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


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.


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.


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.


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?

I need feminism every day because

I don’t want my coping mechanism to be apathy.

“Most of the images we see are of women who: constrain their bodies… to present themselves in feminine postures and gestures that render them objects, enclose their bodies within the same garments to maintain any small measure of subjectivity, control and manage their docile bodies in a race toward an elusive femininity that is perpetual and exhaustive. We have been taught to desire to be the women we see most in the media, but we want to be… the ones we do not see as often.

We want to be able to engage in repeated subversive performances that displace notions of normative femininity and proliferate gender norms so that it becomes possible for us to be who we are, ourselves. We do not want to exchange one ideal body for another… We do not desire a body like the one on television or in magazines.

We want our bodies to be reflections of ourselves, empowered by our intentionalities and imaginations. In wanting this, in moving toward this, we must be critical of the demands of normative, ideal femininity and choose to parody those performatives that have disciplined us.”

– Wendy A. Burns-Ardolino in
‘Reading Woman: Displacing the Foundations of Femininity’ (2003).

You’re a girl.


In June 2011, I was invited to put in a submission for the University Women’s Association Singapore Gender Studies Book Prize.

Awardees are amongst the best female students who took the Gender Studies module, were selected based on the prize-winning essays they submitted, and each received a book prize of S$2,000. What follows is the narrative account that I submitted and won in response to:

“What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in Singapore today, and how can insights from the field of Gender Studies help to shed some light on how to understand, as well as address, these issues?”

“You’re a girl”

“You’re a girl,” my mother would say, “learn to defend yourself from the boys.” So she signed me up for taekwondo lessons. I learnt that girls were more vulnerable than boys.

“You’re a girl,” my father would say, “learn to be ladylike.” So he, too, signed me up for ballet lessons. I learnt that girls had to be graceful.

Although my parents eventually enrolled me in piano lessons instead – they decided it was the most gender-neutral option after their temporal parenting crisis – these initial expectations of me were to be my first gendered challenge: How was I, a six-year-old, to be both tough and demure simultaneously? In retrospect, I never did realize how diffusive and insidious such gender indoctrination was, quietly seeping into my subconscious through the words and actions of adults around me.

“You’re a girl,” the boys in my class would tease, “but you have no boobs and no figure!” I was only thirteen and beginning to experience my first taste of the male gaze at work. I learnt that girls had to look pretty and have shapely bodies.

“You’re a girl,” my girl friends would say, “stop shouting or the boys won’t like you.” Apparently, there were endless rules that I simply couldn’t keep up with. I learnt that girls had to be passive and obedient.

The onslaught of mixed messages shot at me from all directions was confusing. But what was most surprising was that the pressure to transform into the perfect ‘girlfriend material’ was most strongly felt among girls themselves. We were, indeed, our harshest critics and body police.

“You’re a girl,” my boyfriend would say, “let me get the door for you… let me pick up the tab… let me carry the load…” As a woman in my twenties, I was already accustomed to such infantilizing treatment. I thought nothing much of it until a closer look at our national policies exposed how institutionalized and politicized such gendered expectations actually is.

As a geographically vulnerable country with few resources and a declining population, women in Singapore have been charged with the double burden of productive work in the economy and reproductive caregiving in the home. In the civil service, these social expectations are solidified in contractual terms: Spouses and dependents of married female employees do not enjoy health benefits unlike those of male employees. I learnt that women’s incomes are meant to be supplementary to that of men’s who are still traditionally deemed to be breadwinners and heads of households. I learnt that women’s work is devalued from unequal pay.

With institutionalized policies to have female employees grounded and tasked simpler desk jobs upon marriage and childbirth, air stewardesses from our world class Singapore Airlines also face gender prejudice at forked roads. I learnt that women have to choose between achieving successful career and nurturing a loving family. Or risk death by exhaustion. Such biopower disciplines women into playing second fiddles to men in the workplace simply by virtue of their life course. Our country seems to confuse women’s abilities to reproduce with women’s duties to reproduce.

It is confusing to be a woman in Singapore with contradictory expectations and challenges unique to our sex. We grow up with mixed messages, face social prejudice, work through structural inequalities and tolerate systemic discrimination. Our gender identities become somewhat detached from our autonomy to the extent that our womanhood is eventually reframed through practices and discourses that are in fact effects of institutions. Indeed we have to be fed “You’re a girl” adages from all angles, lest we forget how powerless and infantile we still are.