Bowen Pan, MBA ’14: Learning the Importance of Empathy

A student shares a childhood experience that showed him the power of putting yourself in another’s shoes.

April 05, 2014

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Bowen Pan, MBA ’14 | ToniBird Photography

This series features our students’ reflections on their aspirations, learnings, challenges, and joys. Here, Bowen reveals how a teacher’s kindness toward an isolated young immigrant served as an enduring lesson about compassion.

I spent the first nine years of my childhood in China. Then, at the age of nine, my life changed: My family emigrated from China to New Zealand. Even as my parents were facing the tough reality of working in any job to make a living, I had my own set of issues to deal with: How does a Chinese boy who doesn’t speak a word of English make friends at school?

To my surprise, there were a lot of things I really liked about school in New Zealand. It started late, at 9:30am, and finished at 3:30pm. The Kiwi kids (we call ourselves Kiwis as New Zealanders) were taught the math that I had already learned as a preschooler in China.

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Bowen Pan, MBA ’14 | ToniBird Photography

But my most vivid memory of Northcote Primary School was the one thing I always dreaded. That was the breaks and lunchtimes. After classes finished, everyone just suddenly left. How could I break into the groups and make new friends without speaking English? Lunchtime was a lonely and alienating time for me. This went on for a few weeks. Unknown to me at the time, a particularly favorite teacher of mine, Mrs. Morrison, kept an eye on me and sensed my isolation. Then on one regular afternoon in the middle of her lessons, Mrs. Morrison suddenly and without warning started to address the class in Maori, the language of the indigenous people in NZ.

The class was completely confused and dumbfounded. “What is she saying?” everyone muttered amongst themselves.

Mrs. Morrison then gently said, “Boys and girls, you must understand how difficult it is for Bowen to join in with you.”

Now all this would have been amazingly moving to me, if only I had understood what Mrs. Morrison was saying! It was only later my friends told me what had happened. All I knew was that my classmates from that moment onwards suddenly opened up to me. At the playground, there’d be kids who would say, “Bowen, join us!” — and that made all the difference.

Mrs. Morrison at that moment — although I didn’t know it at the time — gave me an incredible lifelong lesson in empathy: to be able to put yourself in others’ shoes, see what they see, and feel what they feel. It’s something I try to remind myself about every day.

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