I’m independent and adventurous. In my mind, this meant I was pretty much born to fly solo.
But I’m also a woman, so of course, it’s not that simple.
Every listicle ever published persuaded me that solo travel was some sort of transformative power that would allow me to find myself, to be the most fearless, flawless woman I could possibly be. Sure, I knew it wouldn’t come without difficulties, but in the long run, I would return with heightened awareness about myself and the world, and the courage to explore just about anything.
When I received the opportunity to travel by myself outside of Beijing, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I crave independence and it was the perfect opportunity to finally become a badass female solo traveler.
Not the case. Long story short: I got completely lost. I asked a random man for help but he didn’t speak English, and I can say minimal things in Chinese. He used a translator app to communicate with me and was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, trying so hard to help me find my way to where I was going.
By the time I sort of maybe figured it out though, it was getting pretty late and I immediately start to feel on edge when the sun goes down just because I’m used to being alarmed when it’s late and I’m alone. Feeling defeated and embarrassed, I decided to go back to the city.
Most of the English translations on this man’s app did not make sense, and I’m sure the same was true of the Chinese translations. But one statement he made was clear: the English translation read “don’t go out alone.”
I know this man was simply concerned about me, but I couldn’t help but feel frustrated because all I could think is that if the same thing would’ve happened to my guy friends, people would say, “haha, funny story.” I received comments like, “couldn’t you invite someone else?” or “don’t trust anyone, especially men.” His message was identical to the one society sends to women all the time.
It felt like such a double standard. I don’t blame the people who made these statements. I understand their concern, because I was afraid too. What’s frustrating is that I have to constantly be afraid in a way that my male travel companions don’t.
When I walk alone at night, I walk fast and remain alert. On edge. Careful.
When I take a cab, I worry that I’m not actually going to the location I asked to go to.
When I take public transportation, I avoid eye contact and worry about men “accidentally” getting too close to me. Last summer (in the United States), I would pretend to talk on the phone to avoid the men who would harass me on buses.
When I don’t know where I’m going, it could end up being a funny story. Or it could end up being much worse.
Obviously, there are some dangers that everyone faces while traveling. But there are also definitely things that women have to worry about more than men do.
In this moment, solo travel didn’t make me feel empowered or fearless. It was a harsh reality that I could be the most independent, brave woman out there and I’d still be a woman, so I’d still have to worry about my safety and deal with all of the stereotypes and sexist remarks. Solo travel can be great and I wouldn’t discourage women from traveling alone, but it’s not as simple and freeing as it is often portrayed.
I can climb a mountain and feel brave and free.
I can explore a city on my own and feel inspired and empowered.
I can travel the world and learn more about other people, about other places and about myself.
And it will likely be an overall wonderful experience that has a positive impact on me and my worldview.
But it won’t come without fear. It won’t come without thinking, “what if I’m not going where I think I’m going” in the back of my mind when I get in a cab. It won’t come without people reinforcing the same message over and over again in a variety of ways: “you shouldn’t go alone.”
Image via Molly Peach