Spectrummy Mummy

Asperger's, Allergies, and Adventures Abroad

Culture Shock

with 19 comments

I was born with a neurotypical brain.  For the most part, I sense and perceive the world like the average person.  I can communicate with ease, and have no problem getting my needs met.  I find it easy to connect to other people, and interpret what they mean, even when they express themselves non-verbally.  I can read accounts written by those on the spectrum, and I can observe my daughter closely, but I will never know what it is like to be on the autism spectrum.

But I do know what it is like to feel different.

I came to live in the US when I got married, five years ago.  I assume that my transition to this country was infinitely smoother than most foreign-born wives.  I speak English fluently(!), I’d previously traveled in the U.S., I’d been working at the American Embassy, and count several Americans as close friends.  I didn’t anticipate any difficulties assimilating into my new life.

Like most people who move to a new country, I first enjoyed an extended honeymoon period.  Everything seemed better, faster, easier.  The cashier bags your groceries for you?  Brilliant!  Your request to have food prepared your way is graciously met.  You are enthusiastically encouraged to have a great day, without sarcasm.  Puzzling, but genuinely endearing too.

Then, after a few weeks, the novelty of the new place wears off, homesickness creeps in, and culture shock begins.  Why can’t I just put my own shopping in bags?  I feel like a fool just standing here doing nothing, it wastes time.  Can’t people just eat what is on the menu?  And I swear, if another person tells me to have a nice day, I will vomit on them.  Culture shock and morning sickness both hit me unexpectedly at the same time on that last one.

The worst thing though, is not knowing the rules.  The hidden curriculum that everybody around you just takes for granted.  I vividly remember the first time it happened to me.  I was at the post office, trying to send a package to my parents.  I’d written their address clearly, then put my return address on the back, as we do in England.  The man at the counter refused to send it, and said I needed to do it right, but with no explanation.  I asked him to clarify, and in an exasperated tone, he told me I needed to write the return address in the lefthand corner.  I couldn’t figure out why it made a difference moving the address to the side, but I did as requested, and sheepishly  returned to the counter.  This time the guy was unexpectedly furious.  It turns out that he meant the front of the package, not the back.  He scribbled all over the package, stuck labels on and alternately condescending and mocking my accent, he pointed to where I needed to write, and threw some forms at me.  I didn’t even make it out of the post office before tears of humiliation were streaming down my face.

Hours later, my new husband returned home from work to find me still upset.  Not only did I hate the U.S. Postal Service (which, incidentally, is very American of me) but I hated America, and needed to return immediately to the land of good and decent people that were my own.  I think Spectrummy Daddy was a little perplexed at his tough cookie wife turning to mushy dough.  Eventually I calmed down, got a lesson in the very basic art of sending packages from my considerate husband, and got my mettle back.  He was outraged that the institution was so intolerant of an outsider, and before long I felt that way too.  That man had no right to treat me like that, nor anybody else who isn’t aware of the hidden rules, no matter how basic they are.  When I marched back down to the post office another day, ready to go postal, that same worker wasn’t there.  To this day I feel edgy and full of indignation when I enter a post office, though I’ve always been treated well ever since.  Probably because I know where to write the damn address now.

There have been other incidents, where I just haven’t understood the protocol in certain situations, but nothing has ever upset me the way that time did.  These days I explain to people that I’m from another country, and need extra explanations sometimes.  Most people are obliging, and it is only on rare occasions that I feel like an alien.  The lessons have been extremely useful to me.  It helps me to remember that there are many things that Pudding needs extra clarification at times, especially on things I take for granted that everybody understands.  When we are trying our best to fit in, and are confused by what is happening, might be the time it is hardest to explain that you don’t understand.  And if I feel like this, how in the world does my girl feel, day in, day out?

Last week my petrol light came on when I was driving in Maryland.  My mind was far away dwelling on a conversation I’d just had with Pudding’s speech therapist.  I found a gas (petrol) station, and began pumping.  A man who worked there cam running up and asked me if I needed help.  I was puzzled, but assured him I could manage.  Then he started cleaning my windshield, which I wasn’t expecting either.  Next he asked if I needed my tyre pressure checked.  I told him I didn’t, but by this time I was very uncomfortable.  I never know when I should tip somebody, so always leave that to my husband.  I worried that he would be offended if I didn’t give him something, or insulted that I would try.  Then I panicked as I realized I had no cash on me, I’m like the Queen in that respect.  Luckily another driver came up to him, and I made a quick getaway.

That night I told Spectrummy Daddy about this, and how I think I’ll always have culture shock until I learn all the rules pertaining to life in America.  Learning those rules is particularly hard when we move so frequently, and parenting special needs children can be isolating.  He patiently listened, and nodded, then suggested I look around next time at the gas station that I don’t accidentally pull into the “Full Service” pump.

It isn’t always about being different.  Being in our own world, and not paying attention might be something else my girl and I have in common.

Written by Spectrummy Mummy

January 6, 2011 at 6:59 am

19 Responses

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  1. Oh wow!
    Here in oz, we put the return address on the back of the envelope or parcel too!

