The Realities of Travelling Solo as an Asian Woman

What happened when I actually tried travelling solo

The whole blogosphere is full of solo female travellers gushing about how liberating / empowering / amazing it is to go on adventures alone. But what about the downside of solo female travel? After travelling by myself or with girlfriends for a while now, I found that the biggest detriment to enjoying the experience is having to deal with men creeping on you left and right.

There is hardly a day that creeps won’t leave you in peace. From getting cat-called and eyefucked and chatted up (even by security no less) in Jerusalem (I was covered from head to toe) to getting grabbed by the waist and shoulders as I conversed with other women in an upscale bar in Seminyak, I’m about to share just a few of my stories with you.

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Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem
Dealing with these situations affects my travels on a daily basis, not just when I go out at night but even doing the most normal and innocent of activities. I say this because I can already hear the skeptics who questioned my appearance (did I dress like a slut?) or the places I went (what was I doing in this or that notorious district anyway?) the last time I wrote something like this. People like to blame the victim and slut-shame when they have no idea where the writer is coming from. And by the way, a girl should be able to wear whatever she wants without getting harrassed.

Story #1: Surfing in Siargao

Let’s take surfing for example. How am I hindered by creeps when all I want to do is something as harmless and as neutral as surfing? The first time I had a problem was when I went to Siargao in 2015 with a girlfriend. The instructor at our surf resort developed a crush on me. He jumped at the chance to take us out for the afternoon, and as we were paddling out, all his surf-friends in the water would make comments that were obviously about us.

“Saan galing?” (Where are they from?)

“Dito Pinas” (Here, Philippines)

“Iba talaga pag Filipina! (haha)” (There’s really no beating Filipinas, haha)

I know they’re just comments. But think about having to deal with this type of objectification all the fucking time. And that’s not where it ended. The surf instructor showered me with attention for the next few days. He invited me to the open mic night to sing with him and then the next day offered to drive us to the tidal pools so I could sit on the motorbike with him, staring at me and making comments about every single thing I said or did, eating me up with his eyes.
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That Siargao trip with Mayen
When finally he realized that the attention was not welcome – when we started hanging out with other people and avoiding him, he stopped talking to us completely. It made the whole trip afterwards uncomfortable because he would ignore us whenever he saw us, and he was in the common areas of that resort everyday. We couldn’t surf anymore because he was the main instructor, unless there were others that would take us in a group that he wasn’t in. Later on an Italian girl told us that he did the exact same thing to her: stick to her like glue the first few days then completely ostracize her when she made it clear she wasn’t interested.

Story #2: Surfing in Canggu, Bali

A couple of days ago I was doing a sunset session with my sister in Batu Bolong. When we returned the surf boards to the rental place in front of the beach, the group of guys sitting around stared openly and did the usual spiel: “where are you from? Haha I thought you were Indonesian bla bla,” *stare stare stare* *saying something in Bahasa* *laughter* *more staring* ‘Why are you so beautiful?” “Asians are really the sweetest”

Again it’s an insignificant encounter but now that my sister left Bali do I really want to go back there alone? I could, but it’s not nice to have to feel that discomfort and dread of being stared at with looks that makes my skin crawl.

It’s only a look, just brush it off. Easy to say but try dealing with it all the time. It discourages you from doing things that will put you in the line of sight of people you just don’t want attention from.

Post edit: I went to another surf rental spot and hired an instructor for my last sunset in Bali, and it was amazing 🙂 My surf instructor still hit on me in the end, asked for my number, invited me to party and drink after the session, and told me to come back at 7am the next morning for another lesson.

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The day it happened – was I wearing anything slutty? No.

Story #3: Salsa in Peru

I think I’m just about to give up dancing now because I’m tired of ugly sweaty men trying to kiss me in the middle of the dance floor. I’m tired of guys touching me inappropriately while dancing, I’m tired of having stinky breaths on my face and sweaty hands of undesirable people on my skin.

