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Willing to Empathize with Another’s “Otherness”

By Hans Zhou, VI Form

Willing to Empathize with Another’s “Otherness”

“Come on, those chicks must be super proud to be portrayed that way,” a boy dismissively interrupted me during a class discussion while I was criticizing the eroticized female images in a magazine that objectifies women for commercial gains. Astonished and silenced, I could not believe what I had just heard. It was my first year in the United States. For a Chinese boy who longed for open-minded conversations in the United States, the all-male school atmosphere was not ideal. Identifying as a feminist only made things worse. I was publicly ridiculed for spreading “stupid feminism” and lacking masculinity. Admittedly frustrated, I was above all baffled. Why would people easily hold on to their prejudices without trying to listen to another perspective?

At the time, I attributed this antagonism to a flaw in single-sex education. It was not until last summer that I found a better answer through an embarrassing experience. It was my first day on a four-week canoeing trip in Canada. Having almost no experience with whitewater paddling, I felt anxious about the upcoming challenge. “Uh, I have canoed once in whitewater before…” I stuttered during the ice-breaker exercise. Everyone gave me a comforting smile, except Jordan, a boy whose high-pitched laughter hit me before I had finished my sentence. For the rest of the day, Jordan’s formidable height and his southern accent seemed to me to be evidence of his potential bigotry. I distanced myself from him in public while secretly picturing him as some simple-minded boy who laughed at everything he did not understand. It was not until my trip leader, Emma, asked about my apparent uneasiness towards Jordan that I realized what I was doing: I had thrown someone I knew nothing about into a box labeled “do not associate with,” only judging from his appearance and his accent. I took the courage to confess my snap judgment to Jordan, waiting to be declared guilty. Surprisingly, Jordan laughed even harder. It turned out that his laughter had never been a sign of criticism; rather it was an attempt to cover his anxiety at being the only southerner among the group who also had minimum outdoor experience. That day, Jordan and I talked for a long time about our love of nature and insecurities about being the least experienced paddlers in the group. I felt incredibly lucky to have confronted my prejudices. I got to know Jordan as a real person, not the intimidating figure I imagined.

That night, before closing my eyes and falling asleep, I thought of the boy who interrupted me rudely in class and the many others who mocked my feminist views. I started to understand what was behind their insults. Being in a male dominated environment, they were afraid of siding with femininity because they saw this “outsider” power as undermining their own masculinity. I could feel viscerally their collective anxiety when someone explicitly challenged their privilege by advocating for feminism, similar to how my fear mounted when Jordan’s laughter and his intimidating appearance hurt my pride. It was fear of the unknown, of “the otherness” that blinded us, keeping us from seeing “the others” as they are, rather than as a generalized label.

I finally understood why my many arguments against social stereotypes failed. Although I had always supported my arguments with facts, I realized that being purely rational could never be enough for something so fundamentally emotional. From this experience, I have learned that in order to have an honest dialogue that makes an authentic connection, I must be willing to empathize with another’s “otherness” and be vulnerable enough to recognize and celebrate that we are all inextricably intertwined.

IMG_1801Hans Zhou is a VI Former from Hangzhou, China, and he lives in Maple as a prefect. He is passionate about social justice and environmental issues and enjoys the outdoors. 


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