My journey to empathy

In 2011 after a failed relationship, I found myself fighting with depression and anxiety in my professional life; so I packed my life into two suitcases and left my family and friends to go “find myself” in a small town in China. I was relieved to have left all of my worries behind. But I soon realized that I had carried more than just the burden of a few suitcases I now found myself isolated in a new country unable to speak the local language and no support system that I could turn to in this new world. I had even been pronouncing the name of the city I lived in wrong. It was like the cherry on top of the cosmic cake.

Then one day the principal of the school I was working at approached me and told me about his experiences living and studying abroad in New Zealand. It was an odd conversation to begin with since we had built very little rapport at the time, but he was willing to make the effort and I was glad. Then he said something that has stayed with me ever since: “The US and China are not always political friends but the people, they always can be.”

That simple sentiment struck me so deeply that it changed my entire outlook

I left home searching for something and instead continued to sit in my old habits, choosing isolation instead of attempting to make human connections despite language barriers. I decided to leave my shyness behind and pushed myself to try something new. To start, I began by practicing empathy and taking an interest in those around me.

I spoke with other teachers to see what they did in their free time. I traded shufa, Chinese calligraphy lessons, for English culture and knowledge. I joined a community dance group and introduced them to Dominican merengue. I became vested in others’ lives.

It was as if a switch had been flipped. No longer did I participate only in “English-friendly” events but I was venturing outside of my comfort zone. I went from solitary weekly pub quiz nights that catered to an English-speaking crowd at a local Tex-Mex restaurant to filling my free time with new activities and new people. I ended up not only expanding my professional network but also my friendship circle too 

Jessy Santa with Friends in China
Work also took on a new energy

When I first arrived I had been given a private office instead of a shared one as a sign of respect. But being the only foreign teacher in an office all by myself led me to spend a lot of time re-watching Friends and Lost episodes on my computer. Once I started reveling in my empathetic energy and engaging with those around me, my office started filling up with children who wanted to ask me questions and would try to teach me Mandarin, and helped me decorate my office with their drawings. I became interested in coming in to work again. 

Practicing empathy and forming authentic relationships was what got me through the difficulties I faced after moving abroad. I learned that while the excitement of moving to a new country can fuel you for many weeks, when you make the move alone the excitement wanes just as quickly. 

For many people taking that first step of leaving their home country may have been enough to expand their horizons. When people would ask me ‘why’ I left,  my answer was always “Why not?”.  But when real life settled in and I was living in another country I realized that I had to learn how to expand outside of my comfort zone. Because nothing good ever came out of a sense of complacency.  

Children's artwork
I learned what an open mind and empathy could do

The willingness to take a risk led me to expand beyond what I thought I was capable of. To live my 20s with adventure, exploration and in relearning what I wanted my life to be about. It led to six years of living and working in China; from corporate training to startups, meeting my significant other with whom I have a beautiful daughter with, and living in what is now  my fourth country. I can’t imagine that my adventures will stop anytime soon, and now I know that empathy is the way to foster new friendships no matter where I go.

Jessy Santana headshot

By Jessy Santana

Jessy is a writer, a creative and an entrepreneur. As an organizational culture strategist she is co-creating inclusive spaces everywhere. 

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