From the time I was in my early teens, I was interested in foreign languages and cultures. I hung out with the international club in school. I found being around people from other cultures sometimes easier than being around people of my own. As I grew up, I have continued pursuing these interests. When I meet someone from somewhere else, I always ask where they are from and what language they speak, and when I hear someone speaking a foreign language that I can’t decipher, I always ask them what it is. I want to travel everywhere and experience every culture.
One of my best friends (who is currently no longer, but I hope this will change) was Egyptian. I’ll call him M. I have dated lots of men from different countries and cultures and usually find them easier to get along with usually.
Recently I traveled to Europe and Egypt. I plan on writing more about this, as I had specific reasons for my travels, including an English teaching job in Egypt, but I ended up not staying once I got there and went back to the US. Yet I tend to digress in blog posts and this one isn’t about why I didn’t stay, so I won’t go into that. I am in one way very upset and regretful that I didn’t stay because of the good, but I also understand why and it makes sense that I left because of the less good. But this is for another post in the future.
Anyways, I found I got along with and felt more at ease with many of the people I met abroad. I felt less judged and like I could talk about anything with most of them. I met a vivacious, friendly and caring Icelandic woman when I flew from Iceland to Denmark. She held my hand when I began having anxiety on the plane and helped me find my way through the airport. When I was in Denmark, I stayed with an American friend who is an artist and attended a get together with what I believe was a philosophy group. I met some very interesting Danes there and had good conversations with all of them. I felt like I could chat very easily with them. I felt I could express ideas, even political and controversial ones, and not get judged. I found them to be very helpful when walking around if I needed directions. I didn’t feel awkward or like a typical tourist.
I visited an online pen-pal (I’ll call her S) I’ve had whom I met through a feminist & gender abolitionist group who lives in the Netherlands. S was very easy to chat with online and I expressed to her I had Asperger’s. I was hesitant in chatting with her because I felt that she would find me weird or odd, and I was a bit enamored of her and intimidated because I found her sophisticated and elegant. It turns out she is very much like me and very approachable. She suggested we could meet if/when I came to The Netherlands, and we did! I had a great time meeting and being with her. We actually talked about abortion and disagreed on things, and she expressed how it was interesting and rather novel to discuss such a controversial subject upon our first meeting and be able to disagree. I felt quite good about myself that I made this friend, and that I currently know people in Europe now that are actual Europeans besides family. S comes off as very European to me; she is intellectual, artsy, eccentric, cultured, stylish, well-read and as mentioned before, sophisticated. I definitely feel that Europeans, especially the Scandinavians and Dutch, are much more likely to be this way than Americans; there really are reasons for the stereotypes. S and I even discussed the differences between Americans and Europeans online before I came, and we agreed that there are many. I also met another Dutch woman while staying at a hostel I believe in Amsterdam, and while I wasn’t feeling particularly good mentally that night, chatting with her made it all better. She even said something along the lines of “well know we’ve become friends” and it warmed my heart. We are in touch on Facebook now, as well as some of the Danes I met at the get together.
However, I felt this way less so when I was in France, Italy, and Greece (what I consider Southern Europe). There is the stereotype that the French are rude, which I have experienced to a certain extent I feel (in the sense that when I couldn’t understand them they would speak English to me and then I would feel stupid), but I also speak French and I feel that somehow this makes communication harder, as I when I am speaking it I am focusing on trying to be accurate, not make mistakes, and understand what the other person is saying. Yet at the same time when I was in France I spotted a guy that I found quite interesting while aboard a ferry from Corsica to Nice. He was definitely of “my tribe”- barefoot, long hair, with jewelry- very much a hippie. The moment I saw him I wished I could make his acquaintance. Well, it turns out I did while standing in line waiting to get off the ferry. We began chatting in what I remember to be half-French, half- English, and it turns out he is a Cuban musician working a music festival in France. While I couldn’t understand everything he was saying, we were able to communicate enough to “get eachother” and get along.
I firmly believe that getting by in life, especially while traveling, depends nearly 100% on the people you meet and befriend. I expressed to this dude that I wasn’t sure how to get to my hotel. I didn’t have internet access and hadn’t written down where my hotel was. He said that he was meeting a friend,, and that they would let me use their internet access. While I was attracted to this dude, (I’ll call him A) I knew that I was also in a foreign country, alone, a female, and that it was possible he had bad intentions. Yet it turns out, as it had almost every time for me, that he didn’t (knock on wood). His friend turned out to be a female, also Cuban, and had a gorgeous apartment in Nice that she welcomed me into. They weren’t skeevy or mal-intentioned at all. In fact, this woman, his friend offered me a glass of water and let me use her Ipad to find my hotel! I ended up chatting with the dude about one of the screenplays I am writing. He later invited me to an evening of music on the beach in Nice. I didn’t go but that’s because I didn’t hear from him in time and I believe I felt too tired, or there was some miscommunication or other. I sort of regret it, but anyways the point is that they were quite hospitable and helped me without even knowing me.
