Being a pianist that people want to be around?

I analyze each social context when I am the only one confused, which causes a lot of embarrassment, partly because I am now aware that I am the only one who doesn’t understand a situation that I should be able to understand by now.

What did that look mean? What did that wink mean?

People expect me to understand, or else they wouldn’t be including me in them.

It’s like a secret language where I intercepted a few signals. Like catching the Enigma Code in the Imitation Game. I’m only more aware that I don’t understand, and each time I think about it, I’m more dismayed. So maybe I have Asperger’s.

The possibility of having Asperger’s just means that I won’t be able to understand, even if I tried very very hard to pay attention and memorize how you’re supposed to act during certain situations.

I haven’t gone through a doctor yet. Asperger’s in women is misdiagnosed so often that I could cycle through doctors until I found one who would slap the label on me. I could very well have social anxiety instead.

I baked a blueberry loaf the other day and thought I would leave a slice outside my neighbour’s door, since he wasn’t “in the mood to hang out”. It’s the neighbour who was ignoring my texts because he was having family issues.

“He might get the wrong idea,” Pan says.

“What?”

“A pretty girl wants to see you all the time and feed you. What are you supposed to think?”

“Oh,” I say. “It never occurred to me.”

How do I return his belongings without seeing him, then? I have his chair, air mattress, charging cables, and Costco card, which I’d borrowed in the last few months.

Apparently, my neighbour doesn’t enjoy my company all the time. He is a lot more quiet than I am, and once told me that he doesn’t like loud people.

So, I am trying to attend events with large groups of people, to find a close friend. I ran a marathon, for example.

During brunch after the marathon, I listen intently to the group conversation. The chatter asks me questions once in a while, but it’s a bit unsettling, really, trying to be normal in front of these new people.

I start to have a good time then catch myself. I’m loud and sarcastic when I’m having a good time, and maybe these people don’t like loud and sarcastic. So I try to think of something clever to say, but then I’m thinking so hard that I forget to have a good time anymore.

I start to doubt myself in every human interaction. Do my piano students even like me? Why does Jonas frown when he looks into the camera?

I usually have a toolbox for how I’m supposed to act in each situation, when to smile or say “tell me more.”

As a piano teacher, for example, if your student isn’t playing well after a long time, you cannot show anger nor frustration, because whatever you’re feeling, the student is probably feeling it more.

As a human trying to find a friend, you are given a million ways to mess up that interaction.

Which, I guess, is what makes it so interesting. If you mess up, it’s so much more worthwhile if you can become friends in the end. Kat and I hated each other when we met, 6 years ago.

“You are the same person whether you have Asperger’s or not,” Pan says. “It won’t change anything.”

I think he’s right, but it will help me understand why some things are so difficult.

In high school, I had an older piano teacher with chin-length curly hair and huge eyes and each time I finished playing, she would stare at me. I would stare back with wide eyes, studying the brown pupil orbs inside her eyeballs. I never knew why she was staring until she opened her mouth, and even then, I was often confused.

I never knew how I was supposed to act around her. Where do I stand when she’s in her library looking for music for me?

When we first started lessons, she often sang piano passages for me, the way she wanted them played. Her singing voice was clear, sharp, like an opera singer’s, but not quite so powerful.

“No one’s dying here, Grace. Don’t play it like that. It’s more like this,” she says. Then she sings the passage.

I get it. I sit on her piano bench, nodding.

“Maybe you think it’s gross that I’m so old and I sing,” she says. “But singing is a great way to learn what the melody should sound like.”

“Okay,” I say.

She’s sick. There’s something with her eyes.

The surgery is in a month or so, but I never knew how to ask what the illness is.

She’s staring at me, and I think I’m missing something, but I don’t know what it is. Am I supposed to sing now? She didn’t tell me to sing, so I’ll wait quietly.

“Let’s try this passage again,” she says, finally.

I put my fingers on the keyboard and it all made sense again.

A few weeks later, during our lesson, she says, “I know you think I’m too old to be singing, but this passage should sound like this.” She sings the passage I just played.

I nod. She’s right, I’m playing it wrong.

She stares at me, eyeballs huge, probably because I’m butchering Beethoven.

Later, probably years later, I realize that I was supposed to deny it when she said she was a gross singer. She remembered for weeks that I didn’t deny it. In fact, anytime someone says something degrading about themselves, you should deny it. I think I was watching a group of friends joke around and had that realization.

It gives a person validation that you don’t think poorly of them for having a negative trait or action. Like, if I said, “Oh, I suck at piano because I never practice,” someone in the room is supposed to say, “You’re already good without practicing.”

