I was thinking back the other day on when I lived in Spain in my 20’s. “All of my little oddities, anything I did that wasn’t quite right, it was all chalked up to being a foreigner,” I was telling my husband. “No matter what I did, it could always be explained by that.”
I recounted the time everyone was laughing at a joke, and I remained silent. “Somebody translate it for her!” They said. “She didn’t get it!” I tried to explain that I did understand the joke, but that I didn’t find it funny. Cultural differences, they assumed, and my partner (a Spaniard) translated it for me anyway.
“Sounds like the Coneheads!” my husband quipped, and I looked at him blankly. While I have certainly watched my share of SNL, the Coneheads were before my time and I completely missed the Coneheads movie that came out in the 90’s. He pulled up a clip for me and we watched it together.
In the first sketch “The Farbers Meet the Coneheads,” there is a new family in the neighborhood and the Farbers are having them over for dinner. The Farbers are the epitome of ordinary, while the Coneheads are quite obviously aliens. But the fact that they are aliens is always accounted for by the alternate explanation that ‘they are from France,’ where apparently things are absurdly different. The Coneheads continually slip up by saying or doing things that reveal their alien nature, but the ‘cultural differences’ line allows them to do or say just about anything. It’s ridiculous, but they were definitely on to something. (Watch the video here: The Farbers Meet the Coneheads: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrUOFs-hZ-M)
Dan Aykroyd stars in the sketch and would have done a lot of the writing as well. That jumped out at me while watching, because I remembered that he had gone public with being autistic (what we previously called Asperger’s) about 10 years ago. As it turns out, he was diagnosed in the 80’s, so he would have dreamed up the Coneheads before he even knew he was on the spectrum.
Was Aykroyd just ahead of the crowd in portraying the autistic experience? On the autism.org/uk site, they discuss how ‘Aliens and the concept of being from outer space is often used as a way of describing how it feels to be autistic.’ While that idea may be familiar to many of us now, it would not have been something you discussed with others in the late 70’s. The flat, monotone voice the Coneheads use is another feature that is now commonly associated with some autistic people, but that stereotype wasn’t around when the sketch came out.
So this all gets me thinking it can’t just be me and Dan Aykroyd…surely if we had a Masking 101 Handbook for closet autistics there would be a chapter on how hanging out with people from other countries can be a highly effective way of getting excused for your social oddities, right?! You might be able to go for years without being detected—think of that! There must be a number of us who stumbled upon this little trick at some time or another.
Of course having the ‘foreigner’ excuse it doesn’t get you completely off the hook. You still have to learn another language if you’re living abroad and then converse in it with other humans. They still expect you to talk.
Why are you so quiet? What are you thinking? What do you think of our country? Do you like it? I remember those questions now. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been silent, but clearly it had been a while. Too long.
I was sitting in the car, looking out the window, immersed in the passing female oak trees wrapped in the early morning fog. This was perhaps my first visit to Spain. The trees were so different, not rough and wild like the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a gentle, hypnotic beauty you could get lost in. I heard the questions as though from very far away; realized they were expecting a response.
Searching for words then, trying to think of how to explain that I couldn't take in all these new things and be able to talk about them at the same time. I needed more processing time. My partner then answered on my behalf. “Come on….can’t you see she’s sleeping? Let her rest.” I dutifully closed my eyes. Yes, that’s it. It’s jetlag. It’s definitely jetlag, I told myself.
Luckily for me, I soon discovered cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and the world opened to me. I had thought I was unable to drink coffee due to my extreme sensitivity to it, and I also thought that milk was disgusting (I hadn’t had organic milk yet). But I discovered that my jitters and headaches were mostly due to the chemicals/pesticides, etc. in American coffee and I found the Spanish milk to be delicious.
It was like magic! Drink a cup of cafe con leche and suddenly the words were spilling out of me, my social capacity suddenly ‘on’ as though a switch had been flipped. Alcohol did something similar by night, but it didn’t work quite as well because sometimes German would come out instead. What can I say…
It is only now, years later, that I can reflect on the fact that caffeine and alcohol were less than perfect supports for getting me more socially engaged. Once the switch was on, it was hard to turn off (not to mention the hangovers). But hey, what did I know back then? Getting emotionally regulated was not even on my radar. I was just a clueless Conehead trying to get through the 90’s. It may not have been a perfect system, but we all did what we needed to get through…