I love dancing. I love salsa, bachata, merengue, tango, you name it. It was my new year’s resolution to get better at this, so I took classes and put up with all the old Chinese men in Hong Kong leading me on the dance floor. But every time I try to go dancing, I’m inundated by predatory males who want more than to dance with me. So should I stop dancing? I think it’s unfair because I love doing it and guys should be more respectful. But realistically to keep doing it means having to keep dealing with distasteful and uncomfortable situations.

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That’s me dancing in Mamafrica, Cusco

It happened in Cusco, Peru. I was excited because they had a latino dancing nightlife which is hard to come by in Asia. Again, the dance instructor took a liking to me and basically stuck to me song after song. I was happy at first because I got to practice with someone really good, but at some point during a bachata tutorial he tried to kiss me and I said no firmly. He stopped dancing with me after that and never asked me again. I was so rattled that I didn’t want to dance again that night and just went home.

Story #3: The Airbnb host in Bali

I first talked about Matt, the French guy, in my Canggu Diaries. The situation escalated since then to the point where I was seriously considering throwing away all the money I paid in advance for the Airbnb villa in Bali just so I could avoid him and his attentions.

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Why, why can’t I just chill out in the villa I paid good money for without having to deal with a French guy who won’t stop bugging me? I’m held hostage because he’s the caretaker of this place and has the keys to my room, the keys to my scooter, and takes care of everything here. At first he was inviting me to the beach, to go rafting, giving me gifts in the form of fruit, pestering me on WhatsApp… in the end since I rejected him he either ignores me or sends me messages about how rude I am.

The ridiculous thing is that first he started hitting on me, and then on my friend when she stayed for 3-4 days in Canggu (same thing: invited her to massage, sauna, etc.). When she left he refocused his attentions on me again. I wonder if he does this to all his guests, but I doubt it. He told me from the beginning how much he ‘liked Asian people’… ugh.

Again it’s been suggested that it’s also my fault for not being firm enough or expressive enough with my ‘no’s’. That not replying is not sufficient. But in the first place, why do I have to be subjected to this? Other travellers aren’t pestered as regularly. And if I’m averse to confrontation, it’s just hell for me to keep having to spell it out time after time.

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PS. This guy can hardly speak English or any other language, and keeps speaking to me in Bahasa when I am not Indonesian

Now I can’t even hang out in the main house anymore because he’s always walking around half naked. My Bali trip has been slightly poisoned by how uncomfortable I am in the place where I sleep, wake up, shower, and break my fast.

Story #4: Uber drivers in Tel Aviv

Can I get a taxi ride in peace? No.

This happened on more than one occasion. There was one old and heavyset Uber driver who had a son living in Seattle. At first I appreciated his friendliness. He asked me if I liked Tel Aviv and I said I really loved the city.

“Why don’t you move here then”

“Oh, haha, well I would need to get a visa…”

“No problem I take care of you”

“Haha… what?”

“You have husband?”

“…no”

“I take care of you, marry you, give you visa”

“Oh haha no thanks”

On another occasion as I was getting out of the Uber in Abraham Hostel, the driver got out as well and asked me if I would have a drink with him that evening. I muttered a ‘no thanks’ and ran away from him as fast as I could.

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Petra, Jordan

Story #5: On Asian girls either being prostitutes or transgenders

“All the Asian girls here are either prostitutes or ladyboys,” said an Australian to me at one point in Bali.

My sister and I felt particularly excluded in Bali as it seems like everyone here in June is white. I’m not sure where all the Asians are (do Asians not like drinking and dancing as much as white people or are we going to all the wrong places?) – but people here are 90% white. I’m talking about in cafes, in the beaches, restaurants, and bars. If that’s all they’ve encountered of Asian women, no wonder nobody talks to us like normal people here when they all casually talk to each other.

Disclaimer: I have nothing at all against transgenders / transsexuals, I’m just referring to the derogatory way some men use the term as if it were an insult.

Story #6: Walking around in London alone

I got followed by a man driving a car walking on a street in the middle of the day. He kept hollering at me from the car until I ran into a cafe.

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The Globe in London

Story #7: Biking in the Rice Terraces

It’s not just foreign guys in Bali. Indonesian men have hollered comments to us as my sister and I would pass. One time we were in the rice fields riding our bicycles, which had laminated signs in front saying ‘bike for rent’. A local tour guide read the signs as we crossed paths and said aloud, ‘bikes for rent. Also for rent…?’ My sister death stared him until he caught himself and stopped.

