On travelling solo as a small brown woman

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“People think they can push me around – sometimes literally,” says Kia as she reflects on the trials of travelling solo

I am not one of those women who move through the world looking sleek, elegant, aloof and inscrutable. You know the ones. They’re usually wearing clothes that are ‘dry clean only’ and their wrists drip with expensive accessories. Men find them attractive but also a little frightening – as if they might turn you to stone if they deigned to look at you.

Nope. Instead, I have what has been described as “a sweet face”. Certainly, this has its benefits. I can get myself out of a low-level jam with a pleading smile (e.g. when I forgot my wallet and the bus driver let me on for free), or secure myself a discount when one isn’t usually available (e.g. when the guy at an iPhone repair store gave me his staff discount). 

Atlas & Boots
Not a resting bitch face in sight

On the flip side, having a “sweet face” has some drawbacks. I am sometimes patronised, belittled, ignored or bullied in ways I don’t think those with resting bitch face often are. It doesn’t help that I’m 5’2” and weigh about 100lbs. In short, people think they can push me around – sometimes literally.

This is partly why I don’t often enjoy travelling solo. Moving through the world as a small brown woman isn’t always easy. I specify ‘brown’ because Asian women are often seen as docile, meek, quiet and compliant. This stereotype emboldens certain people to treat us in ways they wouldn’t treat someone who looks like them. Basically, they think they can bully us without consequence. 

These ‘layers’ of identity are important. A woman. A brown woman. A small brown woman. Each layer tips the scales a little further against us. Of course, there are many layers that I haven’t experienced personally. Disability, for example. Or being visibly Muslim. My sister, who wears a headscarf, visited a seaside town in England last year and was made to feel deeply unwelcome by the locals, including one who barged her intentionally while she and her family walked on the beach.

Kia's sister received a cool welcome in a UK seaside town
Kia’s sister received a cool welcome in a UK seaside town

Sometimes, you have to steel yourself to do something as simple as taking a train or eating in a cafe or indeed walking on a beach. I came to consider this recently when Peter went off to Alaska for five weeks to attempt to climb Denali. It was a good opportunity for me to plan a trip of my own, most likely travelling solo.

At first, I considered a week at Pueblo Español to improve my Spanish, but my preferred dates were fully booked. Then, I considered a two-week tour of China, but after a tiring three weeks in India, I wanted something more relaxing. I finally decided on a beach holiday for a much-needed reset.

It made me recall the other times I’ve travelled alone and what I had to contend with. At the basic layer – travelling solo as a woman – I’ve had to deal with unwanted male attention, as is the norm.

Brandenburg Tor: Kia had a hard time in Berlin when travelling solo
Andersphoto/Shutterstock Kia had a hard time in Berlin when travelling solo

There was the man in Miami who forcibly locked his arms around me in the sea and refused to let go until I threatened to scream. There were several incidents in Berlin. A waiter who saw me dine at his restaurant and who followed me to my hotel. A tourist who sat at my table in a cafe, struck up conversation and then invited himself along to my morning of sightseeing. I tried several times to shake him off, but he was persistent. At an airport in Verona, a man twice my age approached me, then followed me around the airport until I literally hid in a pharmacy. 

Unwanted sexual attention is par for the course for women. It happens at home, of course, but it’s especially daunting when it happens abroad. You’re in unfamiliar surroundings, you don’t immediately know how to contact the authorities and you may not speak the language.

Weirdly, I’ve been able to deal with this more easily than other types of aggression. Unwanted attention is a pattern I recognise; a behaviour I can place. It’s unwarranted rudeness that is often most jarring. 

Atlas & Boots
Kia’s size makes people think they can push her around

I remember doing a five-hour layover in Windhoek airport in Namibia on my own. At one point, I asked an older white woman who was with her husband if she would watch my suitcase while I popped to the bathroom. She agreed and when I stood to go, she tutted impatiently and snapped, “Well, bring it here then.” Would she have spoken that way to someone who looked like her? I can’t say for sure, but I have my suspicions. 

There was the man who repeatedly leaned into my space on a flight. My philosophy is that my seatmate can have the armrest if they want it, but if they spill into my seat, then they need to back off. After the fifth time he shouldered me, I looked at him pointedly. He grew aggressive and told me that he had to take up my space because his other seatmate was a woman with a baby.

I pointed out that neither the woman nor the baby was in his space, so he didn’t have to take up mine. We exchanged words and the rest of the flight was unbearably tense. Would he have done this if I hadn’t been a small brown woman travelling solo? Again, I can’t say for sure, but I have my suspicions. 

Travelling solo is harder than travelling with Peter, pictured here together in Antarctica
Atlas & Boots Kia has never been treated poorly while travelling with Peter

What I do know is that I have never been treated poorly when it’s been clear that I’m travelling with Peter. Sometimes, the difference can be seen immediately. On one occasion, I arrived at 5am for a 5am airport pickup. Testily, the driver told me “I’ve been waiting five minutes” as if I had been late instead of him being early. As soon as Peter joined me at the kerb, the driver leapt out of the car to help with the luggage, his demeanour warming instantly. Incidentally, the driver was a brown man. I’m sad to say that, sometimes, they are the worst culprits when it comes to the mistreatment of brown women. 

So, given all this, am I looking forward to my solo beach break?

I’m not looking forward to the armour I’ll have to pull on just to get from my house to that beach. And I’m not looking forward to mimicking a resting bitch face while I’m lying on it. 

If I’m being totally candid, travel is just easier with Peter. For all my courage (the courage that had me throw myself out of planes and dive beyond my comfort zone) and all my feminism (the feminism that had me walk out of my arranged marriage after just two days), I still think that moving through the world is easier with a man by your side. I’m sorry, but that’s my truth.

So – am I looking forward to my solo beach break? Yes. But also no.

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Lead image: Atlas & Boots

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