When I was young I never really knew what I wanted to be. I was a good all rounder academically so I was not encouraged to make any decisions. People told me I should keep my options open and not specialise to early. I never committed to anything and, as I have made my way through life, I never really have.
So here I am. At fifty I am still drifting through life and wondering what and where is next. I fell into teaching more than twenty years ago. It was more about escaping the drudgery of life at the town hall than finding a vocation. I now appear to happily richochet between the two, though teaching is my preferred choice.
My current incarnation, a teacher of English in Cambodia, is going rather well. I am enjoying the challenges and there are plenty of them. My current path has taken down some very new and different teaching avenues and might almost tempt me to stay a while. I have already been here six months and it’s starting to feel like home but then there are so many other countries and they are so close.
I am a restless soul. I roll and I drift and I don’t gather moss because I can’t keep still. Some researchers say that ADHD and Aspergers are closely linked. I don’t know if it’s true but certainly I can switch my focus from one thing to another fairly easily. It’s what I do best. After all I am a good all rounder. It seems a bit daft to settle down to something at this point. So I will continue along my rather chaotic Asperger Path, passport in hand, and no doubt find some activities that will divert my attention. The only deficit I can see is the judgmental way society labels and classifies its dazzling differences and distinct diversities.
I lead a very small life. I get up and go about my business and to most I am an unknown. I am a nameless stranger on the streets of a city whose language I cannot read or speak.
Yet, everyday I feel welcomed. When shopping, the generosity of a smile, when I struggle to communicate, calms me down. The old ladies of the market laugh at me but I can see the kindly twinkle in their eyes as I stumble through buying my vegetables. The toddlers, standing on the footplate of their parents’ scooter even shout hello as they go past. So I may be unknown but I’m not unnoticed. As a foreigner, a barang, I stand out. I am tall, even by British standards, so here in Cambodia I feel as if I’ve come down a bean stalk. I sail around the town on a big old fashioned bike, having eschewed the ubiquitous motorbike, gathering smiles.
In my small life, these seemingly meaningless interactions are anything but. Each one contributes to a sense of happiness. Here in Cambodia people are shy but they are not wary. Having come from Europe where the single adult male is shunned as potential stranger danger it is lovely to receive happy waves and carefree waves and hear parents encouraging their children to say hello.
I will never change the world and I have no aspiration to do so. Nor will many of the people I see every day. However, a cheery hello or an open smile can change someone’s day. I know this because the good people of Battambang share their small city and their kind, friendly nature with me, making my small life a happier one.
A streetcar named desire stopped in my town the other day. A stranger disembarked and before he got back on he got and the bell clanged to signal his departure he declared that I looked comfortable in my own skin. Such a lovely compliment, thrown as he sped away to elsewhere.
We had spent such a short time together but looking back, the conversation was deep and the humour dry and sparkling like a good champagne. Certainly I had felt easy in the to and fro of the friendly conversational joust in which neither of us were tilted from our seats. We were well matched.
I’ve never depended on the kindness of strangers but when you’re travelling alone a stranger’s takes can light up dark unknown skies. I thrive on meeting new people. The relationships are superficial even if the conversations are deep and the torturously subtle complexities and conventions of long term relationships are hazards that need not be traversed.
As I travel alone on the Asperger Path, I realise that my life has acquired an openness and sense of freedom that it had often lacked. I have neither the time nor the ability to set up bizarre rules and restrictions. My life, so often run around a set of self constructed, constrictive mantras, is now open to the four winds and whoever they blow my way.
I have made some unusual choices and I’m sure the odd eyebrow is raised in my honour. However I took the road less travelled so I grateful when the streetcar drops off a stranger and he walks a block or two with me. I don’t depend on their kindness but it is most welcome.
I met a man the other day who blew away the cobwebs that had gathered in forgotten corners of my mind. Through his conversation he gently reminded me of lost passions and interests that have lain, unvoiced, in the hinterland of my consciousness. He was travelling at light speed through South East Asia. However this cosmic hare paused for breath before zipping past me, the earth-bound sluggish tortoise.