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Cycling in Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, Bali

Story #8: The yoga instructor in Hong Kong

I can’t even go to yoga in peace. I went to a class once where I thought the instructor – an Australian male yogi – was giving me more attention than normal, adjusting my pose and pressing down on my body several times during the class. Now, this is completely standard during yoga, but afterwards of course he starts texting me and making conversation ultimately inviting me out. I could never go back to his class again, no matter how well the time slots fit with my schedule.

Story #9: Chinese men in Lima

Tiffany and I were going through the Cathedral museum in Lima’s historical district when a group of Chinese men started following us around. “Where are you from?” Again was the question. They kept trying to chat us up until we had to zip through the whole exhibition trying to avoid them. I wish I had been able to take my time unbothered to enjoy the elaborate interiors and artwork in Lima’s cathedral, but no. Men got in the way once again.

Lima, Peru
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Lima Cathedral

Story #10: More moments in Bali

Last night as I was trying to catch a cab on the street by myself, a group of local Indonesians were hanging out by their motorbikes waiting to be hired. “Sexyyy!!” One shouted at me, while the others burst into laughter. Yep, just another second of many in my everyday life travelling solo. Should I just burn my wardrobe and wear a burqa so I can live in peace?

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Laughing in Padang Padang

We tried going to salsa night in Seminyak – a place called Hacienda. I was sitting nursing my drink staring at the casually horrible dance floor before me, dominated by dodgy men and women, save for one stellar and superfit foreign couple who looked like they danced professionally. I already decided that I wasn’t going to dance that night and said no to everyone who asked.

One small bald-but-young guy held out his hand to me. “Dance?” he asked.

I sat there hesitating and then he decided to step up and grab the drink from my hand. “Put this down,” he barked at me, pulling at my cup. “Put this there!”

“What?! No I’m not going to dance with you because you’re rude,” I snapped. “Don’t order me around.”

He left to dance with someone else then came back later on. “What happened there?” He said. “Sorry if you were mad, just relax.” He touched my shoulder.

“Don’t touch me!” I said, aggravated, and tried to shake his hand off. “Do you treat all women like this or just Asian girls?” I blustered.

“I travelled all over the world,” he boomed with his distinct Italian accent. “You’re the only one who has a violent reaction, I treat all girls like this!”

Classic male tactic, make the woman feel like they’re overreacting and in the wrong for feeling the way they feel. I remember a British ex once complained – when I was upset that he stayed out too late and took too many substances – that he was the only one who had to “deal with this grief” because he was “the only one with an Asian bird” (’cause all the other girlfriends of his mates were British’). I wish I had retorted then: why doesn’t he get with someone like them instead of someone like me? But I was too young to really understand that I really don’t need to put up with these kinds of statements from any man.

 

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Japan – a place where I was never bothered

I’m sure there are a lot of factors that lead up to the way men interact with me as a solo Asian female traveller.

  1. Image of Asian women abroad (gold diggers, mail-order brides, sex workers, etc.)
  2. Socio-economic situation of the average Asian woman, particularly Southeast Asian women, which make us seem poorer and weaker and easier to take advantage of
  3. Cultural norms in Asia (gender inequality, patriarchal society) that make Asian girls more ‘submissive’ to men
  4. Communication patterns (Asian girls aren’t as assertive, not good at saying no, etc)

I’m not really writing this with an academic approach (obviously), just free writing from my villa bedroom in Canggu. Is it worth delving into more as a phenomenon?

Have any of your travels been marred or negatively affected by attention from the opposite sex? How do you deal with uncomfortable situations when you travel solo? Do you think this is the norm for female travellers across the board? Should I just give up and travel with men? 

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15 thoughts on “The Realities of Travelling Solo as an Asian Woman

  1. Hi Yeni, I’ve been travelling a lot alone as well. I would have to be honest and say a lot of those things have happened to me, too. Perhaps I take a lot of these things in stride and don’t take it too personally. Perhaps it’s also my background in the “nightlife” scene that makes it easier for me to navigate these comments and somehow instinctively know what to say/do. But what I would say is that sometimes we have a chip on our shoulder that we need to keep in check as well. A lot of the things we notice and perceive is how we think of ourselves, or even other people.

