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Navigating a Foreign Country Alone? No Problem. Basic Customer Service? Terrifying.

I recently had the absolute privilege of visiting my favorite place on the planet: the land of the anime and otakus, the realm of cherry blossoms, the world’s best kitchen—probably better known as Japan. 日本

Japan has always had an extremely special place in my heart, as I’m part Japanese myself and went a few times as a young child with my Obachan. It’s nostalgic in that way, and I’ve just always loved the culture, scenery, aesthetics, and versatility—from the nerdy stuff like Pokemon Centers to the Zen gardens and traditional ryokans to the lively cities like Shibuya. For my first “big girl” trip, I visited a lovely friend for a chunk of time, but was mostly solo. I speak very little Japanese and have never taken a big trip alone before, let alone in a different country with a wildly different culture. One would think it would be a terrifying prospect, but thanks to my hyperfixation tendencies, I found the challenges exhilarating and spent several months doing research and planning out all the logistics. I was absolutely stoked to return to my childhood wonderland.

To be sure, it was pretty crowded in most places, and many autistic people would probably find it overwhelming. I definitely did at times, but I think I’ve gotten so good at dissociating throughout my life that it actually came in clutch. Pro tip: get to popular attractions insanely early to beat the majority of the crowds.

How then, one might wonder, could I possibly find supposedly “simple” things so challenging? Why can I easily navigate a complex train system in Japan but struggle so much to answer phones, do the dishes, and be social around strangers?

This type of thing isn’t uncommon in autism. It’s not unusual for someone to do stellar work at their job but need assistance with daily tasks or personal care at home. Executive dysfunction is a strange thing. I think a lot of it comes down to one’s personal strengths and weaknesses. I’ve gotten better at answering phones at work, but only because I deal with other businesses and vendors now, as opposed to angry randos constantly calling to yell at me. I can excel at things I’m interested in or my hyperfixations of the moment, but things that have always been a struggle for me will inevitably drain my mental strength, and it takes a lot of energy to even push through the executive dysfunction with initiating a daunting task in the first place.

Example: At a past job, I was tasked with calling people back with bad news (that frankly didn’t seem reasonable from my side either), and knew they were going to be furious and scream at me with threats and interrogations when I had no answers to give them. But they're just simple phone calls, right? It took a long time to even bring myself to pick up the phone with the looming anxiety, which looked like procrastination and shirking responsibility to the untrained eye. Upon the dreaded confrontations, my mind froze up—every single time, regardless of prior mental preparation. Coherent words would not come out. In a panic, I transferred them to the manager (who hated when I did that) because my brain was done—shriveled up and buried under the sand. I wasn’t being lazy. I literally could not do it.

On the other hand: I have to figure out how to navigate a huge airport, pick up pre-booked pocket wifi and find a place to buy an IC card, figure out currency exchange, find the correct train and correct line at the correct time, be sure to get off at the correct stop by counting or making out some Japanese from the announcements, and walk around an unfamiliar town with all my luggage while trying to find my destination and remaining mindful of cultural manners and expectations? Sure thing! That doesn’t involve dealing with angry people demanding things from me, or having to solve other people’s problems in a time-sensitive situation where my own livelihood depends on it. I’m not being watched and scrutinized by authority. Japan is AMAZING and I’m excited for every aspect of travel. Plenty of fuel in the brain tank for this.

It would be good to remember that just because someone excels at a particular thing or field of things, it shouldn’t be assumed that they can easily handle something else or that other tasks would be intuitive. It also shouldn’t be assumed that someone who struggles with so-called “basic, easy” things is incompetent or can’t excel at other things (even if those things don’t make money, because it’s not always about that). And of course, please always remember that a person’s value is not based on their productivity. We are covered in the fingerprints of our Maker. We are loved beyond comprehension. Jesus says so and proved it on the cross, and personally, I don’t argue with That Guy.

I am ridiculous and took over 4,000 pictures on this trip. I’ll narrow it down to 10 or so and share some highlights:

(Shibuya and Sangenjaya were awesome because it was like being inside Persona 5)

If you ever find yourself in this wonderful country, feel free to reach out with questions or to ask for recommendations. :)

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I'm so glad you had a good time! It looks like a fun trip! As I'm sure you can imagine, I can VERY MUCH relate to your struggles at your own job. I appreciated this reminder that struggling with certain things doesn't mean you struggle with everything.

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It's real! No one is proficient at everything or even most things and that's okay <3

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