I ask, is this a European thing? Was this because he was, as I said before, a “member of my tribe” (hippie, musician, free-spirited)? Perhaps its a bit of both? Its something I analyze as I know that I had one bad experience too in Europe (Greece) and had some in India and before in the US with foreigners/people of other cultures as well. This makes me think in a sense that maybe it has little to do with cultures, rather personalities and types of people, their age, interests, etc., yet I also think that this is a perhaps multi-layered issue: There are individuals in every culture I will and won’t get along with, yet it is in different ways from what I can tell. I know it also depends on me. I would have to live for an extended period of time in a different culture (which I really want to do and am upset I haven’t and it is part of why I deeply regret leaving Egypt) to really see. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t end up getting along at all? From what I can tell miscommunication with other cultures happens often, at least in my experience because of the language barrier. When miscommunication happens within cultures, for Aspies especially, it is due to barriers of a different sort. Yet again, I know that I had arguments with foreigners in the US and abroad over things that I felt were unfair. When I was in Gteece and visiting some historical sites, I ended up losing my ticket but had my receipt. Because I lost my ticket I wasn’t allowed to visit the rest of the historical sites. I was angry because I had my receipt that proved I payed. I complained and argued with different people but wasn’t allowed to visit the rest of the sites. They ended up calling the police on me! I wasn’t arrested or anything, I just ended up feeling humiliated and crying. One lady expressed basically that I had complained to everyone and was nuisance and annoying. Perhaps this is where my Aspieness comes in? My strong sense of right and wrong? Was it a little bit the fact that their English wasn’t that great and that the police barely spoke English? Maybe it was a Greek thing? I dunno, which is why I say this is multi-layered – maybe in some ways I really do get along better with other cultures, and in some ways I get along better with Americans. I know that I felt that when the foreigners I met spoke fluent English, and were very intelligent, (the same with friends I had like my Egyptian friend and Indian friend and with S) that communication was almost easier. Perhaps it also has a little to do with my own thinking? That automatically things will be easier as far feeling like I can be myself when I am in different countries? So I end up underestimating what could go wrong?
Perhaps what is hard is hard everywhere for everyone especially Aspies across all cultures, and I have just experienced positive things with the few Europeans and Egyptians I have met on an individual level, because I know I have experienced positive with Americans as well on an individual level. I’m not sure. I also know I have a rigid way of thinking and do stereotype people based on experiences. Some times I feel that I get along and relate too/ feel more apart of Western/European/”white” or “WASP” culture, and other times I am utterly sick of Americans, don’t want to live in any Western country or be around anyone of European descent as they all act the same, aren’t adventurous, hard to talk to, don’t appreciate other cultures and I’d rather be around Africans, or African Americans or Indians or Middle Easterners or North Africans. Again, perhaps it is context based, my mood or the experience I have had that day. And perhaps it isn’t culture or race related at all, but mentality related, as one of my friends put it, and certain people of other cultures and certain people of a certain mentality in America are likely to vibe with me and vice versa. Perhaps I would fit in best with people like my friend S who are of my same mentality and a different culture? Maybe its the best of both worlds?
When I was in Egypt, I found that people were easy to talk to, happy, positive and friendly. I was quite a curiosity in some ways being that I was a foreigner. I was approached on the street, invited in for tea, and when I was at the Egyptian museum some Egyptians cameto me, asked to pose for a picture, and said “Welcome to Egypt”. My perspective on Muslims really changed as I was surrounded by them and they all treated me very well. In the past I’ve been scared, distrustful, judgemental and even prejudice of them, even when I hadn’t had negative experiences with them (in fact had a mostly positive one with a Malaysian Muslim man who let me crash on his couch when I was in LA for time when I was deciding between paying another month’s rent and going to India, yet still felt judgemental of the majority of them). I even glared at them on occasion and typed mean things about them online when I chatted with military friends who were in Afghanistan fighting or on comment boards of articles about terrorist attacks. I feel bad now, but I also know that there obviously are aspects of their culture that are aggressive, regressive compared to others and violent. My Egyptian friend whom I knew before I went to Egypt said that because he was a Christian (Coptic) he was treated differently and even heard hateful, violent, threatening things being said against Christians over the Mosque loudspeakers. He also said that Egyptian Muslims treated Western Christians differently than Egyptian Christians. So perhaps I was treated better and with kindness because I was from a foreign country? I wore a scarf over my head that I tied in a bun when I was there in part because I wanted to attempt to fit into the more conservative culture where most women’s heads are covered, and in part because I liked it. I have heard of and seen Christian women who do cover their hair, and of course Christian women in ancient times did and today nuns do and many Eastern Christians including Egyptian Coptic Women cover their hair in Church. I guess I was interested in and liked the concept of ritual and tradition which is lacking a lot in Western culture, so I did it. This may have made the Muslim women, and some who also tied their hair like me, more comfortable around me, even when I told them I wasn’t Muslim. I’m not sure.