    For example, they would be very surprised to hear how “perfect” my English is and would be asked constantly if people back home could speak the way I do. That aggravated me before… But really, there are some people who are just earnestly surprised and curious. For example, if a kid all of a sudden started doing really complicated dance moves or whatever and someone said, WOW! But this kid is so young! I doubt that child would respond impetuously and say, UGH, are you saying kids are usually not as good? Sod off!

    I doubt it.

    I don’t know, Yens, sometimes… It *is* ego, and that’s very hard to hear. Sometimes we take way too many things personally. Perhaps we have been targeted because we are Asian — but you don’t get to control other people’s actions or reactions. We get to control ours.

    I’ve gone through really insane places AND wear presumably “risque” outfits, go to clubs … and somehow, a neutral “No, thank you.” sometimes with a smile, if I feel like it, is enough. I don’t start having all these defensive mumbo-jumbos in my head about how I am so annoyed to be noticed *right now* when I just want to be dancing (and I am not saying that’s the only thing you do), but the energy we put out there is so crucial. The more I feel frightened or I internalise that I am threatened by the people around me when I travel, I notice I truly attract these male-Vultures NON-STOP… But more often than not, when I just resolve to my … Grounded, peaceful centre (or in layman’s terms: Dude, I’m just having fun. I’m OK. Hope you enjoy your night! Ciao!) — I don’t need to deal with these advances too long. Perhaps someone will compliment me (my initial reaction isn’t… OMG he must be eyefucking me right now. Damnit. Ew. You ugly thing!), WHATEVER his intentions are (which I can’t control anyway), I just say, Thank you! (because perhaps I think it of myself too 😛 and I mean my ‘thank you’) — but this is a decisive closure statement… Unless I feel safe or interested enough to continue the conversation.

    Am I saying I don’t ever get harassed? That’s not what I’m saying at all. Try shifting your perspective internally.
    I do agree with you that sometimes we are definitely NOT assertive enough and that’s something I am trying to improve on about myself, too.

    And let’s be honest, if a 10/10 says “Hey” to you, that guy would have a completely different effect on a bucktooth, big-stomached dude who’s reeks of beer. (But maybe this guy is just having a terrible day. What if he fell off a bicycle going to work? What if he lost his job and needs to come home to his mother?) I try not to automatically put the attention on me, too. We don’t know their story… Not everyone will respond nicely to a “No”… But I find that if you’re nice about it, (and no, I don’t advocate being nice ALL the time if someone is being aggressive — but I find that we can be self-entitled sometimes about being nice), they’ll scurry off.

    It’s not what we say, it’s how we say it (and yes, what’s going on in our minds, too.)

    I’ve been helped by lots of people that normally I would have found “scary” or “unlikeable”. I met Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) through one of his bouncers in London. I could have completely shut down and felt affronted by his questions about where I’m from, etc etc etc… and YES, he turned out to be a nice guy too, beyond being the catalyst for me meeting HP!! It’s not relaxing our guard… You can be open, and still have boundaries. So many of my stories originate from me not being constantly afraid of who will be approaching me on my travels… and “having to deal” with unwated people. Try it, Yeni! Take it out of your mind and see what happens.

    Operating on fear, just attracts even more of these ghouls.

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    1. Hey Sha, thanks so much for the thoughtful reply and for sharing your experiences ! You’re right that it really is about our mentality, though not sure what you meant by ego. I definitely try not to let fear motivate any of my actions, I’m just venting out that our society allows males to treat (Asian) women like this and think we all need to talk about how that needs to change and how we all need to stop acting like it’s okay and brush it off.. because in my opinion it’s not okay. It’s a manifestation of lack of respect and failure to see another person as an equal.

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  2. PS I shared your response with Joyce and Sabs and they both think you’re right on most / all points 🙂 I said :

    Ya I really appreciate what she said now and am determined to take charge of all these situations by being the bigger person. See this is why it’s important to process experiences ! Such a relief to have let it all out though

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    1. Thanks for not going full-on grammar nazi on me wahaha 😛 Just reread my comment again… Didn’t edit that and just went straight in.

