aspergers, autism, culture, health, living abroad, psychology, travel

Hills and Valleys in the Far East

aerial photography of mountain
Photo by Suman Halder on

The Asian Dissuasion

The hardest part about living in Asia isn’t being halfway around the world. It’s not living somewhere I don’t speak the language and stick out like a sore thumb because of my skin color. It isn’t being someplace that doesn’t share the same spiritual beliefs or observe the same holidays as me. The greatest difficulty is being in a world that knows little to nothing about mental health. Asperger’s, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and other conditions for them are uncharted territory. Asian cultures either lack the resources and know-how or try to sweep it under the rug. They ignore the problem like it doesn’t exist. They’re too embarrassed to acknowledge it. Their mindset is night and day from what we see in the West. Day in and day out, I must remind myself Western culture is built around chivalry. The most important thing in America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand is making oneself and everybody around feel comfortable. Everybody wants to be included and feel solidarity. Thus, the reason political correctness is widespread.

Saving Face is Saving Grace

That doesn’t apply in Eastern cultures. Everything here is about keeping face. What I mean by that is maintaining one’s composure and public image. I stopped asking my students if they understood the material long ago in Thailand. That technique is useless because their default answer will be yes even if they have no clue. They’re too embarrassed to say no as they’re afraid of losing face. Confidence is considered one of the sexiest traits a man can have by Western women. A guy who does what he feels while not caring what others think wins the ladies over. That’s considered arrogance in this region as everyone is expected to be modest and not draw too much attention. Seeing an individual losing one’s temper and going ballistic is a rarity in this region. Not only is that person losing face; so is the person with whom he/she is getting short as is everyone around. It’s considered a weakness here. Losing and saving face can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. A few times I was spoken to whenever I had autistic meltdowns because the administrators didn’t know how to respond. They thought I was losing face and being hostile towards the staff while I was panicking because I felt overwhelmed.

The Hidden Dilemma

Explaining I had autism was fruitless because the concept is so foreign to them. A few students in my classes were on the spectrum. Some where higher-functioning than others. My first was in Thailand in Nakhon Ratchasima. There was a boy in my seventh grade class who blurted out random things in Thai. I thought at first he was being disrespectful. Then I figured he may have had Tourette’s. The headmistress told me he was a special. Nobody spelled it out, but I deduced he was autistic by his stimming. My instinct was to say he belonged in special ed, but that wouldn’t fly. Two boys I taught at my District Seven School in Saigon I suspected were on the spectrum. I was given the same instructions I’d received in Thailand in that I was supposed to ignore them. I didn’t like that practice, but I understood the rationale. There were thirty or forty other students in each class, and I couldn’t stop everything because one kid wasn’t engaged. I had to be creative in that regard. I gave the autistic boys pictures to draw and color, books to read, or something else to keep them occupied while I conducted the lesson. I didn’t know what else to do, and I had no other choice. On the plus side, those two boys made some fine artwork. I knew they had hidden talents that others overlooked.

Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don’t

Towards the end of the 2017-2018 school year, I applied for teaching jobs in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. My potential employers would ask personal questions about my medical history. There’s no such thing as doctor/patient confidentiality in those countries. Normally, I’d either tell them it’s none of their business or lie that I had nothing wrong with me, but I wasn’t incline to go there. I made that mistake years ago when I joined the United States Coast Guard. For three long years, I was treated like an outcast by my shipmates. I suffered clinical depression over being ostracized by my peers in a hostile working environment. One time I had my mother mail me antidepressants and took them surreptitiously to cope. Every day they had a firing squad lined up and a new barrage of insults ready to be unloaded at a moment’s notice. The most common thing they thought was that I was a closet homosexual. My colleagues made sure everyone else around the boat joined their lynch party. The wisdom I acquired from the Coast Guard prompted me to be honest. Indeed I didn’t appreciate how the companies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan tried gaslighting me during the interviews making me second guess my abilities. I knew I was qualified, but they weren’t having it. The powers that be wouldn’t let them overlook that, so I gave up.

The Hunt is Canned

It’s not uncommon for Asian parents to send their special needs kids to public schools. Most Westerners would concur that’s a recipe for disaster. The Asian parents are too ashamed to admit their children aren’t perfect and want to pretend they are. That made me angry, and it infuriated me further knowing there was nothing I could do. I’ve thereby called off my search for potential employment in East Asia. I’m not going to ignore my circumstance and pretend to be somebody else to accommodate them. If they can’t accept it, that’s not my problem. One of my biggest regrets is divulging it to my former employers in Bien Hoa, a suburb of Saigon. They wanted me to never bring it up again. At least that’s what I heard second-hand from my employment agency and the woman at the learning center. Neither would be forthright about it. They wouldn’t say it to my face because mental health is such a taboo subject in this part of the world. That said, I’ve been teaching online the past five months while transitioning into another career and preparing myself for a new adventure in Latin America. In a nutshell, I’m going back to the West where I belong.


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