When you travel alone through foreign cities as a young woman,

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I think I might have developed some muscle memory from years of seasoned traveling. I never realized this before, but traveling for back-to-back work trips of late, I realize I have subconsciously curated a routine for self-preservation and self-care. I am going to attempt to externalize these habits in words.

Here goes.

When you travel alone through foreign cities as a young woman,

you discard fashion consciousness for coats with buttoned pockets, pants with front pockets, and bags with zippers, to keep your essential items safe.

you master the art of spreading out your cash among pockets and wallets and pouches and bags.

you learn to manage multiple currencies and coins (good grief!) with sassy compartmentalization, and memorize these slots to prevent too much fumbling in public.

you fold the multiple maps and papers in your pockets into different sizes and shapes, so that you can fish out the one you need quickly without appearing like a lost tourist.

you work basic origami magic to get your maps palm-sized, so you don’t signal your uncertainty and appear like an easy target at intersections.

you navigate and load Google maps pinpointing your next destination whenever you chance upon brief Internet connections at cafes and galleries, since the wonders of satellite technology updates your geolocation even if you continue on your journey without wifi.

you detour and take longer routes in order to remain visible to the general public, or to walk where the streets are better lit for self-assurance and comfort.

you train yourself to put away distractions like smartphones and books on short-distance commutes so that you can be alert of your surroundings, and to visually and kinesthetically memorize landmarks, signs, and routes for future reference.

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But when you travel alone through foreign cities as a young woman,

you fight sexism daily,

and find yourself in compromising situations every now and then.

I’m not saying that I hate men. Or that I think I’m an attractive target. Or that I constantly feel unsafe when traveling alone in foreign cities. I just keep falling into the same dilemma that requires me to make a fight or flight response in a matter of   s p l i t   seconds. And I’m now realizing how much affective, emotional, and intellectual labour I need to mobilize in these lapses on a daily basis.

When you’re walking alone on the street, in broad daylight or in the late evening,

men cat call.

You have   s p l i t   seconds to decide how you want to react, because even choosing to ignore the act is a passive response in itself.

You have to decide if you want to turn back, catch their gaze, assert confidence, and flash a no-nonsense don’t mess with me face, or an eww gross please grow up face.

Or if you feel your safety is threatened, you might decide to walk away.

“HEY! YOU CHINESE?! I’LL GIVE YOU ONE, DAMN!” /no I’m not really Chinese, and I don’t know what that means, but I don’t want to reciprocate your social interaction.

“GO BACK TO CHINA!” /no I’m not from China, and I don’t know what you have against China, but I don’t want to engage in banter.

“HEY HEY, YOU ALONE? WANT SOME COMPANY?” /yes I’m alone, no I don’t want your company, and I don’t want to encourage your solicitation.

“HEY MISS! LOOKING FOR SOME FUN?” /no. Just no. And who are you to speak to me like this? You’re violating my soundscape and my personal space.

Maybe you’re chowing down on a hotdog at a street stand, and a bunch of men start chuckling and hollering at you from a short distance away. There are suggestive hand gestures, and you feel like you should have eaten some place else. Again, you have seconds to decide whether to walk away, to roll your eyes, or engage in a gaze that displays your badass BOSS FACE.

But sometimes, I worry about aggravating the situation, and restrain myself from attempting to posture sass and all that jazz, especially when I’m clearly outnumbered.

So I walk away.

And this makes me angry inside, because we fight sexism every day in our mundane actions and personal posturing. And I feel like by walking away, I am being complicit in this structural/cultural/social violence. And I also lament over having lost an opportunity to intervene at the level of a simple micro-action. I feel helpless for censoring my personal voice. I spend my career writing about systemic inequalities and feminism, but when it really really comes down to it, I walk away for self-preservation.

I feel like a hypocrite.

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When you travel alone through foreign cities as a young woman,

you also learn to posture for self-preservation.

you modulate your voice to solicit favour from service staff, or from strangers on the street when asking for directions.

you make friendly conversation with wait staff in cafes and restaurants, who sometimes ask you about your travel plans and volunteer life hacks and travel tips, such as which alleys to avoid or which routes are the safest.

you subconsciously sit next to other women, rather than men, when commuting on public transport. (I don’t know why I do this.)

you learn to hold conversation with strangers, and calibrate small talk and transient intimacies and intense revelations with these passing persons you will never meet again.

you over-think the act of holding a gaze with strangers, trying to ascertain if a smile or nod or morning greeting might be socially appropriate.

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When you travel alone through foreign cities as a young woman,

you learn to manage sensory overload, flight or fight, all while taking in the sights and sounds and scents of the streets.

you learn about self-preservation and to have patience, while prancing around spontaneously.

But do you still have a voice?

6 thoughts on “When you travel alone through foreign cities as a young woman,

    1. “A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment.”

      – Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 311

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