Ask the Yangxifu: Should I Tell Chinese Boyfriend I Have Asperger’s?

A journal tied up in string, filled with someone's secrets from the past
A Western woman wonders, how should I tell my Chinese boyfriend about my dark secret -- Asperger's Syndrome? (photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian)

Alhana asks:

I feel embarrassed asking this but since you mentioned your husband is PhD, and since he is a psychology major, I’m positive that he is familiar with Aspergers, otherwise known as high functioning autism. In May a psychologist diagnosed me with Aspergers, and around the same time I did some research and found out that Aspergers is genetic, which means if I have a child then there is a high chance of them having Aspergers. Also, ironically, I’m in kind of a long distance relationship with a Chinese guy. (I haven’t told him.) If he and I should ever get together and if he proposes to me, I feel that I must tell him about it because I know that there’s a possibility it will bite me back in the future and will create resentment. The thing is I don’t know how to go about it. I doubt that he has heard of it or is familiar with it. How can I make it seem normal or casual without making me seem like a freak or whatnot?

Asperger’s as normal or casual? Not in China — as this story suggests:

In China, there is no tolerance for anything “abnormal”….

Which is why children with autism are not accepted into kindergartens or schools. If they can’t work in the classroom like the other students, they must not be in the classroom. If they stand out in any way, either by their appearance (students in China follow strict rules for uniforms, shoe color, even hairstyles) or their behavior, they are seen as a distraction to the other students and hinder their learning. Even the few special education schools that do exist in China cater to the hearing- and visually-impaired and those with intellectual disabilities; they lack the knowledge and skills to educate children with autism. Autism (孤独症, literally “the loneliness disease”) is still a new term in China, and there is very little awareness of the condition. Children with autism are therefore rejected from both the mainstream and special education system.

Let’s just say that your news could turn into a serious “information firecracker” for your relationship.

But here’s something you probably never considered — do you even need to tell him? From my Chinese husband’s perspective, no. Why? Because, as he said, “many Chinese behave as if they have Asperger’s.”

What he means is, more Chinese than you might think struggle with social interactions, act clumsy, and even have trouble empathizing with others — doesn’t this sound familiar? The difference is, the Chinese consider this sort of thing normal. When John did a literature review last summer on the socialization of Chinese children, he discovered most Chinese parents don’t value social skills as much as their child’s achievement — which is like saying they would kill to have one of these Aspie science whizzes in their family. As he told me, “as long as her IQ is normal, she doesn’t need to say she has Asperger’s.”

But, you say, I should tell him the truth. Here’s the thing, though: you’re thinking about this from the perspective of a society that pays far more attention to social skills deficits. That’s not China. You don’t need to pull a “Scarlet Letter” here and reveal the great big A on your chest, risking your entire relationship with this guy — because there’s nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. For many average Chinese, your syndrome really isn’t a syndrome at all. (Which reminds me of something I once read — some people even think Asperger’s isn’t really a syndrome, just a different “cognitive style.”)

So go forth, enjoy your relationship, and leave the “Asperger’s Syndrome” labels to your psychologist.

What do you think? What advice do you have for Alhana?

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10 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Should I Tell Chinese Boyfriend I Have Asperger’s?

  • September 16, 2011 at 4:56 am
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    “as long as her IQ is normal, she doesn’t need to say she has Asperger’s.”

    LOL so ture.most Chinese guys wouldn’t mind it at all 😀

    Reply
  • September 16, 2011 at 6:57 am
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    I have to say I completely agree. I don’t know an awful lot about Asperger’s but my understanding is that those who have it are functional and lead successful lives – right? Not trying to diminish it, I’m sure it makes life challenging but it’s not like you’re going to be passing on something severely debilitating in your genetic make-up. I second Jocelyn’s call to leave the labels to the psychologists and enjoy life and your relationship 🙂

    Reply
  • September 16, 2011 at 7:43 am
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    I am no expert on Asperger’s syndrome, but I agree that the physical clumsiness part is less of a concern or problem to the Chinese people. What may be a problem is the lack of non-verbal communication skills in the everyday interactions in real life. But again as John has said, the Chinese people pay little premium to this. And as far as your relationship with your Chinese bf is concerned, it may not really be necessary to let him know if by doing so it will adversely affect your relationship. Of course, honesty is the best policy in most cases, but sometimes, why rock the boat if it is not necessary? Anyway, if your bf loves you he will accept you and his children whatever the outcome. But of course, you are the best judge yourself.

