Spectrummy Mummy

Asperger's, Allergies, and Adventures Abroad

Posts Tagged ‘outsider

The Hidden Curriculum

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I first came across the term hidden curriculum as a sociology student studying education.  It refers to all the things you learn in school, but aren’t expressly taught, such as social norms and values.  The hidden curriculum was used as an explanation for why students of different race, gender, and social class have different outcomes even when exposed to the same classroom setting.

Then I lived in France when I was twenty, and I learned that this concept needn’t be applied just to education, but as a way of understanding cultural differences.  Sometimes rules are expressly taught, or laws, and other times it seems like people just know when something is inappropriate.

I’ve since lived in a few different cultures, and I’ve learned to observe closely when somebody does something unexpected.  The chances are that I’m the one who is acting out of the ordinary.

Take driving, for instance.  Since we arrived here, driving has been a fraught experience for me.  Between avoiding kombi buses, and aggressive windscreen washers, my heart races as though I’m in a war zone.  I soon noticed that drivers here use their hazard lights for different purposes to elsewhere in the world.  While they are still used to indicate a hazard, or that the driver must stop suddenly, people also use them as a thank you to another driver who allows them  into their lane, for instance.

Upon learning this information, I decided to adopt this method too.  Indeed, now it makes sense to flash my hazards, and I’ll have to relearn not to do that when I move, lest I bring traffic to an abrupt halt everywhere I go.

But there are other social norms I’ve learned that I reject.  It is very common here to see children without seatbelts or car safety seats, but I haven’t adopted that as a way for my family.  Of course, the safety aspect overrides any desire I have to fit in.

When I go to the gym here, I’ve noticed that the changing room culture is quite different to other places I’ve lived.  I don’t consider myself particularly puritanical for an American or Englishwoman, but I was surprised by the difference between changing room behaviour here and elsewhere.

In England, after taking a shower, we keep our towel wrapped around us for as long as possible.  When It comes time to drop it, we turn and face the wall or locker and dress hurriedly.  We may still talk to a friend or acquaintance during this time, but there is no requirement for eye contact(!) and we tend to focus on the task at hand.

At the gym I attend here, things are quite different.  Women use their towels to stand on, sit on, or wrap around their hair, but covering the body seldom happens.  They tend to face one another in conversation, and are just as casual and comfortable as if dressed.

Now, if I wanted to make friends in the gym, I know that I’d have to adopt these practices myself.  Instead, I find myself modestly choosing a changing booth with a locked door to get dressed.  This behaviour must no doubt appear odd to everybody there.  If nothing else, it highlights me as an outsider.

For Pudding, life is going to be complicated.  Not only are there all these hidden rules and expectations that might not seem relevant to her, but even if she were interested in learning to fit in, we move every two or three years to a whole new culture.

How is she to decide what is worth paying attention to, or what values she should accept or discard when these things change all the time?  Or will she become really good at this?  Will she develop a chameleon-like ability to adapt to other cultures, even if she feels like an outsider at times?

Lately I’ve seen Pudding learn some new little things that haven’t been expressly taught to her.  She sees when it is time for dinner, and goes to set the table.  She took off her shoes waiting to go on a bouncy castle, and lined them up with those of the other children.

Whether she becomes really good at learning the hidden curriculum, or never develops an interest in it, our job is to make sure that home is always a place where she can be herself, no matter where that is.  And that is something that need never be hidden.

Written by Spectrummy Mummy

June 1, 2012 at 11:34 am

Culture Shock

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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