They Egyptian women were especially smiley, happy and friendly. They liked small talk, or at least most of them seemed to, which was the one thing I didn’t like, and most Aspies don’t. I didn’t like and don’t like being asked how I am and having to ask how the other person is out of politeness. This was common in Egypt and always said with a smile. Yet I noticed when chatting with one Egyptian girl, when I was feeling rather sad and contemplating leaving, she came off as very wise, understanding and empathetic and knew exactly what to say given my situation, and expressed sentiment that made me feel like she was exactly like me in some ways. This was also the same with the man who hired me, the head of the school, when I expressed to him that I couldn’t do the job, that I was having anxiety and depression and had actually been hospitalized before I came (part of the reason I left). I figured, even though my Egyptian friend was the same way, that when I was in Egypt and not around Americans, even Egyptian Americans, that it would be different, that they wouldn’t be understanding or even talk about things like mental health and depression. I was wrong. While my Egyptian friend was an individual, he was representative of Egyptians in some of his qualities, like being wise, empathetic, understanding and helpful.
One night after having been at the school all day (and not teaching because the first week students didn’t show up and it was all disorganized when some of them did and this is a whole other story for another post if I can bring myself to do it), one of the workers at the school offered to take me to the pharmacy and help me get my prescription. Everyday I was basically driven to and from the school in a van with other teachers and some workers, and sometimes instead of dropping us at home we could ask the driver to drop us off somewhere, because there wasn’t any public transportation and we would have to get a cab otherwise (one reason I didn’t stay). This day I knew I needed to get my prescription, and another teacher wanted the school driver to drop her off at the grocery store to get some milk. While the school driver was technically only responsible for taking us to school and dropping us off, it seemed he was willing to at least drop us off at different places and wait for teachers to get small items like milk and then get back in the car. Well we couldn’t coordinate how to get the one teachers milk as well as my prescription given that I didn’t know if and which pharmacy could fill it, so the one woman worker offered to take me herself and then drop me off at my apartment. It ended up that her dad drove! So her dad who didn’t even know me, and whom she asked after the school driver dropped me off, agreed then and there, in the middle of whatever he was doing to drive me long with his daughter, this woman, and her daughter (who was around 4 and who rode with us in the car and was dropped off at daycare everyday) to the pharmacy. She even went in with me and helped me get the prescription. On the way back to my apartment she picked up what I thought was a strange woman who was walking along the road and seemed to have a limp. She helped this woman get into the car, held onto her, then helped her get out. She apologized about what she did later, but it appeared to me that she obviously knew the woman she picked up to a certain extent and was being helpful and very kind in giving her a ride. This really struck me. Is this Egyptian culture ? Arab culture? I have heard that Arabs are hospitable and because of my friend assumed that they were all similar to him, yet I also hear about terrorist attacks and how women are mistreated and on and on. Yet I didn’t see any women being abused, unless you consider wearing a full face veil abusive/oppressive, which some do and I used to. (I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it even when I did cover my hair, though not to the extent most women did in Egypt). Again, it could be that it was just this particular woman, or it could be a combination of her and her culture, which I think was what I was trying to get at when I wrote earlier about things being multi-layered. I know that I have given people rides and helped people out when they needed it, and people have also given me rides when I did in America, but come to think of it often times those who gave me rides where foreigners, including one Egyptian! (Although that time what I did was incredibly dangerous: I was an extra on the set of a film and was playing a prostitute, full make up and all, and it was the 2008 election and that day I had forgotten to vote and it turned out that this was the first election I was able to vote in. I managed to convince the guy on set who was in charge of extras to let me go vote and come back. I didn’t have the money to get a cab, and being dressed like a prostitute I figured I could get a ride easily. Why I didn’t figure that I would likely get solicited for sex or possibly raped I don’t know, anyhow i managed to get a ride with a guy for free, who may or may not have been a cab driver I can’t remember, who was Egyptian. He drove me to the voting place and didn’t ask for sex or try anything, but he did ask “when he could see me again”. I digress. Perhaps the point is that Egyptians are helpful people and aren’t mal-intentioned, even when I heard they were). ANYHOW I really liked what I saw of Egyptian culture and felt like I related to their sense of helping out other people.
