Every expat and international student who comes to China feels lonely when they first arrive. I know that I did when I returned to Shanghai in July 2017. It wasn’t my first time in China, but Shanghai was still a city that didn’t feel like home. However, after making several Shanghainese friends, I realized that I wanted to make Shanghai my home for a few more years after I graduate.
It is harder for me to make friends and shake this loneliness because I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of four. Autism in the United States is classified as a neurological condition in which people have deficits in maintaining, developing, and understanding different relationships. Other characteristics of autism are routine and intense interests. One of my interests is Chinese culture, language, and history. Coming to China was a big step for me in 2016 but moving to China by myself was an even bigger accomplishment. But I still couldn’t help feeling alone. This was until I met Lydia and her son, Jason, in March 2018. Lydia and Jason are Shanghainese and have welcomed me into their home. I met them through my advisor from the Special Education Department at East China Normal University. I’m working with that department as my thesis topic is in relation to autism and I also want to meet other autistic people in China.
Holly and Jason.
Lydia was adamant about wanting to meet me due to Jason having Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism spectrum disorder. She wanted to learn more about me and my growth as she hoped her son could overcome his differences just as I had. Jason is fully communicative and incredibly smart, preferring to study Japanese instead of English.
Holly and Jason at ECNU International Culture Festival.
I first met Lydia outside of ECNU at a coffee shop and talked for about an hour. A few weeks later, she invited me to her home for a weekend. Since meeting her, I had given a two-hour Q&A session for her autism support group here in Shanghai. This group was formed so that moms with autistic children in Shanghai can support each other. The presentation was held at the end of April 2018.
My relationship with her and her son slowly became a more familial type relationship. Lydia has become a mother figure in my life. This means I became more comfortable being myself around her. It’s always hard for me to be my true self around others because they cannot understand why I act the way I do. I knew that I felt more comfortable after I took a trip with her and her family to Yunnan during the summer holiday.
We were traveling in Yunnan for about eight days. During the trip, there was one incident where we missed our overnight train from Kunming to Lijiang. We had about a half-hour to board our train but didn’t have enough time to acquire our tickets. While running through the train station to get to our train, I felt so much pressure and anxiety because I knew that we would miss our train. The staff wouldn’t let us on the train although there was one minute before departure. I felt as if I were going to cry. The anxiety was eating away at my brain. I had to take a walk in the train station to calm down because I didn’t want Lydia to see me like this. When I came back to meet up with them, Lydia informed me that our tour guide bought new tickets and we would get on the next train in about an hour. However, we only had seats, not sleeper-train tickets. I was exhausted and still upset about missing the train that I wasn’t too excited about having only seats. Eventually we got on the next train heading to Lijiang and our tour guide changed our seats to sleeper beds. My mood improved. The next day I told Lydia about how I felt and apologized for my actions. She said she understood and I didn’t need to apologize.
After the Yunnan trip, I felt a lot closer. In the beginning of October, we celebrated my birthday together. I had recently given a presentation at Shanghai Experimental East School in Pudong on my growth as an autistic individual. Jason was also a guest speaker as well and it was his very first presentation. Lydia had organized this presentation with Ed-Ability, a childhood development center here in Shanghai. Ed-Ability had given me an extravagant gift for doing the presentation. Over the course of this past year, I have received much care from Lydia and gifts from her. These acts of hospitality by Lydia and others in Shanghai have moved me in a profound way. I felt like I didn’t offer much in return for the gifts I have been given by Lydia, the extra bed I have slept in, and the friendship they provided. However, I was reassured by my advisor that I had done a lot more for Lydia and her family than I realized. And that was, that I had given them inspiration and hope for Jason, hope for more growth and opportunity for his future in more ways than one. It was because Jason had told Lydia that he hopes to overcome his emotions and control his temper because he sees how I handle some situations. Jason sees me and is inspired by me. I hope that I can inspire not just him, but others to overcome their differences and face the future head on.