Kaycee Gu shares her career experiences, thoughts on mental health and how she hopes to combat racism

Kaycee Gu is a London-based, first-generation immigrant Chinese woman, identifying as gay, with pronouns being she/her. She is also an ex-City lawyer-turned consultant, translator, interpreter and podcast host.

She is the person behind Chinese Colloquialised, a platform that takes unique and engaging approaches to language-learning and cultural exchange. Kaycee is also an activist, working on materials to help challenge prejudices and encourage greater understanding between cultures (including via Voice ESEA, a non-profit looking to raise awareness of East and South East Asians living in the UK). Having experienced racism, mental health issues and burn out, Kaycee’s story is one of resilience, self-discovery and the search for purpose.

Yinsey Wang is delighted to interview Kaycee in this exclusive feature for Resonate. In this piece, Kaycee shares her experiences dealing with the challenges she’s faced, “coming out” with her sexual orientation (a term that Kaycee does not particularly like!), as well as what she is grateful for.

Yinsey Wang (YW): You are an ex-lawyer and now pursuing a career in translation and language teaching. What made you decide to make the switch?

Kaycee Gu (KG): For all of the great aspects of being a corporate lawyer (and I can list many), I didn’t find it as fulfilling as I thought I would for a few key reasons. I won’t list everything out but, in summary, it just wasn’t compatible with who I am and what I’m looking for in my mid-to-late-twenties. Could it change in the future? Maybe. Who knows?

So, after a complete burnout, a lot of analysis and ‘finding myself’, I decided it was time to make a change. I focused on the five things that I enjoyed and wanted to have in my career: languages, culture, creativity, helping others and challenges (I know a lot of people use “intellectually challenging” as a buzzword in their job interviews, but my inner geek does genuinely enjoy intellectual challenges and problem solving!). Guided by these five characteristics, I decided to give translation and interpreting a go, so here I am!

I’m also working on a couple of projects on the side so, hopefully, a lot of exciting things will fall into place in the coming year. If anyone has a background in programming and is interested in building a start-up, please feel free to get in touch!

YW: You are a strong mental health advocate. Why do you think it is so important? Do you have any thoughts about its perception in Chinese culture?

KG: Having lived through severe depression and anxiety, I can say that the symptoms and effects can be devastating, including the stigma around it. Of course, not all mental health issues are the same so I can only speak about my own experiences, and, gosh, as empathetic and sympathetic as I was towards my friends who were suffering from anxiety and depression, you can’t truly comprehend it until you’ve lived through it. It’s definitely one of the things that I hope, one day, no one will ever have to go through.

On top of everything, because it’s mostly invisible, you also have to deal with the stigma around it. There was a lot of the duck analogy, ‘Oh, we’re all frantically paddling underwater, keeping up calm appearances above water, you’ll be fine’, and ‘Oh, sick leave, sure, wink-wink’, etc.

I hope that institutions could do more to look into why so many of your employees are burning out and how it can be prevented instead of having short-term, temporary solutions such as, on-site psychologists, collective one-week offs, mindfulness practices, etc. Of course, profitability plays a key role in obstructing the search for long-term solutions, and I acknowledge that profitability is important for a business, just as mental health is important for an individual, but we need to find a way to balance both and soon.

Historically in Chinese culture, I think mental health problems were mostly ignored and dismissed and there may have been a lot of victim-blaming in the early days. However, in modern day China, there is now more awareness and things are getting a lot better. Of course, a lot still needs to be done across the globe but I think we’re heading in the right direction.

YW: As a gay Chinese woman, what have been your experiences growing up? Are there any tips you can give to others who are looking to come out?

KG: Oh, it was a struggle. For many, many years.

In my early teenage years, due to a general lack of representation and education, I didn’t even have the vocabulary for what I was feeling. For a while, it just felt like I existed in this void. Until Tumblr came along and filled part of that void.

It took years for me figure out what I liked, who I liked, and then a few more years to act on it, come to terms with it and speak to my friends about it, and a few more years after that to eventually tell my mum. It was a journey.

I’d say be patient with yourself and tell people at a pace that’s comfortable for you. Everyone’s journeys are different so work on accepting it and accepting yourself first, be it discussing with trusted friends or testing the water little by little. Even in this day and age, we still have to continuously ‘come out’ (don’t worry, I don’t like this term either), so we have to be at peace with this fact and prepare for the range of reactions we may have to face. The one I get the most is that people think they’ve heard wrong so I usually have to repeat it two or three times, but we move on.