When we got closer to my performances, my teacher cracked a smile here and there when I played Lecuona with gusto.

Eventually, she had a disagreement with my mother and we parted ways. But I think about her once in a while. I like to think that if I was better at interpreting her actions, that we could’ve become friends, maybe. Her students sent her cards and flowers for her surgery recovery. If I was her friend, I could’ve known to do that.

But we never spoke or saw each other, after the lessons ended.

I tell Pan, “Last month, I was saying, ‘can you be my friend’ to people.”

“Don’t say that,” he says.

“Why not?”

“It makes you sound desperate.”

I think he’s right, but I also think there’s nothing wrong with being honest. Which might be the factor that separates people who are autistic with people who are not. But I could be wrong.

What I admire about my piano teacher was that she was honest. I knew exactly how my playing stacked up in her books. Even though I left my lessons in tears sometimes, I knew when my playing sucked.

I’d rather be genuine than socially correct. The way you communicate is a reflection of how you interpret the world. If you are not open to sharing blunt, simple truths with people around you, then you may find yourself stuck with a mask, that applies in your personal and musical life. Honesty is how we navigate our lives in difficult times, and each time I hear a blunt, funny, honest truth from someone new, I imagine that we could be friends, because that’s exactly what I’d want in a new friend.

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15 Comments

  • Reply maesil May 29, 2019 at 7:39 pm

    The matter here isn’t necessarily being a pianist people like to be around but more being around people who are like you, I believe, in order for you to feel more comfortable! I have a friend who moved out there for a job in Microsoft too but they have been very engrossed with an online friend that I do wonder if they are making any friends in town. Although, in retrospect, I see he is choosing to be around people that are similar to him not just in his field of work but in how they communicate (at some cost of others). Finding friends like that can definitely be hard in a new place; it will be draining to form a friendship and have expectations from the get go.

    It’s good that you are involving yourself in group activities. It’s the best way you can meet people of common interests who might communicate in the same way that you do. I say keep doing that! (I hear there’s a hack-a-thon happening this weekend over there) There’s bound to be someone out there that shares the love of music that you do, AND the type of work you do. Even at your current job! Sometimes it takes a mutual morning/evening activity you enjoy, a video/tabletop game, or working on a new project to meet these people. What I’m mostly saying is that you should never restrict who you are, what you love, and how you express gratitude in order to “be likable” regardless of fears or a diagnosis (unless it invades personal space of course). Things do take time. Some people require more vaildation than others and that’s all in learning about the new friends, which is normal! I am in a state where I’m also looking for that close friend and I realized I’m very much looking in the wrong places. I should be around others who do not harshly judge me for who I am, who enjoy laughing, sharing achievements, and spreading encouragement for growth. Hope you continue to do well out there! I love your updates and piano tutorials; you really push me to keep on going!

    • Reply Grace Lam May 29, 2019 at 8:20 pm

      I wish my blog had a “heart” reaction to comments. It’s up to us to look for friends in all the right places! It gets a bit discouraging once in a while, but, as long as we focus on what we love to do and hobbies we would’ve done anyways, we’re likely to find a close friend.

      • Reply maesil July 9, 2019 at 7:24 pm

        Exactly! I think the greatest thing is meeting someone by chance over something you really like. Have you ever considered attending events like PAX? I’m going to PAX West in Seattle for the first time ever and I’m so excited since I love games and being around them. I hope I get to meet some cool people there, regardless of how the gaming can be.

        • Reply Grace Lam July 9, 2019 at 7:42 pm

          I’m excited for you! I’ve been meaning to attend events like that but haven’t gotten around to looking into it. PAX is always a big deal each year!

  • Reply Susan May 30, 2019 at 5:25 am

    Beautifully said, Maesil! I second Maesil’s advice about continuing to participate in activities and groups until you find that niche where you feel comfortable and supported and welcome. You shouldn’t have to be someone you’re not to be liked. Your true self will assert herself eventually anyway, so better to be genuine from the beginning. It may take a while and several cycles through groups to find that niche.

    That isn’t to say that if you are rude, or a jerk, or unkind whether intentional or unintentional that you shouldn’t self evaluate and work on improving that behavior. Just don’t let that inner critc crush your spirit. It does take serious introspection for some us to get to know and understand ourselves better so that we can communicate our needs in a healthy way (others seem to come by this more easily). That inner voice to ourselves, however, needs to kind and loving and accepting and honest. Too often, our inner critic is harsh, unforgiving and downright mean.

    There are lots of good books out there and podcasts (and blogs). Whether you seek a professional diagnosis or not, you can find help and maybe some answers from many resources.

