A Move Abroad Gives One Woman the Chance to Belong

speech bubbles
credit: Jen B. Peters for Hunker

One of the first games I played on my family's computer in the 1980s was "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" I imagined traveling to far-flung locations around the world to capture the titular character in red high-heeled shoes wearing a yellow dress under her trench coat.

As a selectively mute child, I read every Nancy Drew mystery I could get my hands on. I was comfortable immersing myself in the pages of books where I could explore the world without having to talk to anyone. I found it mentally exhausting to socialize because I relied on what I now know was scripted language to communicate as an autistic. Curling up with Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island or Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days was a welcome escape from having to look someone in the eyes.

In tenth grade, I spent countless hours reading about ancient Egyptian history. I used a typewriter to create perfectly formatted columns of text surrounded by colorful images of pyramids and mummies I taped on the pages. But in my twenties, I longed for real adventures. I wanted to go to the places I had only read about in books.

The first time I went abroad on my own was in my mid-twenties. I responded to an ad in my university's newspaper to teach English as a second language in Taiwan for the summer. I didn't know a word of Chinese and knew nothing about Taiwanese culture. But this didn't stop me from going. Not knowing anyone else in the country meant having a clean slate, an opportunity to live somewhere new without any expectations.

In Taiwan, I moved around the country teaching in summer camps for high school students. They had studied English since they started grade school, but they had never talked to a native English speaker. I was forced to communicate as their teacher, and because of that, I got better at social interactions with practice. My students, and even their local English teachers, were so concerned about having inadequate English language skills that they didn't pay much attention to any communication deficits I had.

In Tainan, a small city in Taiwan where very few foreigners visited, I couldn't fade into the background like I did at home to avoid starting a conversation. Instead, I was often the center of attention. Random strangers asked me to take photos with them, and even to sign autographs, as I walked down the narrow streets shared by pedestrians, bikes, scooters, and cars. When I visited an English class of preschool children, one girl started crying and ran away screaming a Chinese word at me, which her English teacher translated as "ghost." I tried unsuccessfully to hold back laughing at this child who was frightened by my appearance. My struggles to blend in, ironically, made me feel more at home.

I lived with the families of my students, traveling around on trains, cars, bikes, and scooters. At one point, I was spoiled with having a whole floor to myself while living with a family in a seven-story mansion. In another house, I felt guilty about taking over a private bedroom in a modest home, which must have been a big inconvenience for the host family. I was humbled by the small bowls of rice precisely measured at family meals and the efforts of one mother to consume all edible parts of a fish by sucking out its eyeballs. One family took the time to teach me the proper way to eat rice with chopsticks, which I have never forgotten. My first experiences in a country so foreign to me made me feel like I belonged there.

My summer in Taiwan was a major turning point in my life, a time when I felt more vulnerable, and yet more comfortable, than I had ever felt. I ventured out of my comfort zone because my desire for adventure was greater than my fear of the unexpected. I didn't know then that I was autistic, and wouldn't find out until I was diagnosed in my late thirties. But it was then that I realized an important lesson: I felt more at home when I was abroad than when I was in the U.S.

My stay in Taiwan would be the first of many other adventures in twenty more countries around the world. Major milestones in my life were experienced abroad. I never expected I would move halfway around the world on my own to work, but my first full-time job as a professor was in the United Arab Emirates. I moved to this country as an American expat, having never set foot there, and immersed myself in Emirati culture. The summer after my first year there, I got married in Jamaica. I spent another three years with my husband in the UAE, where I gave birth to my first daughter and got pregnant with my second.

I felt more at home when traveling abroad than in my home country because no one ever expected me to be good at social interactions when speaking in foreign tongues. I didn't have the same pressure to avoid social awkwardness abroad as I did in America, which made it easier for me to feel at home traveling as an autistic woman.

Like Carmen Sandiego, I'm not content with staying in one spot. But unlike her, I'm not running away from anyone. The home where I was born and the places where I've lived will always be a part of me. The journey I've taken across the globe means more to me than any physical location I've been.

Jennifer Malia is an English professor at Norfolk State University working on a book, part memoir and part science writing, about autism and gender.