I did meet another teacher there who I was attracted to and who flirted with me and whom I flirted back with, a bit. He was married with 4 kids so I knew it wasn’t a good thing to do and it is probably better I left so it didn’t grow into anything more. He smelled good, was handsome, easy to talk with, smart, kind of like my Egyptian friend. He seemed open to chatting with me, even about things like sex and his marriage, (I swore I heard him mention sex) yet perhaps I misunderstood him because when I responded talking about things like sex and his marriage he reacted surprised and taken aback. Anyhow, he commented on how I was sensitive, which struck me as rarely anyone mentions that or points that out in conversation. I am very sensitive. I think that my other Egyptian friend knew this which was why he treated me sometimes the way he did, or perhaps not. He at least said I had a good heart. It seems like people from other cultures perhaps value things that Americans do not; in some ways they are less materialistic and seem to care more about the good inner qualities people have rather than what they have, and are able to see past insecurities and eccentricities to who the person is, to their strengths under their weaknesses.
I feel like Aspies are mostly honest, blunt, sensitive, justice-minded folks who find it hard to be fake and go with the crowd. Many of us are artists, engineers, scientists (we are considered “nerdy” in one way or the other) and think outside the box. We are analytical and adventureous and unconventional. This is why we may not be appreciated in the society we are in as our views and behavior do not flow with it. We are not likely to be trendy. It is interesting because Western society, like the US and Europe are in large part individualistic cultures, or so it is said/believed/written, yet I think there is a higher rate of diagnoses of Asperger’s/Autism in them, and Aspies are considered to be even more individualistic than others, and like me, seem to fit in better with other cultures that are usually more collectivist in nature. Does this mean that Aspies are actually collectivist to a certain extent? Or do their senses of justice, honesty and particular interests make them more fit for certain cultures? I often wonder this. One would think that being very individualist in an individualistic culture would make it even harder when being in a collectivist culture, but it doesn’t seem that way. Maybe like I said before, other cultures may be less materialistic and judgemental of eccentricities, or do not consider an Aspie’s eccentricities to be eccentricities at all.
I know that personally, when I feel more at home with other people of other cultures, it is because I feel somehow that with them I can say anything and won’t be judged or thought of as weird the same way I would with a typical non-Aspie American or even an Aspie American. The language barrier, for whatever reason, I have a love/hate relationship with. I hate it when I am trying to get something I need or express something in the US and the person I am talking to doesn’t speak English well or at all and I can’t understand them. Yet on the flipside, I have communication issues with native English speaking Americans that aren’t related to language barriers, and as stated previously I feel with many non-native English speakers, who at least speak/understand fluent English, I am able to communicate better. Perhaps it is in the context of the situation? I’m not sure, as I know that for whatever reason having a language barrier sometimes enables me to cut past the bullshit of fake politeness and tip-toeing around what I say and do as I already figure that we are not going to understand each other 100% percent culturally and linguistically as native speakers of either languages do so I might as well just completely be myself. I’ve considered that perhaps one reason or a main reason that non-Western and/or non- native-English speakers get along with Western/native English speaking Aspies like myself is that they are in the position of being considered weird/eccentric and an outcast by virtue of being a minority, so they are able to find common ground. Then again, I have felt it easier to be around people while in their countries as well, so it could be a combination of things. I also know that as Aspies, being that we are used to the outsider status and “standing out in the crowd”, we don’t find it disconcerting as much when we are the only Westerner/US citizen or in my case, Westerner/US citizen/white woman in another country or culture because it is like second nature. We always feel that way so it pretty much doesn’t seem to matter how we act.
All in all, I feel that travel and living abroad is good, beneficial and possibly life changing for Aspies. And for Aspies like me, it may be just what we need and what we always needed. If I can save up and find a way to earn more money, find a way not to get depressed and anxious when on my own completely and facing a new situation , (get over the “hump” as my mother calls it and as referenced in one of my favorite Erykah Badu songs), I may just find my life totally turned around and changed. I think other Aspies might as well. At the same time, I feel that at 31 I have wasted too much time not being abroad and the few years I may spend abroad won’t matter or make up for the years I wasn’t. Yet who knows, maybe they will. Or maybe it will in fact, won’t be that different abroad once I settle into another culture. I’ll have to see.
Here’s hoping I can live abroad and not freak out like I did in Egypt, that I can one day travel all over for a year and not feel the need to go home, or travel all over for the rest of my life, as I am not happy in the US. Maybe Egypt wasn’t for me and India was? Maybe Europe is best in the long term? I know that the problem is me, that I am unstable and anxiety/depression ridden no matter where I am, so I have to cure that. But I also know that whenever I am somewhere I long to be somewhere else, and that when I have left I have always been taken care of….