For most of her career, Ginny Gong has defined herself in a variety of ways. "I've learned over the course of my life to wear many hats — the hat of a woman, mother, community activist and government director."
Now in her 60s, the multihyphenate author, director, TV show host, activist and mother is as busy as ever. "I'm on the road to becoming the most dynamic retiree possible," she proudly says.
In more ways than one, Ginny has lived a vibrant life. Born in China in the 1940s, she moved with her family to the United States when she was 6 years old. She grew up in New York City in the back of a Chinese laundry shop. Although her family never lived in a house or apartment, she maintains that the experience was a positive one. "I gained my work ethic, values from that experience," she says. "It taught me how to place priorities in life and created a strong sense of family and togetherness."
Her father worked at a Chinese restaurant while her mother ran the laundry and stayed with the family. Although they were busy making ends meet, they never forgot to instill the traits that personified Gong as an adult: "My dad gave me a sense of community and taught me to get involved, and my mother taught me to respect family bonds."
Gong was a good student. She had perfect attendance and made friends easily, even though she didn't speak English very well. She dreamed of becoming a teacher because her parents considered it a noble profession. After she graduated from the State University of New York at Cortland, she decided to teach middle school.
When she married and started a family, Gong became interested in social justice. When her daughter experienced racial discrimination, she committed herself to advocate for positive social change. This began her 30 years of involvement with OCA, a Pan-Asian advocacy group.
"I wanted people to know that there was something different about me," she says. "Being Asian and being a woman was difficult. My last name, my appearance, put it all out there on the table."
She served as president of OCA for a total of six years in the 1990s and 2000s, working on behalf of Asian Americans to advance their concerns and protect them against discrimination. During her presidency, OCA became the first Asian and Pacific American organization to have a national center in Washington, D.C.
Gong has won various accolades for her commitment to advocacy for Asian Americans and women. She was honored by AARP as one of three Asian American Community Thought Leaders, recognized as the 2011 Legendary Ladies of Maryland for "changing the face" of the state over the years, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from OCA for her many years of volunteer service.
Gong continues to be a multihyphenate. She is executive director of the agency that oversees community use of public facilities for a suburban Maryland county of 1 million residents. She hosts an award-winning cable television show, East Meets West, which features success stories within the Asian American community. As one of a few Asian American faces on television, Gong seeks to empower others. "It is important for Asian Americans to see themselves on television," she says. "Television should reflect society, and everyone should see Asian Americans, not as stereotypes, but as individuals whose hopes and dreams parallel theirs."
In addition to her TV work, Gong plans on starting a business in which she can partner with different organizations to mentor youth. "I think our youth find it very difficult to talk to their parents," she says. "As someone who has worked with kids, has had kids and grandkids, it will be a good opportunity to pass the baton."
Her autobiography, From Ironing Board to Corporate Board: My Chinese Laundry Experience in America, depicts her humble origins. "The challenge of growing up in an immigrant family is that your parents might not understand the system," she says. "That makes it harder to navigate."
Gong remains devoted to her family of three children and two grandchildren. She plans on taking care of her mother, who is in her 90s, while still playing a constant role in her grandchildren's lives.
She embodies the ideal that anyone can overcome obstacles. At 50-plus, she still happily wears many hats: activist, author, government director, teacher, volunteer, TV show host, mother and proud AARP member.
Clarence Cabanero is an intern with Multicultural Markets and Engagement at AARP.
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