Travelling alone as a female isn’t a big issue to me. I can easily argue that solo female travel has been on the rise over the past decade and there are more of us now than ever before. However, being an Asian female meant that there was another level of uncertainty to address.
Although the trend of solo female travel is emerging in Asia, there are still a few things holding wannabe wanderers back. Before leaving for a three-month solo backpacking trip last July, I received plenty of questions and feedback from my family and friends. Many were supportive and excited for me, but some were confused and worried.
I realised that a number of their concerns were deeply rooted in Asian cultural identity and anxieties. So I thought I would compile a few of them and see if other travellers have faced the same. Here are 6 questions Asian female solo travellers would hear at some point prior to their trip and what they can do under these circumstances.
“Is it safe for a girl to travel alone?”
In South East Asia, there is sadly still the belief that it is alright for guys to go anywhere alone because they can take care of themselves, while girls should travel in groups as “it is not safe”. Women are expected to remain within the domestic sphere, protected from danger. Although this gender stereotype is shifting, it still has a long way to go.
Admittedly, this concern for safety exists beyond Asia. There are cases of violent crimes, sexual harassment and assault. The truth is that every female traveller around the world worries about the same thing. There is always a fear that something might happen, because there is no guarantee that nothing will happen.
Although the trend of solo female travel is emerging in Asia, there are still a few things holding wannabe wanderers back.
The fact is, crime happens everywhere – out there in the world just as much as back home. If it would not stop you from ever leaving the house, why should it stop you from travelling? Assure your family and friends that you will stay aware and use common sense to avoid dangerous situations. Show them that you can take care of yourself.
“Can’t you find someone to go with you?”
This was a question my dad kept asking me for months after I announced my decision. This might be due to the fact that interdependence is a key trait in Asian culture. We are expected to be friendly and loyal towards our immediate and extended family. Whether you like that or not, it also means that anyone can expect support from a kin wherever he or she goes. To my dad, a friend is the next best support system.
Sitting around and hoping a friend would take three months off to join me didn’t sound encouraging. It’s difficult enough to find the right travel buddy; it’s even more of a challenge to find one who can commit to the same travel plans.
But interdependence can come in many forms, and it does not have to be bound by blood – it can be someone from the same country, school, religious community or even facing the same situation.
Take comfort in knowing that you can find guardian angels anywhere.
For example, during my journey I met this Korean solo traveller. He told me about how he helped this other Korean traveller who had an unfortunate encounter with a pickpocket and lost most of his valuables including his passport. He accompanied his new acquaintance to the police station and embassy, as well as treated him to a meal despite being on a tight budget. He felt the urge, he said, to help his countryman in need.
If there’s another thing I realised, it’s that there are good people in the world. Many times, it is the most unlikely stranger who has reached out when I needed help – a Spanish man who can’t speak as much English but made sure I got on the right bus in France, or an American couple who only met me once in the laundrette yet drove me to the train station so I didn’t have to walk. Take comfort in knowing that you can find guardian angels anywhere.
“And your family is okay with letting you go?”
Family is central in Asian society. Family authority is seen as equally important, which is why showing respect towards elders is a long-standing tradition. We are taught that elders know best and going against their word is considered disrespectful. There is even a Chinese saying (不听老人言，吃亏在眼前) which explains that if you disregard the advice of elders, you will get into difficult situations.
This is usually the point at which many aspiring Asian female travellers put an end to their wanderlust. I can’t recall how many times I have heard my friends say, “My family won’t let me travel on my own”, and that’s the end of it.
Sometimes a leap of faith and a bit of stubbornness helps.
Was my family okay with me going? Well, not exactly. Sometimes a leap of faith and a bit of stubbornness helps. My advice is to let them in on your plans before your trip, check in often during your journey and regularly update them on your whereabouts. That way, they might become more open to the idea of letting a girl go solo.
“Isn’t it a waste of time and money?”
Job security and financial stability – these are two key measures of success in Asian communities. As students, we have been taught to focus on education, work hard, do well academically and go for less “risky” careers. After graduation, there is a lot of pressure to pursue stable jobs with higher wages.
Travelling sounded like an overpriced joyride. I’ve had people telling me I shouldn’t leave my job without first finding a new one. To them, it will hurt my chances of negotiating a higher pay for the next job.
Why not invest in a property, a share, anything that will improve life visibly or increase in value in the long run? Why not just go for a short trip? Why not “focus on your career, focus on earning, save more and enjoy life afterwards”?
Of course, this is hardly anyone’s fault. This fear of instability has a lot do with the environment our parents and grandparents grew up in. Take, for instance, middle class families who have the purchasing power to travel. Middle class families today didn’t start off that way. They lived through tough times when they couldn’t afford much. They helped out with the family business, watched their parents do laborious jobs and snatched that last piece of chicken off that plate on the dining table.
As a result, the parents work hard to provide a better life for the family. They want their children to get better education and do better in life, so that subsequent generations won’t have to go through what they did. This “work hard, do well in life” mentality is passed down to the next generation, and the next.
What can you do about that? Talk it through and share what you hope to achieve during your solo travel. Let them know how much it means to you. It might not convince them immediately but hey, at least you’ve had your say.
“Aren’t people racist towards Asians there?”
Such cases are few and far between. Although some people do treat foreigners differently, they are not the majority. The most you’ll probably hear is a surprised “Oh you speak good English!”
In case you have the misfortune of meeting insensitive people who would direct racial slurs at you, always remember: if they go low, stay high.
“Isn’t it dangerous in Europe now?”
Europe has faced a number of tragedies over the past few years. The Brussel attacks and Paris attacks are some of the acts of terror that have rippled fear across the oceans, to the other side of the world. With mass violence prominently featured in the global media, the Western world is seen as a dangerous place to be in.
But as I said, bad things happen everywhere in the world. Sometimes you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes you can’t let the possibility of one rainy day stop you from going out in the sun. The world is not always like that. It’s not as scary as it seems.
A final note
This is my personal observation based on a South East Asian perspective and should not be taken as a generalisation of an entire community. Not every Asian family is entirely traditional or conservative. My family, though worried at first, supported my decision in the end.
To all Asian female solo travellers out there, understand that these questions come from a good place – a genuine concern for your well-being. You might not want to dismiss them outright, but don’t let them hold you back. Choose what makes you happy.
If you want to travel alone, then by all means go your own way.
If you are an Asian female solo traveller, what other questions do you get when you tell others you want to see the world? If you are new to this, how is it different for your culture? Share below!