Until I Open My Mouth, No-One Will Know That I’m Different

Seven countries, sixteen years and thousands of words on the page about expat life, and in a single moment a woman living in my home country with a sole six month expat experience summed it all up in a sentence.

It had been less than enjoyable for her. Paris is a dream location for many; fantasies of long walks through historic back streets punctuated with food, wine and cheese. Her partner was fluent in French and enjoying  the new office with the Eiffel Tower as its back drop. Her existence looked somewhat different, an incredibly small apartment with a very busy toddler. She hadn’t realised what some of the effects of the language barrier would be. They had no money, she couldn’t see how she could get back to work, they had visa problems. She could feel herself slipping into a depression. The smallest of things became the biggest of issues.

It wasn’t just the language. There were so many times that she didn’t only not understand what they were saying but also why they were saying it. “Their customs, their rules, their ways – I just didn’t feel like I belonged there”.

I nodded, with the recording equipment on I didn’t want to interrupt her train of thought. She was saying something I knew so many people would identify with, we’d all been that person. She took a breath.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be autistic, but to me I felt like expat life gave me a window into what it might be like. I was living in a world where I looked the same, and while I was walking amongst it I could almost blend in, almost. But when I opened my mouth it was obvious I wasn’t the same. I couldn’t communicate. I saw the world differently. I just couldn’t fit it.”

I don’t want to diminish how hard it is to live with autism, there’s obviously no comparison. Expats can often walk away from their expat lives, those with autism can’t. Where the similarities lay is with our senses being out of sync, our language becoming literal, and our social interactions more intense.

We dream of going to far flung lands, of visiting exotic locations. What we sometimes forget in our rush for the unknown is how much we’re going to want to fit in and be understood when we get there.

So far away from everything familiar and yet we’re all still trying to belong.

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