Into the Ivory Tower: Getting My First Publishing Job as a British-Chinese Woman during COVID
By Mandy Gao
As I sit typing away from the comfort of my dimly-lit room with Road Head by Japanese Breakfast blasting in the background for the fifteenth time in a row, I stop to reflect on how much my life has changed in the last few months: I graduated from university with a 2:1 (nights in the library were replaced with nights in the ice-cream drawer of my freezer), I cried over interview rejections that I thought I would never get over (I had to take a four-month long hiatus from playing Animal Crossing because I didn’t get a Nintendo internship), and I secured and started my first graduate job as a books editorial intern at a world-renowned academic publisher.
Publishing was one of those industries I secretly idolised as a child growing up, but was too embarrassed to admit it out loud for the fear of being ridiculed – I didn’t fit the ‘stereotypical’ publishing image of a southern middle class, white, English literature graduate who wore tweed. Instead, I graduated with a degree in German, don’t really wear tweed, come from a place where Cheshire is seen as southern (I’m a Stretford lass), and am a child to immigrants from China. My journey into publishing was an unexpected one, but sometimes I still shake my head in disbelief when I think about how far I have come since my days of crying myself to sleep in my room when COVID – and the unprecedented onslaught of racism – began.
I think most East Asians, at least in the UK and the US, can agree that the beginning of COVID was a terrifying time to be ‘different’. Once so proud of my heritage and my culture, I found myself keeping my head down and shying away from people in the streets. The height of my fear and paranoia came to a head when a group of girls held their sleeves in front of their faces on a bus journey, leaning away from me as far as possible and saying ‘’I think we are going to die.’ When we got off at the same stop, I heard one of them say ‘’That girl next to me was Chinese. God, I was so scared.’’ Although I confronted them (with wobbly knees and my voice cracking), I ran home and cried and cried. The paranoia was incredibly intense in the following months - I refused to leave the house because I thought someone would try to kill me. The most painful part of it all was the fact that this was where I grew up; I felt like I didn’t have a home anymore.
Navigating feelings of self-hatred towards my identity and my race meant that I didn’t have the motivation to initially apply for roles in the publishing industry. Aside from thinking that hiring managers would never give me the time of day because of the association between my race and COVID (as had been the case with many incidents in the news), there were no detailed statistics on BAME groups in publishing. The only statistics I could find grouped people of colour into one collective ‘BAME’ category, so it was like white v. ‘other’.
After a few months of living in paranoia, despair and depression, I decided that I would do something about it. I recalled books I had read in the past by Asian American and British Chinese authors and filmed a few book reviews to raise awareness of the upcoming Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. These videos went onto my Chinese history blog and it was therapeutic seeing other second-generation Chinese readers talk about how they were overcoming their experiences and what books they would recommend. It was also around this time that I filmed a video CV to attach to job applications. Forcing my flatmates to film me doing everything from sitting in over splits outside our flat, to showing off my homemade macarons (shoutout to Abi), I emphasised the charity work and awards I had won in the past for my contributions to the Manchester Chinese society – I was tired of hiding from my race and I wanted to show I was wildly proud of my heritage.
This all paid off when I finally landed a coveted internship at a successful academic publishing house, and I was told afterwards that over 1,200 people had applied. During my interview, I emphasised I was proud of my heritage and that one of my goals in life was to represent East Asians in publishing – the lack of BAME people in publishing made me reluctant to apply for these roles, and I wanted to ensure that people of colour had the representation in these industries.
As I press play on Road Head for the thirtieth time, I think about how vital it is that ethnic minority groups gain more representation in such a heavily white and middle-class industry - not only would it encourage talented BAME publishing hopefuls to join the industry, but it gives people of colour a platform to voice their experiences and their journeys. As much as it’s important to know what a company wants from you, companies also have to know what we, people from a BAME background, want from them. We should never have to compromise on our skin colour, integrity or identity.