We talked of things from home mostly. A trip back to the familiar which was less memory lane than a base touch with my own culture. The politics of the left and the left out was discussed over one too many beers and the world unable to righted was dispaired over. We shifted our focus to love and relationships and discovered much in common. We both believed in the openness and flexibility of love. Seemingly polar opposites, the more we discussed the broader out common ground became.
When he left I knew that I would never see him again. I wish he were a tortoise because I could have travelled and talked with him forever. How easy life would be but I don’t fall in love with tortoises. I fall in love with hares and so I wake up with spiders rebuilding their homes in forgotten corners.
Situations have been a little overwhelming lately and I needed to do something to resolve them. Life in Cambodia can see chaotic to an outsider and I guess I can be chaotic too. Chaos squared does not bode well. Chaos can cause me anxiety so I don’t want things getting exponential. When I get anxious, I feel make rash decisions because my emotions, those unreliable things that should not cloud sensible decisions, run riot. They bounce around like pinballs at the arcade and the bells and flashing lights overload my senses. All too often I end up annoyed and frustrated because I feel my actions have been useless and yet instrumental in my own failure.
A friend of mine was listening to me berate myself over a beer. She knows me well so waited patiently for me to exhaust my train of thought. When I stopped for breath she intervened. She placed a calming, cooling, rather compassionate logic over my thoughts. First she explained that actually in situation x what else would one do but y. She elabotated that, because x was so pressing, obviously y was a short term solution to alleviate the situation until z could be implemented.
I wish everyone could be more algebraic with their care and love. On the Asperger Path, it is rare to meet someone can translate the world in a way that makes life suddenly seems so beautifully ordered.
Maybe love is just a very difficult simultaneous equation. Perhaps each of my friends could be approached as a quadratic equation. If my friend can both salve and solve me with algebra, it’s time for me to start applying some maths and solving a few of life’s problem.
Once upon a time I would have said that friendship was a magical connection that was made so rarely that it should be treasured and nurtured. I had a tight inner circle as sacrosanct as that of Arthur’s knights.
My well organised life was full of lovely people and I categorised them into a bewilderingly bizarre, teetering hierarchy. ‘Friend’ was the highest accolade and few made it to those dizzying heights. There were more mundane positions which were easier to fulfill such as ‘people I know’ or ‘people I like’ and even ‘people I like to say hello to’. ‘Nice ladies in shops’ were good for a quick chat as were ‘bus stop people’. I defined my relationships and used these distinctions to keep people at a distance despite being essentially quite lonely. I rarely allowed movement as I was a fan of my slightly melancholy status quo. I left that ivory tower life and jumped headlong into the unknown.
Have I become more breezy. Is it possible that I am easy going. I doubt it. The Asperger Path will always be a challenging route . However, now that I am travelling there is no status quo for me to protect from would be friends and so my relationships do need to be scrutinised into the calcified classifications of before. This means that my use of the word friend has become more generic and as result my life feels a little less complex. I’m still awkward, clumsy and inept and I avoid some situations but I no longer bestow friendship like some coveted prize to be earned like a knight’s spurs. These days I have more friends and my relationships are governed as much by proximity as any other factor.
So if you’re in Battambang, are not a racist, like to laugh and have a reasonable level of intelligence chances are I see you as friend. It is as simple as that.
Things that we don’t fully comprehend can seem deeply mysterious or ridiculously trivial. What I am about to explain to you may seem silly, but to me it is a source of pain and anguish. Try to read without prejudice. I have Asperger’s Syndrome and that should not be a surprise to any of my readers. I talk about it a lot but rarely give examples of the impact it has on my life.
There’s a woman who has been a little unkind to me. Nothing serious but she has been unhelpful and unsupportive. I avoid interactions with her and that makes my life better.
I was sitting in a café, lost in my own world. Happily speculating on nothing in particular and drinking a flat white which is a favourite pastime. The café is small so when she lumbered in she had to sit in close proximity. She said hello and then sat with her friends who I don’t know. My happy speculation stopped. The nothing in particular suddenly became an almost obsessive panic. This is the social awkwardness that Aspergers causes in me. I wanted to run. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to be anywhere else but near her. My coffee was ruined.
But it got worse.
A mutual friend arrived. Clearly she had arranged to meet this woman and after saying hello to me she joined their table. My levels of discomfort increased to a point of excruciating social pain. I felt claustrophobic and I wanted to leave but also didn’t want my leaving to perceived as a statement.
