By Tom Clements
As a teen, when most of my schoolmates were out exploring the world of dating and relationships, I remained the inveterate oddball, choosing instead to indulge my special interest in maps and to engage in the sort of activities that had as little to do with physical intimacy as possible. While my buddy James courted his sweetheart Alison in the Sixth Form common room, I sat in a remote corner engrossed in maps of Japan, learning the capitals of each prefecture and jotting them down in my notebook multiple times to cement them in my memory.
Pursuing my special interest with extra intensity distracted me from my raging hormones and the desire to seek out opportunities for love and romance which, as an autistic person with a deep aversion to chit-chat and small-talk, weren’t exactly easy to come by.
This pattern of behavior continued into my twenties. At university, I opted for a solitary existence confined largely to my room in the halls of residence and a library cubicle in the far top-right corner of the humanities reading room. Typical venues like bars and clubs where romantic encounters usually occur were impossible places for a noise-sensitive, socially-awkward Aspie like me to even enter. So, I passed up the ample opportunities college offers young men for meeting girls in favor of late nights in immersed in books by Thoreau and Huxley, my then favorite authors. I lost myself in a world of fantasy and alternate reality to escape the rather bleak idea of missing out on what is an undeniably important aspect of the human experience.
It was at the ripe old age of 27 during a teaching stint in Asia that I had my first experience of romance. Being a white, blue-eyed European, I was considered quite a catch in the eyes of many Chinese and even attracted the interest of several of my coworkers. My eccentricities and foibles were less visible to a foreign audience and any faux pas I made were put down to me simply being a foreigner unaccustomed to the complexities of Chinese interaction. It was quite a self-esteem boost to have women come up to me in the street wanting to take selfies and complimenting me on my “handsome” appearance. Even so, I was reluctant to initiate a relationship with a girl out of a fear that I might have to one day be intimate, something that I would most likely struggle with due to my sensitivity to touch. Even holding hands to me seemed an intimidating prospect.
It was only when AJ, an Indian medical student I’d befriended, said to me “The right one will love you exactly how you are, Tom. You don’t need to worry about being shy for now. Trust me.” Boosted by his kind and encouraging words, I went out and found my girl. Her name was Cindy Wei and she was to be my introduction to the bitter-sweet reality of romance and relationships.
Cindy certainly wasn’t the prettiest girl. In fact by Chinese standards, she was plain, perhaps even a little bit ugly. It wasn’t her looks so much that attracted me to her. It was her quiet, unassuming nature that appealed to me more than the meretricious beauty of many other girls in China who caked themselves in white make-up and wore contact lenses that made their eyes look more European. There was no vicious streak in Cindy. She was a kind, honest and gentle soul who was softly spoken and sensitive. I liked her a lot.
I also felt sorry for her. She was 29 and unmarried, which, while nothing out-of-the-ordinary here, is considered just a stone’s throw from being a so-called “leftover woman” in China. After a couple of dates at coffee shop, I asked her out. She said I’d made her the happiest girl in China. I must say, I felt a little perturbed by this. I knew, in my heart of hearts I wasn’t going to be able to maintain this. I was too prone to retreat into my shell and to shy away from close physical contact. I also knew wasn’t going to be able to socialise with her friends at a noisy karaoke joint either. Lots of thoughts raced through my head initially.
We had a fun time at first. She was a local of Zhengzhou, the city I worked in, and she knew its labyrinthine streets inside out. She’d introduce me to peculiar delicacies I’d never eaten and showed me around some of the most stunning Daoist temples in the city where she’d tell me of ancient myths and we’d both light incense together. She was my go-to guide for all things Chinese. She introduced me to her wonderfully hospitable family, who despite living together in a cramped apartment, prepared a banquet of some of the best Chinese food I’d ever eaten. It was truly wonderful. I even made pals with her adorable 4-year-old niece who’d adopted the charmingly innocent name of Rainbow. After lunches of stir-fried veggies, red-braised pork, lamb noodles and tomato and egg soup, I’d sit with Rainbow on the sofa, reading to her in English. It felt normal, as though finally I were doing something that regular people did.
After a few dates, I started to hold hands with Cindy which, despite being hard for me at first, I got used to and dare I say, even began to appreciate. And during an evening stroll around a lake at sunset to the romantic sound of traditional erhu being played near to us, we exchanged our first kiss. It was an unforgettable experience for me, one that was both highly pheremonic and emotional.
Although Cindy and I are no longer a couple, I’ll always treasure the time we had together. She introduced me to an aspect of life I once feared would elude me forever and for that I am entirely grateful to her.
Xie, xie ni!
Editor’s note: Tom’s girlfriend’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Tom is a 27-year-old writer from the UK. He grew up on the outskirts of London and was diagnosed in his early twenties with Asperger Syndrome. His younger brother Jack has severe autism and has limited language. After two years teaching English in China, Tom now plans to work in education in his native Britain.