    Reply
  • September 16, 2011 at 9:04 am
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    This is very interesting! I am a psychologist too (with a PhD – completed during my 30s – just for the record! 🙂 ), and I tend to agree with Jocelyn’s view of labels. It is interesting though how tough it can be when we are assigned a label – especially one that has strong implications in the western world. (I am reminded of your recent post Jocelyn, where you could see yourself in the different categories of a book you were reading at the time. The labels had you wondering about yourself, and questioning your view on things. I guess it is the same for Alhana but maybe more serious). With regard to whether to tell or not, I guess there is the very small risk that a child born could be more adversely affected by this spectrum disorder – though the risk may not be significant. Another option is to get a second opinion. This could reveal an alternate diagnosis which gets Alhana off the hook. She could also describe her symptoms to her boyfriend without ever actually labeling herself.. It is after all her business and it is after all just a label! If it were me in this situation, I would go with the latter scenario – describe the symptoms that I present with, but in a light way, while focusing on the great benefits. I would acknowledge at some point that it is a genetic disorder that may or may not present in offspring. I would be up armed with facts and figures, so that questions can be quickly answered. I would speak lightly about it though, and not make a big deal of it… just my thoughts. I hope this helps a tiny bit!

    Reply
  • September 16, 2011 at 5:17 pm
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    I’m autistic-impaired myself.

    In my own opinion, you should tell the person you love with all your heart, your history. I told a boy I loved, that I am autistic-impaired(he was Chinese, I’m American-Caucasian), and he told me, “You have that? You are normal, remember this.”
    He still accepts me, even though we’re good friends now.

    So, I believe, if someone loves you, then they will accept what you have.

    Reply
  • December 8, 2011 at 10:41 am
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    Hi Jocelyn, you response about “many Chinese behave as if they have Asperger’s” made me laugh so hard!

    Your husband is right, I think 90% of chinese (especially men) behaving as if they are suffering from Asperger’s syndrome… or maybe Asperger’s really a widespread problem amongst Chinese…!???

    But anyway, one thing I learn about China and Chinese, most Chinese have very little if at all understanding about psychology. Culturally Chinese only focus on tangible and things they can measure with numbers, things such as MONEY (which is everything in Chinese culture), IQ score, Examination score, Salary, networth, etc… did I mentioned money already!?

    Most chinese simply will ignore everything psychological and anything to do with feelings.

    Reply
  • December 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm
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    I think that it would be alright to let him know. My brother has undiagnosed Asperger’s (by the time we learned of Asperger’s he was already an adult and it’s harder to get it diagnosed) and my best friend has it (the reason we found out about it at all). My boyfriend, I think hadn’t heard of it but I did my best to explain it based on the different ways that the two guys in my life have it. He took it well and didn’t seem concerned about it at all.

    Reply
  • June 4, 2015 at 9:35 am
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    i am wondering if there are any asperger’s societies or organizations here in china?

    as a former high school teacher who has aspergers, i have met many many many a student who fit the bill, but only one who knew he had ASD. he was involved and active with a group in nanjing. i lost touch with him after his graduation, he is somewhere in america building robots)

    anyway i am pretty a man of leisure now, and have a unique opportunity to be able to help and give back to china as it has given me so much over the years.

    any advice? or can you point me in a direction or two?

    Reply
    • June 4, 2015 at 2:44 pm
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      Hi b smith, thanks for the comment! I wish I knew of some I could recommend, but it’s not something I’ve personally looked into much. Best is to have someone you know do a google search on it in Chinese and see what you come up with. Good luck!

      Reply
  • December 15, 2016 at 12:38 am
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    I’m an Aspie who married into a Chinese family.

    What all of you are overlooking is that the family members will constantly be around. People like me need a lot more alone time than the norm and privacy/alone time is absolutely NOT a part of Chinese family culture. I had very serious problems with this – especially after we had a child in 2014. I had a major depressive episode and have been on meds ever since.

    I can’t overstate this enough… please be prepared.

    This is an old article, I know, but I hope it worked out for the OP.

    Reply

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