    As a teacher myself, it was always a struggle between wanting to be liked and wanting for my students to learn and grow Sometimes finding that balance was difficult. Some of my best students didn’t necessarily think of me as a friend, and I respected and appreciated students who persevered and worked hard but didn’t necessarily reach high marks.

    You can’t be a great teacher for everyone, but to those that you are, the ripples of goodness stretch out so far. You are a great teacher for me, Grace (who cares about anyone else ). I’m so thankful to have found your blog.

    • Reply Susan May 30, 2019 at 6:53 am

      Sorry, there was supposed to be an emoji (lol, !) after my “who cares about anyone else”. That made me look like a real jerk. Mean culpa.

      • Reply Grace Lam May 30, 2019 at 6:44 pm

        Thanks so much, Susan. We’re often our own worst critic. :)

        And don’t worry, I didn’t think that you looked like a jerk! You’re one of the best emoji-users I know. :)

  • Reply Diana Lam May 30, 2019 at 8:01 am

    Moving to a new city, leaving your friends and family behind is a big change. It’s difficult to make new friends once you leave school. I was, and still am to some extent, very shy. I found the easiest place to meet new friends to be at work. You can have a conversation and then ask the person if they’d like to go for coffee or dinner. I have had a best friend for 31 years…. all because I overcame my shyness and asked to borrow a pencil from her! Socially awkward or anxious … I’m not sure if it needs to be labelled but it does help to know that there are lots of people that have those same feelings of self doubt and insecurities. As I’ve gotten older I push myself to be more outgoing, I still have those same feelings inwardly but I try to overcome them. You will find friends because you are a lovely,fun person! It takes time and I know it’s hard when you feel so lonely. Keep doing activities where you can meet people. There’s lots of other people out there looking for s friend too:)

    • Reply Grace Lam May 30, 2019 at 6:45 pm

      Thanks, Diana. I want a best friend for 30+ years, too! You’re lucky. :)

  • Reply Sandra May 30, 2019 at 8:34 am

    I understand completely about moving and leaving family behind and starting all over, I moved to the Caribbean 12 yrs ago, (the Caribbean is not all that especially when you are a city girl from NYC, its a nice change , then it gets old quickly) my dtr’s dad is from the Caribbean and was tired of the NYC hustle thus wanted to move back home, although not unfamiliar to me, living and being on vacation are 2 different things. Thankfully I found employment. So fast forward to the present, we divorced 7 yrs ago, and going back to states not possible since we have joint custody of our daughter. Thank God for me I am a social being but not butterfly, so today I have a handful of dear friends. Among these friends is my piano teacher, love her to pieces because she is so honest and very patient with me. She pushes me musically and has more confidence today in my piano skills than I have in myself. I believe that I have more passion than I do skills, as an adult learner , I began 4 yrs ago, and she has been my teacher almost 2 yrs.
    I am cautious about making new friends because I have a tendency to be blunt and thus socially awkward. And often folk don’t get me because I’m from the states and I have a different mentality, gotta keep my mouth shut so I don’t offend people. I leave often to the states with my dtr on vacation, either back to NYC or visit other places to breath a little.
    So as my piano teacher tells me when no one understands us, thank God we have music. I appreciate these blogs because of the raw honesty. Be encouraged

    • Reply Grace Lam May 30, 2019 at 6:50 pm

      Cultural differences are easy to overlook. I can imagine that you must’ve ran into a different pace of life in the Carribean, too. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I felt so different, even though most people were technically the same ethnicity as me.

  • Reply Rosie June 16, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    Hi, Grace,

    Sorry for the delay in replying. Life happens, and then your notice about the hangout jogged my memory to get back here!

    Sometimes I think people unrealistically expect others to read their mind about what they mean, such as with a wink or some other vague signal. That’s not really fair, and isn’t a judgment on you for being left wondering their intention. A good sign is that you’re being included as sort of a confidant, and that’s an indication of being liked. Some of the not understanding could also be a result of adapting to new people and maybe some cultural changes. Give yourself some time.

    Or, could the questioning thoughts about fitting in, knowing the socially correct response, being yourself and being liked have deeper reasons based on earlier life experiences? Did other people’s responses leave you questioning your adequacy until it became habitual to do so? Your writing seems to indicate some such instances and in the cumulative years of your life there could have been many more. If so, the blame isn’t yours. Children learn what they live. However, we can always relearn and unlearn and teach our brains new pathways of thought.

    It sounds like that piano teacher had a strong impact on your perceptions of yourself. You were the child, even though an older one, and she was the adult. She could have smoothed the way for you to know what to do in awkward moments. Perhaps she was a bit eccentric or her illness affected her ability to be warm and welcoming in her interactions with you. Maybe she struggled with social norms as well. Whatever the case, please don’t blame yourself. You gave a meaningful example of other students sending the teacher cards and flowers after her surgery, while you didn’t know to do so. What are the chances that your peers did all that on their own? I suspect they had some push and instruction from parents in such a case.

