In The Dark Knight, there’s a scene where Catwoman disappears over the side of a building while Batman’s not looking. He sees she’s gone, and he says, “So that’s what that feels like.” It’s an endearing moment in which the masked crusader’s brief sense of empathy makes him instantly human and likable. For a second, he’s like us.
I had a ‘so that’s what that feels like’ experience this week. A friend recently introduced me to the Dragon Ball Bakery in North Point, here in Hong Kong. I had to have more of those creamy coconut buns and pineapple pastries, so I went back for more. In areas of Hong Kong that are expat-dense, many shopkeepers speak some English. Signage is in Chinese and English, and language isn’t a problem. You can get by without speaking Cantonese.
I know. I’ve lived here for five years. I should speak the local language. I do, actually. I can ask a taxi driver to turn left, turn right, go straight, and stop. I can say thanks, no problem, sorry, next bus stop please, and lunch. (The very helpful cleaning ladies at my school feel it’s their duty to teach me Cantonese. So far all I’ve succeeded in is ‘lunch’.) I admit I’ve felt particularly proud of my “Excuse me. One egg waffle, please.”
It’s always been doable. No one ever shouted at me. Until last Saturday at the Dragon Ball Bakery. Some people really do believe that if they don’t speak your language, if they shout increasingly loudly, you just might get it. I did get it, finally. The shopkeeper was telling me (and everyone within a hundred yards) that she doesn’t like coins smaller than fifty cents. In order to make me understand this, she had to point to my coins, and then to the fifty-cent coin she was holding up, and shout at me, about 37 times. Finally I got it. So that’s what that feels like.
I was embarrassed, but I left with a bag of coconut buns, pineapple squares, and egg tarts. My family appreciated the fruits of my humiliation.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been making my way through Brené Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame. She explains that empathy is a powerful tool for becoming shame-resilient. When people experience shame, it’s comforting and empowering to know that someone else understands. We’re not alone.
This idea of empathy and of sharing common experiences and feelings has given me insights into my characters. I can give them a rich layer of realness that will help readers make deeper connections with them. Interesting stuff for writers.
My son observed on the weekend that the most popular memes are the ones that identify a common experience or feeling. We talked about standup comedy and how it depends so much on tapping into shared experiences. I think an empathetic link is often what binds us to a story, art, music, or any creative expression.
Have you ever felt an author was actually in your head? That he or she somehow understood ideas and feelings you’d never even articulated in your own mind? That’s a deep and powerful connection.
That’s beauty. I love to read it. I hope I can write it.