V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

The art of the interview

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Photo: Vivian Song

Dianna Jiang's first full-time job in Canada was to help newcomers find employment in a community Job Club program. That led to her first full-time job as an employment counsellor at an agency where she's now a marketing and communications coordinator — her original field back in Shanghai. Her success earned her an award.

Published in The Toronto Star, online edition, February, 2010.

During her first Canadian job interview, Dianna Jiang stumbled on the employer’s opening question.

It was the standard, Tell-me-about-yourself” invitation that most job interviews start with which threw her off.

Jiang, 33, chuckles as she recalls how she began to recount mechanically her vital statistics and her life biography: “My name is Dianna Jiang and I come from Shanghai...”

It would take years of employment workshops for her to understand the nuances of how the Canadian job market works — that when interviewers ask candidates to talk about themselves, it’s their opportunity to sell themselves and boast of their work-related achievements.

It would take time for Jiang to reconcile her traditional Chinese beliefs, which place value in modesty and humility, with the North American work ethos.

“In Canadian society, you really need to tell employers what your strengths are,” Jiang said in her Scarborough home. “But in Chinese culture, people tend to be modest.”

It’s subtle obstacles such as these that can become seemingly insurmountable barriers for skilled newcomers looking for work. That’s why Jiang, an assertive self-starter who worked tirelessly for her success, decided to pass on her knowledge to fellow immigrants.

By the time she enrolled at Job Club, a Community Matters Toronto program in St. James Town, Jiang had sent out several resumés and received no replies. Community Matters is a registered charirty and operates the neighbourhood program for newcomers. The motto is “neighbours helping neighbours.”

Jiang arrived in Toronto in 2001 at the age of 24, confident she would be able to find work in her field, marketing. After all, her English was strong, she had an international business degree under her belt, and she already had five years experience as a regional marketing manager at a multi-national commercial carpeting company in Shanghai.

But in her one-on-one job counseling sessions, Jiang learned that her resumé was weak and ineffective. She learned how to conduct herself through mock interviews and how to make small talk appropriately, all in the Canadian way.

To meet new people and acclimatize to her new home, Jiang also became an active volunteer in the community, seizing every opportunity to integrate into Canadian culture. She enrolled in business courses at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, and took life-skills courses. Impressed by her enthusiasm and progress, the directors at Community Matters handed her the reins and gave Jiang her first full-time, Canadian job: To head the Job Club.

“Dianna really understood the issues of adapting to a new country and was prepared to take risks herself,” said Chris Hallett, Community Matters chair. “She knew how to take advantage of opportunities and really grasped the idea of what you need to learn to become successful.”

For other newcomers, the gap between North America’s work culture and their own can be so wide it can take some time for them to accept, Hallett said.

For example, a stock interview question that regularly stumps newcomers is one that asks candidates to identify a work-related mistake they made and to explain how they resolved it.

“Newcomers from China come from a country where people don’t make mistakes,” Hallett said. “For some, it takes a long time to understand that here it’s okay to admit you’ve made a mistake, and that the important thing is what you did to overcome it.”

In India, employees also work in team environments, where “differentiating yourself” is frowned upon, he added.

“Here, you have to show employers why you’re different and why you’re better.”

It’s a lesson Jiang applied in her next job interview at a private employment agency. After a year of heading up the Job Club and helping dozens of newcomers find work, she moved on to become an employment counsellor. Within the same year, she was promoted to become the agency’s marketing and communications coordinator — bringing her full circle back into her original industry.

A major milestone for Jiang is her newfound ability to make eye contact with senior and junior employees and to be jovial in a position of authority — alien concepts for her back home.

“I learned to smile in Canada,” she said.

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