    It reminds me of my own chagrin over failures as a young adult to be properly gracious or hospitable. I’d grown up so accustomed to being told what to do–and not daring to do anything without permission–that I continued to wait for it rather than taking responsibility for myself. An example is having spent two months with relatives in another country and then upon return, waiting for my parents to tell me to call or write a thank you note–which they never did. Two weeks later, they confronted me that my relatives had called, wondering why they hadn’t heard from me even so much as a report of a safe trip.

    And there were times that I just didn’t grasp the impact of what I did or didn’t do. Looking back, I recognize a need to mature and grow beyond some harmful conditioning which left me plodding through life as if I had blinders on, unable and afraid to really be aware of what was going on. Your home sounds like it was a loving one, so maybe examples such as these don’t apply to you. What I’m mostly trying to show you is that others also have/had times of making mistakes and learning desirable interactions and social conventions.

    You are a very capable and brilliant person. Let your confidence carry you through doubting moments. Draw on your past successes…and consider well the advice of friends such as Pan who come from a different viewpoint.

    And should there be any foundation to questions of an Asperger’s diagnosis, such people do have successful lives. You’ve already accomplished far more in your still youthful age than many “normal” people do in a lifetime.

    People with Asperger’s can and do have friends. One of my best friends was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult. She’s had some hard knocks in life and has the maturity of someone much younger, but she’s enjoyable company. Six years after she left my apartment building, we still keep in touch. Like anyone else, people with Asperger’s come in all personalities. My friend happens to be an outgoing person, which makes finding friendship a bit easier for her.

    If you’re interested here’s a link to a 3-part personal account of a man’s life with Asperger’s. Interestingly, computer programming was found to be his “holy grail.” https://www.laconiadailysun.com/news/local/asperger-s-remains-largely-misunderstood/article_c42b511c-66b5-11e9-a1b0-2f766cdf4cdf.html

    You have an effective way of sorting things out and coming to conclusions in your writing, such as your final paragraph here. It’s so true what you wrote: “The way you communicate is a reflection of how you interpret the world.” A corollary to that is: Becoming aware of the reasons for our particular interpretations can change the way we communicate. Being genuine is so important–having integrity, as I’ve heard it said. Speak and be your truth. As you already are.

    You’re going through some perplexing times of sorting out what’s what in your world and maybe the larger world. Seeking answers and coming to an understanding is part of maturing. The unsettling circumstances of making your recent move may have had the effect of shaking things loose a bit in what felt secure in your world, thereby stirring up these questions. That’s not unusual. The state of our physical world can sometimes serve as cues for our mental world to respond similarly. (Or vice versa.) Hang in there. While asking many questions about your place in life and how to response to its people and offerings, and think as positively as you can about yourself. Let there be more positive, uplifting thoughts about what you can do and have already accomplished, than negative, self-questioning which results in doubting yourself. You’re a genius.

    • Reply Grace Lam June 21, 2019 at 9:51 pm

      Rosie, this is so sweet and I appreciate your message a lot. I’m not sure if I have Asperger’s but I am encouraged that even if I have it, I can navigate life. Your anecdote about your parents paints a different landscape than the one I had when I was younger and you seemed to be more comfortable on your own.

  • Reply Gillian McConnell November 11, 2019 at 7:04 pm

    Hi Grace,

    I am a new subscriber. Thanks for your honest sharing. I am also Aspergers and female. Not formally diagnosed, but pretty sure. Realisation was a huge relief. In an instant, it explained my entire life experience – why I have always felt like a total misfit (since kindergarten), why I feel awkward in social gatherings (and drained after them), why (given I am so literal) I have trouble understanding people, especially when they communicate indirectly (like your piano teacher), use nonverbal signals or tell jokes (I’m the one who completely misses the punchline or just doesn’t find it funny even when I do understand). As a teenager I tried to fit in but gave up because it was too hard and felt inauthentic. I just thought I was weird but didn’t know why. I won’t pretend to be someone I’m not to please others or shut up to avoid the chance I may be misunderstood or not accepted. I am 61 now so maybe I just don’t care what people think anymore. I think that’s one of the benefits of aging.

    • Reply Grace Lam November 12, 2019 at 4:35 pm

      Hi Gillian, thanks for joining us. As time passes, we realize what’s important to us. Looks like you have found what is core to you, which is lovely.

    What do you think?

    15 Comments