      I just thought we can’t continue walking down with a mission to correct all the bad behaviour of men while we travel. Calling out every single person who rubs us the wrong way (figuratively, I hope!) will leave us with ZERO time exploring and enjoying ourselves. Their behavior doesn’t reflect on who I am (Asian, Woman, etc), it reflects on who they are. How we ‘change’ them I think… is to be an example of how we would like to be treated. It’s so cliche, but I find I am less irate and irritated/bothered when I reprogram my perspective this way.

      ❤ to you! Hope to see you around soon x

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  3. really cringeworthy accounts. there are exceptions of course but unfortunately they prove the rule, the mrs. and I have witnessed it firsthand. it seems like the more you go outwards into paradise, the more professionalism and gender-related courtesy gets thrown out of the window.

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  4. Thank you for sharing! I’m sorry all this happened to you, we female travellers need to keep calling men out on all their bullshit, we have a right to travel safely

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  5. EEK! I just came from a solo trip to Siargao and had a few awkward encounters with some of the surfing instructors too! Although I was able to silence them by some witty remarks that they couldn’t think of a reply too. But I the worse was from some motorbike drivers near a store that I was buying fuel from. I felt so stupid after they made a few lurid jokes that I didn’t understand until I left! Grrrr. 2017 but very few men are educated with manners!

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    1. Yeah I hate that! I stare at them sometimes and ask them straight up what they just said. But sometimes the snap reaction is discomfort and avoidance but we should learn how to woman up and react with assertiveness and courage. Good on you handling those surf instructors well though 🙂

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  6. I dare to say that this happens to every single girl, every single one of us. We can’t control what others do, but we can control how we feel and how we react in situations. The question you may want to ask yourself is, why does it bother me so much? Why would I want to give up on something I love because of these circumstances? Once you’ve found peace with yourself, all of this wouldn’t matter and it wouldn’t bother you as much anymore. It’s down to our perspectives. I’m sharing this as it worked for me. No men who harass me will have space in my life, I control that and not them.

    I also notice that some if not most girls love the attention as it makes them feel attractive or wanted. Not every guy harasseses but often they know women love attention so they assume they can get away with every single one of us. It’s sad but the truth as I hear so many girls bragging about the unwanted attention and deep down I just think, the same man does that to every girl, don’t be so naive and I do believe it’s because of these girls that men continue doing that with pride.

    I don’t let them have the emotional power over me, instead put them in the right place and never take shit from them, but most importantly I don’t let them affect my emotions.

    Good luck to all of us solo females out there. Remember we can’t change people but we can change ourselves and don’t let others put you in the prison and stop doing what you love because of that.

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    1. Hi Rowena,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. You’re right, women really do need to take control of the situation. That’s something I’m learning the older I get. It’s not as easy for younger, unassertive and non confrontational people but the challenge for all women is to be stronger and smarter. However, one thing you said didn’t really resound well with me: “I do believe it’s because of these girls that men continue doing that with pride. ” — so do you think if these girls or reactions didn’t exist men wouldn’t harass women? I don’t think it works that way. Admittedly there are a lot of women who may be ‘asking for it’ but that’s beside the point. The point is, harassment needs to stop, period. If women ask for it, it’s their choice but men should never have an excuse to jeer, catcall, touch, or scare women. Asking for it becomes another convenient storyline parallel to that of the rape victim who was wearing provocative clothing

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      1. I’m not saying is right for men to do or it’s an excuse for them to harass. I’m voicing out what I believe could be the cause for men to “continuously” harass with pride because some women love the attention. If all of us stand up for ourselves the chances are that these men may have a second thought before doing it again. I traveled solo in India and I confront every single one of them, it was dreadful but I don’t do it for myself as the harassment already happened but in most cases women in India don’t say anything when being harassed which has turned into a norm or habit for men in India. I wouldn’t say women ask for it, not even those who love attention. I’m saying some don’t mind the catcalling or harassment and in controversy they love the attention.

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