and director of the Peace Corps and when I was secretary of Labor, I basically, you know, dedicated my life to ensuring that people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to access the great opportunities in mainstream America. Those days stay with me and they're very much a part of who I am.

MARTIN: What do you think was central to your and your family's adjusting so well to life here?

CHAO: I think it's a family unit and it is very emblematic of the Asian-American family and the Asian experience. You know, Asians emphasize hard work, education and family, so even though we didn't know anybody, we had no relatives here, we had no friends, we had each other.

MARTIN: So no screaming fights about having sleepovers with your friends. Right?

CHAO: Oh, of course. Yeah.

MARTIN: Oh, you did?

CHAO: No screaming fights, but definitely disagreements. My parents were very, very strict parents and they were not used to this new, you know, American custom of letting your children sleep in someone else's house. So I don't think I've ever had a sleepover when I was growing up and a lot of Asian-American parents, though they're learning now, but they didn't really like their children being away from them. So trying to persuade my parents to let me participate in extracurricular activities, to do volunteer work like every other child, you know, in my school was very difficult.

MARTIN: What about public service? I was curious about what caused you to decide to go into public service. And I was curious about whether your parents thought that was a good choice.

CHAO: My parents were very supportive. You know, I grew up in a family of six girls. So when we were growing up, they would be very well-meaning but not very helpful. Friends, I mean, we subsequently made friends but, you know, friends and then relatives who would come and visit us from overseas. And they would say, you know, Elaine is just such a bright girl. Too bad she's a girl. And we always thought to ourselves that we would make our parents proud. But my parents always emphasized that it doesn't matter what your gender is. If you're willing to work hard that we could do anything we want in the world.

But, you know, they were very strict. I mean we had household chores to do because my father, on Saturdays, he would fix things around the house. He would always take one of the girls with him. During that time he would share with us what it was like in the old country. He passed a lot of the family history onto us then. But even so, as he was talking, he was teaching us.

One summer we would paint the entire house. Another summer, another family project was paving the blacktop on our driveway. We had a big driveway, so that we did that.

MARTIN: You know, that doesn't exactly sound like the laugh riot that...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...what fun. I'm thinking, oh, what fun. Wouldn't you...

CHAO: It was - oh, it was horrifying for a girl. Can you imagine if someone you knew, one of your friends came along and saw you doing the blacktop on your house? I mean, it was so embarrassing.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. We're having our Wisdom Watch conversation with Elaine Chao. She's the former U.S. Secretary of Labor and currently distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. That's a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

One of the reasons, as I mentioned, Madame Secretary, that we called you, is that you were part of a panel discussion in the wake of this recent Pew Research study called The Rise of Asian-Americans. It was released in mid-June and we had a conversation about it on the program. It's a very interesting report because it kind of digs deeply within this population in a way that I don't think a lot of other reports have done.

I wonder what your takeaway was. I mean obviously the study - one of the things that people have most noticed is not only the increase in the Asian-American population, the fact that Asians, for example, have overtaken Latinos...

CHAO: Yes.

MARTIN: ...as the largest group of new immigrants. But also the high education levels among many groups within the population. Over half of all Chinese-Americans and 70 percent of Indian-Americans have at least a bachelor's degree. So I wonder what your take away from the report was.

CHAO: I think more studies still needs to be done and that certain areas need to be drilled down. But overall, I think it's very, very positive. It is also emblematic of the rise of this ethnic group. When I came to America, Asian-Americans comprised less than 1 percent of the entire U.S. population. We are now so much more diverse. Our country now, you know, has Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, in addition to whites. The Asian-American population has not increased to about 5.8 percent.

MARTIN: One of the things that was interesting to me though, is how, how many Asian-American activists were very - I know what's the word, I don't know how to say this - ambivalent in a way about the findings.

CHAO: I know I - yes.

