The Empathy Lessons

Edited by Yanni Kuznia

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

September 2021

1160 words — Reading time: around 5 minutes

Content Note:

This story contains references to genocide.

First flush jasmine, opium-sweet, a floral body dipping in the mattress of my tongue but not real; neither are the visitors, blinking at their new bodies in front of unfamiliar low tables, cup and cloth so they can play at ceremony.

I swirl the drops in a circuit around my palate, the rough front veneers of my teeth, let my throat open without resistance as pleasantries fly in the background. Pasts and presents, differences imposed by latitude, elevation, money. No more similar than my own, but somehow I am the foreign one, chosen to lead them through what they are not prepared for.

I clear my virtual throat. The first-day-of-school chatter transmutes into taut expectation, weight enough to suspend beliefs for the next few millennia.

“Do you know why you are here?”

A hundred nods.

“If at any time you want to stop the experience, remove your visors. Due to the verisimilitude of the Lesson, you may not remember that this is an option. There is also a large red button in the simulation that serves as an emergency stop.”

Another hundred nods. No one thinks they will be the person to stop early, but some do every time. It’s not a fun, technology-enabled vacation where you shop around your feelings, buy one get another culture for free.

“Any questions?”

A blond woman smiles wide. “I just want to say thank you, for doing this. I love China and I’m so excited.” She holds a virtual hand to her virtual heart.

I don’t say anything. The turn of my palm initiates the program, and the living room melts into the Yellow River, cradling us with lapping water. We’ve surfaced at an altar, replete with bronze goblets of sweet four-millennium-old wine. A completed ritual. The visitors stand awkwardly in a pack, not knowing the significance of the curled carvings and animal heads. Some look to me for instruction, but I do not react.

A man in robes reaches out to touch the goblet and it disappears, swirling into wooden pillars and a royal procession. Concubines in summer silks, scurrying servants with lanterns, and a lacquered palanquin, golden embroidery fluttering around the eight bearers who are under and around opulence but not within it. In this parlor, we learn one century per minute, the walls, the wingless dragons, the ancient tortures.

Their eyes widen. Yes, we have them too where we are from, and skyward towers, and cruelty. Empathy. The understanding that the world does not see itself through your eyes, the acceptance thereof. We go to corners of the empire, see the camels on the Silk Road, meet people of all colors singing their songs the students would never have guessed are Chinese. We enter the heads of merchants, magistrates, and emperors until the rice paddies flood over our peasant selves. The peasants work to death. The merchants undercut peasants. The magistrates undercut merchants. The emperor cuts off magistrate heads. Through it all, history’s wheel spins our spotted tapestry.

I don’t look away as the Qing falls. There is only pain for a very long time, punctuated by clinking notification bells as people jettison themselves from genocide. Where did it go wrong?

The blood fades into clean bamboo and rice paper. We’re back in the fake parlor, simulated light pooling around us. The same blond woman is crying hysterically, and she is not the only one. I am not supposed to do anything now, just wait as a guide does, hand in lap, fake tea cooling. Maybe it’s too much to be burned alive as your loved ones are murdered. Not everyone can wear the thorns of another people’s pain for an hour of make believe.

I resist the urge to harden. I’m teaching for a reason, and these people came of their own accord to learn. That alone makes them vastly better than most.

The Empathy Lessons are designed to increase cross-cultural understanding and communication. By vicariously experiencing the history of a people, Participants gain an instinctive and visceral understanding of the past and present of the Target Culture. Our surveys have shown that 80% of Participants report significantly increased positive feelings toward the Target Culture post-Lessons, defined as greater than two points on the Yue Scale with 95% confidence. We find in a follow-up study that this effect persists for months beyond the Lessons.

Usually there are a few questions from the crowd: If you started off so advanced, why did you become so weak? Is it true what I read on the Internet that the Second World War was faked? Why, why, why? As if I am all of China. As if I have any answers.

“Did you go through the Lessons yourself?” someone asks. That, I can answer.

“I did.” A Lunar New Year present from grandparents, thinking it would be good education for their granddaughter who was ashamed of being Chinese. After my Lessons, I couldn’t leave my bed for a week.

“Did you know all that, before…?”

I would laugh if it isn’t inappropriate, so I shake my head instead. My previous knowledge of China was pieced together from one chapter of a sixth-grade social studies textbook, a diorama, and hundreds of stories from my parents in a tongue too hard for me to understand — so I never tried.

Tour Guides must treat the exercise with impartiality. In scenarios with disturbing or difficult content, Participants often seek reassurance from the authority figure in the room, but the emotional work of processing, absorbing, and learning from the experiences does not fall to the Tour Guide, nor should it. For cautionary tales of unhealthy attachments developed during the Lessons, look no further than the following examples….

It would be an understatement to say that my grandparents and friends and therapist were surprised I took this job. Who wants to relive the rise and fall, over and over, in a masochist’s time loop?

Perhaps I do it because I feel a responsibility to the virtual figures wearing my nose and eyes and voice. And maybe because between the sessions, I can play with the nineteenth century over and over in the simulator, trying for a better ending. What if the British didn’t give us drugs in exchange for hard work? If we didn’t accept that? What if those with power didn’t become complacent and naive, thinking they could trade and placate until the end of time? Sometimes things turn out better; sometimes even worse. One day, when I’m brave enough, I’ll start over from the beginning and redesign every person and rice grain in the newest version, microtuning all possible parameters. Make everyone a bit taller, or a bit meaner, and try again.

Slowly the people and tears fade, and I’m back in my own head. Hundreds more are in the waiting room because they don’t know what they’ve signed up for.

I let them all in.

© 2021 Hal Y. Zhang

About the author

Hal Y. Zhang

Hal Y. Zhang is a lapsed physicist who splits her time between the East Coast of the United States and the Internet, where she writes at She has a language-and-loss chapbook, AMNESIA, from Newfound, and a women-with-sharp-things collection, Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms, from Aqueduct Press.