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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.


“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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5 years ago

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… Read more »

5 years ago
Reply to  Grace Lam

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.

5 years ago

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… Read more »

5 years ago
Reply to  Susan

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.

Diana Lam
Diana Lam
5 years ago

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… Read more »

4 years ago
Reply to  Grace Lam

Your essay is remarkably self-centered and self-indulgent. I find little of value to take from it.

5 years ago

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… Read more »

5 years ago

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… Read more »

Gillian McConnell
4 years ago

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… Read more »