In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we wanted to feature a true advocate of the AAPI community: Marina Ong Bhargava, CEO of the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce. We sat down with her at the Asian-American Resource Center to chat about her pursuit of the American dream, issues she wants to tackle, and what drives her work at the Chamber.
Marina Ong Bhargava, a mother of two daughters and trailblazer of her own “career non-path,” started her American dream in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Ethnically Malaysian, Marina met her Indian-American ex-husband while he was on a semester study abroad program in Singapore. After her first year of law school (considered undergraduate studies in Singapore), Marina visited him in Indiana for a few months, curious to see where their relationship would go.
“I flew back home [to Singapore], and the next day he calls and proposes to me – on the phone,” Marina reveals. “I said yes because what are you supposed to do at that point, right? At that moment, the feelings were just so intense.”
Marina dropped out of law school to get married and move to the United States. Moving across hemispheres was a huge adjustment to say the least, and back in the 1980s, there was no Internet to provide a bridge to the culture and family she left behind.
“There was no WhatsApp or Skype where I could talk to my parents. It was very difficult,” admits Marina. “I spent that whole first year thinking, ‘What have I done? I ruined my life.’ I would call my parents and I'd be crying and they'd be crying.”
After a year, Marina re-enrolled in college at Northwestern University to study Economics, and this decision helped her rediscover the sense of purpose she had in Singapore. For her, learning and hard work were two things that gave her a sense of stability. Fast forward a few years, a degree, moving to California, a job in real estate, and two daughters, she found herself taking on yet another role: stay-at-home mom.
“That [decision] was a big surprise for me because I did well in school and I thought I was going to have a career,” explains Marina. “But my daughters became a priority.”
After a divorce and a move to Dallas, Marina’s career non-path fatefully led her to start her journey as an advocate for the Asian-American community.
“I was looking for a job, and the Dallas Asian Chamber had a position open [with] flex time. That was the reason I took that job, so [that] I could pick my daughters up from school,” admits Marina.
Up until restarting her career at the Dallas Asian Chamber, Marina did not have many reasons to explore her identity as an Asian-American. Because “Asian-American” is such an umbrella term, identities and experiences vary across individuals, and, like a lot of people in the community, Marina’s relationship with her identity is fluid.
“[Asian-American] is just a convenient identity that is hoisted on us,” Marina asserts. “But I actually like it. It forces us to think outside our own specific experience. The practice of having to be inclusive of all the other Asian groups is good practice for being a good citizen in this country.”
Though Marina relishes in the inclusivity of the label, as CEO of the GAACC, she recognizes that catering to a group spanning from refugees to millionaires requires a lot of thought and intention. This challenge is amplified by the fact that Asian-Americans are usually left out of discussions around racism, institutional obstacles, and need due to the hyper-inclusive label of “Asian.”
“Right now, the perspective is that there isn’t much need in the Asian community,” claims Marina, referring to the lack of funding for Asian-American advocacy groups.
“[In conversations] about racism or institutional obstacles we get left out. We don’t even count,” shares Marina. Ultimately, she believes that one of the key components in addressing the needs within the Asian-American community is disaggregating data by ethnicity.
“That needs to change, but it takes a lot of voices,” Marina states. “Because so many of us are new to the United States, we're still learning from the African-American community and from the Hispanic and Latino communities about civil rights movements.”
Despite the challenging nature of advocacy, Marina feels grateful for the opportunity and environment in which she gets to pursue her work. “To be honest, we’re so lucky in Austin. The City of Austin funds all the minority chambers. It is the only city in the entire U.S. that does that.”
Though she took a few detours to get from law student to immigrant to mother to CEO, as a proud self-proclaimed risk-taker, Marina believes it was all worth it.
“There was always a part of me that wanted to serve the community,” Marina shares. “There's a Japanese concept called ‘ikigai.’ It's about how to live a satisfying life. It talks about what you're good at but also what you get paid for. There are different elements and if you have it all then it makes for contentment.”
Through all of the major life changes, Marina’s love of learning and her compassion carried her through. Hearing about the unexpected turns and the moments when she thought she had made all the wrong decisions all while witnessing her content smile eased our own fears of the unknown. Marina’s non-path shows us that we don’t have to follow a traditional path to a dream career or even know exactly what that dream career is right this second. After decades of risk-taking, unplanned decisions, and belief in a higher purpose, Marina feels content in the fact that she has found a purpose that allows her to serve others, fuels her drive to keep learning, and also allows her to get paid for her work. Ikigai.
As a mother of two young women, Marina offers advice to those who are still working to find their purpose, “This is for any young person: don't take things too seriously.”
“Have confidence to try new things,” advises Marina. “It’s okay to fail. ‘Failure’ is a really loaded word. It all depends on how you define it.”
Whether you’re interested in learn more about Asian cultures or are looking to start a business as an Asian-American in Austin, check out the available resources at the Asian-American Resource Center (AARC) and the Greater Asian American Chamber of Commerce (GAACC).
Happy Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, y’all.
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