Thursday, May 23, 2013

Interview Confessions: Out-Asian the Asian

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

The night before I was doing my standard "interview homework"(researching the company website, stalking the interviewer on LinkedIn, googling reviews of the agency, etc.) when I decided that I had this job in the bag.

Reason number one: it was a receptionist position. Let's be honest (and I'm not even trying to toot my own horn here), I'm over qualified. I'm not trying to downgrade the actual profession by any means— I'm just saying that I have a degree, I've answered phones for at least 10 different businesses before, and this was an entry-level job...I can handle it.

Reason number two: even though it was clear the majority of employees at this ad agency were Caucasian, the firm itself was Chinese-inspired and themed. This meaning they frequently tossed around words like "chi" and "zen," and kept Oriental trinkets at their front desk, like fortune cookies. At first this sign of casual racism made me roll my eyes, but on second thought...I had an unfair advantage that I definitely could put to use here: my ethnicity.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I've used my race as an advantage many times before. Why, in college I was practically paid to be Asian. And when I needed a part-time job through school, I sauntered into Thai and Japanese restaurants without so much as a resume, with full confidence that I would be hired on the spot. Surely this would be no different?

The actual day of the group interview, as is typical of L.A., I could not find a single parking spot for the life of me. After circling the office building a total of three times, I finally gave up finding a spot near the office and ended up parking four blocks away at a metered spot by the railroad. By the time that I reached the agency, I was 15 minutes late, my face was smeared with a thick layer of sweat, my kitten-heels were killing me, and I was panting like a dog. The current receptionist that was to be replaced lazily pointed me to the backyard, where they were holding the interview.

As I approached the interview, I was clearly the last one to arrive in the group of five, to my dismay. The one and only male applicant politely offered up his seat at the small picnic table and pulled up another chair. I began apologizing to the interviewer (a posh woman sporting a blazer, blunt haircut and wrist tattoos), explaining the lack of parking situation, when I reminded myself that nobody likes excuses. I was late: that was that and I should just move on.

Once I got a hold of myself and stopped being flustered, I looked around at my competition...and immediately remembered why I hated group interviews. It was like a ruthless Hunger Games— just less death tolls but just as much throwing people under the bus. My other competitors were all African American except (to my irritation) one other Asian girl, altogether ranging from 22-year-olds to probably nearing 30. They all peered at me with a look that said, "Glad I'm not you."

Off to a great first impression.

We were interviewing in what looked like the agency's lunch table outside, complete with overhead trees, a white picket fence, and the remains of what looked like a luau party. The interviewer, whose name I had already forgotten but mentally nicknamed Roxy, told me that she was just explaining the position before I came in, and asked if I had any questions.

After wondering what on earth she could be saying about the position other than the obvious (answering phones), I reassured her that I more or less understood the implication of the title "receptionist," and what tasks that may include. Turning the table around, Roxy said with a huff, "Alright, I'm tired of talking, it's your turn now!" and then asked us to tell us more about ourselves. We went around the circle, introducing our names, past and current jobs, and an interesting fact that we wanted everyone to know.

Out of the group, there was a Hollywood business owner, someone who produced on a web series with Tyrese Gibson, a former employee of MTV, and a Marketing Manager for a distinguished firm. By the time that they got to me, my mouth was agape in shock.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!" I wanted to yell at them, "Do you know that this is a RECEPTIONIST position? Didn't you hear Roxy? Leave this job to someone who needs it!"

In less than 10 minutes, my anxiety about getting this entry-level position that didn't even require a degree had increased from 1% to 99.9%. Almost everyone there sounded like they would have been qualified for a manager position. If I thought I was overqualified for this position, they were definitely overqualified.

I scrambled for things that I had suddenly forgotten that made me a more polished candidate— didn't I answer a phone once? No, I couldn't say that I was Asian out loud... Was that course I took in college in advertising or marketing? I quickly stammered out a pathetic summary of myself, forgetting to mention that I had ever touched a phone before, let alone have past administrative experience. After I ended my poor elevator speech with a sad "and...yeah....," I wanted to run out the door right then and there. Even I judged myself.

From then on things pretty much went downhill. There was no hope for the damage that I had already caused myself. By the time the other Asian girl relayed her story about coming from a poor village in Vietnam and living in a house made of banana leaves, I wanted to bury my face in the nearby bush, right beside the cardboard cutout of a hula girl.

You've GOT to be kidding me, I thought. How was I supposed to beat that?! There was no winning. What I thought was my biggest advantage when I came in turned out to be insignificant. This girl was too good: she managed to convey just the right amount of empathy in her audience that even I felt sympathy for her. I couldn't out-Asian the Asian. Especially one that was "fresh off the boat," as my mom would like to say, as politically incorrect as it was.

After a round of random questions, a team-building exercise and personal essay question, the interview was at long last over. Since I had already given up on my chances at landing the job a quarter of the way in, I was more than ready to leave. I left in a hurry, dodging goodbyes and snatching a fortune cookie from the front desk as retribution for my time in shame.

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