I left the cafe and the following day left town and went and stayed overnight in a nearby city. I am always more flight than fight. Three days later I’m still analysing this debacle. My anxiety allows me to try and explore every possible permutation in which our paths might cross in the future. I live the potential pain and feel it as if it’s actually happening.
Irrational thoughts are so perplexing. I want to leave work. I want to leave town. I want to create a world where I never see this woman again. Of course what I need to do is get some perspective. She is just a person. She is liked by some and not by others just like me. However I have a tendency to see things in black and white. I catastrophise situations and see only the negative outcomes and in doing so create my own catastrophe.
So there you go. She is an extreme example but I analyse every relationship and every interaction to the same degree. I take the ridiculously trivial and create something deep and mysterious and that is something I don’t fully comprehend.
My life is pretty good but…
There’s this woman who drags me down. She doesn’t do anything much and our limited interactions have been few but negative. I guess I feel that she has a very poor opinion of me and I rather wish that she didn’t.
The truth is I don’t know what her opinion of me is. On this planet I am but one of several billion souls and, whilst we have met, I may have had quite a minor impact. Right now she may be doing something life changing while I sit here and navel gaze. I am the god of obsessing about small things and I am cursed with wanting everyone to like me.
They don’t. I have Aspergers and as such tend to fall into the “love ’em or hate ’em” category. This woman seems to deliberately not get me. Most people I meet find it hard to believe that I have social and communication difficulties. They bring out my charm and wit so gently and make feel quite normal.
However there are a minority, a sizeable minority of people with whom I cannot get along. These people seem to take a very direct type of umbrage to all I do and say. My rubbing is all wrong way and they lay the blame at my door. Do I celebrate the majority? Sadly no, I obsess about those who make my life difficult. I often seek opportunities to let them see in a different light. Those opportunities all too regularly backfire. I need to stop worrying about other people so much. I can’t be anyone other than who I am. I am a well liked man making my way in the world. No buts.
My life is pretty good.
Last night I had dinner with friends and it was a lovely way to end the long holiday weekend. In other parts of the world people were celebrating Easter but here we are still celebrating the Khmer New Year.
The world can be such a small place and most of the people around our table last night know a friend of mine from the capital city. This link, albeit tenuous, makes me feel a sense of trust belonging that is rare. The Asperger Path tends to shy away from multidimensional relationships and favour black and white labelling and compartmentalisation. Circles of friends are tricky for me. The subtle interrelationships can leave me floundering and lost. However there I was sharing an evening with work colleagues and non work colleagues, friends and partners, homos and straights and I was happy.
I usually prefer my friendships to be like a simple spider diagram. Each friendship separated and independent. Each one stranded out into a straight line. This does not leave me in the centre of anything but does allow an intensity on which I have thrived in the past. I tend to meet a friend and devote my attentions solely to them. Deep conversations are preferable to the lighter chatter of a group setting.
I will persevere with this group. Serendipity has dropped me amongst good-hearted people who I enjoy spending time with. I’m travelling because I wanted to change the life I had. So I will try circles, spirals, wheels as well as the straight lines I am used to.
Sour s’day chhnam th’mei – Happy New Year.
We chose a spot on the river bank, under a tree, to try and escape the heat. He wanted to talk and I was happy to listen. He told me that he feels he doesn’t fit in or truly belong anywhere. I wanted to reach out and hug him but instead I asked him if he knew what he wanted from life. The uncertainty and long silences convinced me he had never thought about that. My friend has so much ahead of him and so many choices to make.
After a month apart, being with him for a day, reminded me how lonely my life can be. His easy presence sharpened all the absences I feel. Funny that he is lonely too, this man who brought his life crashing into my quiet world. He seems unaware of the brilliant power in his smile and the joy it brings to those around him. I always knew that behind his smile was something darker. Not sadness, but a shadowy awareness that his life is not going to be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
I hope one day he realises this is a gift of sorts. It can be a chance to build a life slightly apart from the world and have a detached perspective that, although skewed, can be truly unique. Perhaps he, like me, will discover that his life is a solitary state and some lives are never truly shared. We simply choose people who make our solitary existence more bearable.
I think he has chosen me.