    And we don’t have full service petrol stations either. And as for tipping? That’s unheard of here.
    I’d be screwed in America.

    I think that’s it wonderful that you are able to use these horrible experiences and use them to further develop the already amazingly deep compassion that you have for Pudding. Xx


    January 6, 2011 at 7:07 am

    • The tipping is still tough for me, escpecially because I’m mathematically challenged. Sounds like oz would be an easy place for me to live though!

      Spectrummy Mummy

      January 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

  2. Wow I am sorry that that person at the post office was so
    obnoxiously nasty to you.I do hope that you have been able to find
    some nicer people along your way as you get used to us here in the
    US. Alot of us are gruff but quite well meaning. It is an
    interesting analogy between your experiences and Puddings world. As
    an NT parent of two asd boys I do have to remind myself of the
    things they just don’t get without alot of simple straightforward
    explanation too.Your story was a great reminder.


    January 6, 2011 at 7:45 am

    • You know, they can be just as mean everywhere. I don’t know what that guys issues were, but he wouldn’t have got away with that if I wasn’t feeling so vulnerable at the time. It is so easy to forget to explain things, isn’t it?

      Spectrummy Mummy

      January 6, 2011 at 11:00 am

  3. If it makes you feel any better I never know when to tip either, and I’m kind of a native. 🙂 OH! And the sonofabitch postal worker was just being an ass. Sometimes I put the return address in the front upper left, other times on the back, and as long as the mailing address has been right my mail gets delivered just fine! What a butthead!

    Fi’s right. It is wonderful that you can use these experiences to help foster a better understanding of your kids. Well done!


    January 6, 2011 at 7:54 am

    • Is still seems a little too strict, I’m certain it would have got there just fine. Kind of pathetic that he needed to make me feel small, I agree, he was an ass. Even 5 years later, I’m still seething about it.

      Spectrummy Mummy

      January 6, 2011 at 11:02 am

  4. Great post! I lived in Germany for six years, and we did most of our shopping in local markets rather than on the army post. It was always a learning experience. 🙂 Being a fish out of water, unaware of implicit norms, makes it easier to understand the need to explain things to our children. Hah, and the whole being in our own little worlds I know all too well. I have a sign by my chair that says “I know I’m in my own little world but they know me here.”


    January 6, 2011 at 8:18 am

    • My kids were born in Luxembourg, so we spent a lot of time in Germany. Of course I had culture shock there too, but less excessive, and I was expecting it too. I really need a sign like that. 🙂

      Spectrummy Mummy

      January 6, 2011 at 11:04 am

  5. I’ve lived in Ireland now for 20 years and more or less gone native, but I remember so well upsetting people who just didn’t realise that I didn’t know the ‘rules’. How about an ex-pats guide to surviving in the USA?

    Blue Sky

    January 6, 2011 at 8:30 am

    • Ha, yes, another thing for my ever-growing to-so list! I think I’d not be the wisest choice, I’m pretty well assimilated these days, even my language has changed, for the most part.

      Spectrummy Mummy

      January 6, 2011 at 11:05 am

  6. That is crazy that they were so mean at the post office. Sorry about that. I love how you use your experiences to better understand your daughter.


    January 6, 2011 at 11:08 am

    • The meanest people in the world work in post offices and the DMV. Not that everyone who works there is mean, but people have been the rudest while sitting beneath signs that read “Customer service is our priority.” Please!

      Spectrummy Mummy

      January 7, 2011 at 11:52 am

  7. don’t ever drive in new jersey… they only have full service pumps there 😉
    and now you know what it means to “go postal” (only you’re the one read to do it).

    Do yourself a favor – never ask a group of 5th-12th graders for a “rubber” – they’ll eat you alive!

    I’ve had my share of moments – granted they were more than 20 years ago, including a teacher mocking & laughing at (and getting a3rd grade class to laugh at) my pronunciation of “arkansas” (which I thought was “are – kansas” – like the other state). I still think she’s a stupid cow 😉


    January 6, 2011 at 2:50 pm

  8. I came here by way of Defying Gravity. Great post. I think this highlights what it might feel like for our kids much of the time. If only people were more understanding, but clearly, there are morons like that P.O. worker, who deserved to get fired!


    January 6, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    • Thanks for visiting. He was a real jerk, I hope he has gone. We don’t live in that area any more, so I have no idea. With awareness comes understanding, I hope.

      Spectrummy Mummy

      January 7, 2011 at 11:48 am

  9. I’m just now getting to the roundup submissions, and I must say that unfortunately the workers of the USPS don’t have the greatest reputations. This guys was an extremely big douche to you though. I hope you get better treatment from most other American’s.

    Sara Roy

    February 3, 2011 at 10:05 pm

  10. The Weekly State Department Roundup is out and you’re on it! Check it out here:


    Sara Roy

    February 4, 2011 at 7:25 pm

  11. […] culture shock – Yep, I’m the bewildered woman you’re looking […]

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