YW: Can you tell us a bit more about your childhood and upbringing. What are elements that you take with you up to present day?

KG: I am technically a first-generation immigrant. I arrived in the UK when I was nine years old and couldn’t speak a word of English. Luckily, as a kid, you learn and adapt very quickly and before I knew it, I was able to hold conversations, and soon enough, language was no longer a barrier. As we know, I’ve now made it my job to break down that barrier for other people, the circle is complete.

Having lived through that experience, I have always been very independent and felt that I can do anything I put my mind to. It’s part of the reason why I’m always willing to try something new, to take that leap of faith. In turn, this has helped to enrich my life in ways that I could never have imagined.

YW: Why did you start “Chinese Colloquialised”? In your own words, what is it and what do you aim to achieve? How do you pick your topics and what do you hope your listeners get from the podcast?

KG: These are all very interesting questions. I can probably spend hours talking through my whole thought process but long story short, I wanted to achieve two things: (i) help people to learn Chinese and the Chinese culture; and (ii) combat racism in my own way.

First and foremost, I have always been fascinated with how English and Chinese interact with each other linguistically and culturally, the similarities and differences, and I wanted to share that with people who have similar interests.

On that basis, I wanted to create this immersive language- and culture-learning experience where people can improve their language proficiency and their accent and learn about Chinese culture in the process. After all, there are a lot of intricacies in a foreign language that you may not fully understand or appreciate without a broad cultural knowledge. Without being in China physically to immerse in the culture, it can take a very long time to build up the relevant connections. You may even forget why you wanted to learn Chinese in the first place. I wanted to help people with this.

Finally, combating racism. From the age of 9 years to this day, I have always experienced racism, micro-aggressions, being stereotyped, etc. It becomes something that you just learn to live with. Until I asked myself: why?

Why am I satisfied with just living with it and allowing it to continue? Why is it that people resort to racism? This is a whole philosophical / historical / anthropological discussion that I’m not qualified enough to lead but the conclusion that I personally came to was that there is a lack of understanding and, at times, a misunderstanding. So, I asked myself, what can I do to help people to have a better understanding of Chinese culture?

And thus, the podcast was born.

So really, borrowing from the vegan-friendly phrase, I am just trying to feed as many birds as possible with one scone.

YW: Who are your inspirations and why?

KG: My sources of inspiration are largely my friends, many of whom are unapologetically themselves, dare to dream big and are willing to take the untrodden path. All of them are incredibly smart and kind and I am very grateful to have them as my friends.

YW: What is one thing you are grateful for?

KG: I have so many things that I am grateful for (one of them being what I mentioned above). If I have to pick one thing out of everything then I am grateful for the freedom and strength that I have to be all that I am.

YW: You are also a researcher for Voice ESEA. Can you tell us more about why you decided to pursue activism in this space?

KG: It comes from the desire to stop racism, which was very much heightened by the rise of racism against Asians during the Covid-19 crisis.

Just before the first UK lockdown, as I was walking through North Greenwich, this teenage boy suddenly threw a ball at me and shouted “Covid”. In that moment, I froze and was absolutely speechless. This is the first time that I had something physically thrown at me and I had no idea how to respond. All I knew was that I wanted to put an end to these kinds of actions.

A few months later, the stars aligned and I came across Voice ESEA. Voice ESEA intends to create awareness and make a change via education, to educate the public on what is happening in the communities, dispel myths with data and facts, and share tips on how to be an ally. I am a firm believer in using education to drive change so I signed up immediately.

While we’re on the topic, please sign our petition asking the UK government to fund additional support for victims of Covid-19 racism and anti-racism programmes. We were able to obtain over 10,000 signatures in less than two weeks and have received a response from the government, but it could really benefit from a parliamentary debate which would only take place if we manage to gather at least 100,000 signatures. If you would like to sign the petition, you can do so here.

YW: What does Asian representation mean to you?

KG: For me, it means empowerment. It could go a long way to empower the Asian community so that we can be proud of our skin colours, our mother tongues, our cultures and values. It could liberate us from the stereotypes often attributed to us, that weak / nerdy / exotic / powerless background character often seen in movies and tv shows. It could give us the freedom to be who we are without defining us.

Last but not least, if you want to talk about anything mentioned in this interview, you can reach me by sending a message via this link. I love meeting new people in real life so if you’re in London and want to meet in person to have a chat, let me know. I’m sure we can work something out.

Kaycee is cycling to raise money for the ESEA community fund, click here to donate.