MARTIN: You know, for example, we spoke with Deepa Iyer, she's chair of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans. And this is what she had to say when we spoke with her about it. I'll just play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

DEEPA IYER: In terms of the framing and interpretation of the findings of this report, it's really important to understand that the community is not a monolith, and that we can't use this information to think that is the norm across all Asian-Americans. Historically, our communities have either been seen as model minorities or we've been put into the box of being disloyal, suspicious or we've been put into a box of foreigners who take away jobs.

MARTIN: Some people listening to this were kind of puzzled by the fact that there are so many people saying, OK, let's not focus on, you know, high educational attainment levels, let's not focus on that. And, you know, for a lot of other groups looking...

CHAO: I - Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...at this they're thinking what's not to like about that? I mean, so could you talk a little bit about that? Did you have those feelings?

CHAO: I think a lot of these activists who are involved in, you know, social welfare organizations and activities, I think they're really afraid that this report will lead people to think that everything is OK and thereby, federal funding will be reduced and that charitable giving will be reduced. And that's not what the study says. It just says, it just reports, basically what's happening within the community, and overall, the educational level is higher. But there are difficulties, you know, such as assimilation, such as learning the language. And that within certain segments of these subpopulations that there are real issues of income disparity and of economic hardship.

MARTIN: One of the points you made though, in the panel discussion I thought was important to lift out is, you noted that the unemployment rate for Asian-Americans overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is 5.2 percent against the national average of 8.2 percent. And one of the points that you wanted to make - like I say, putting your former labor secretary hat on - is that you think part of that is education, that education is a bulwark in a lot of ways against unemployment - or if I'm phrasing that properly.

CHAO: Yes.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that?

CHAO: The majority of new jobs being created in America these days require higher skills, more education. And I'll give you a very simple example. Twenty years ago, it used to be that we would see the custodian in our schools and he'd be laden down with a belt full of heavy tools. And if a pipe doesn't work he'll take out his stool and kind of, you know clang the pipes a little bit. Well, fast forward to what's called a stationary engineer, which is what these professionals are called, and they control the air conditioning, the heating, and they're doing it with a computer instrument. So every level of jobs in our economy is increasingly getting higher skilled. So our focus must be to help our population get a good education, and I always tell kids they've got to stay in school because if they don't they're going to suffer for the rest of their lives in terms of their direct earning power. And number two, you know, we've got to constantly reinvest in our workforce so that our skills are kept up to date.

MARTIN: I want to turn just for the couple of more minutes that we have left to a couple of issues in the news. You know that President Obama recently made a change to U.S. immigration policy, saying that he will order his administration no longer to deport young people who are brought here before the age of 16 as long as they meet - without proper authorization, of course, if they meet certain conditions. I wanted to ask your, what's your opinion of this?

CHAO: The immigration debate - and I think some people have tried to make it into a racial issue, it is not. The issue at stake is the issue of legality. And so how do we square with people who have come in, you know, not using the legal process? And what do we do about people who do follow the legal process and they're waiting on line? And so that's why I think we have to have a complete reform of our immigration policy and not just do it on a piecemeal basis.

MARTIN: OK. I see you've retained the political person's habit of not answering the question. But I appreciate...

(LAUGHTER)

CHAO: Well, I thought I did.

MARTIN: I appreciate your efforts in that regard. We only have about a minute left and I thank you for being willing to join us. As I mentioned, we call this a Wisdom Watch conversation, so I wanted to ask if you have any wisdom for someone who might be listening to our conversation, perhaps a younger Elaine Chao, somebody who is starting out on the path that you were on. Any wisdom to share?

CHAO: I would've never dreamed my life to have turned out the way it is - it has. And I think the most important thing is never give up. If you have a dream just, you know, never give up. Find what you're really passionate about, work really hard and you'll have a life's journey that you will be surprised and also very fulfilled.

MARTIN: Elaine Chao served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 2001 to 2009. She is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, which is in Washington, D.C., and she was kind enough to join us from the studios there. Madame Secretary, Elaine Chao, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHAO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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