Everyone comes with invisible tags – tags on gender, race, nationality, marital status, and many more – tags that make up our identities. The people we meet on the road define us and make presumptions on us with these tags. It is not a matter that we have to care, usually. But there are also times when these tags bring safety implications.
Take the tag on nationality for example. People throw together all knowledge and associations they have about a place when they know where we come from. When I travel to countries where the living standards fall relatively behind, the first thing the local people say when they hear of my place of origin is often something like ‘people make a lot of money in your country’. The new friends who make the remark say it casually, almost impulsively. They just speak their minds. But the stereotype makes me feel a bit uneasy. Although it does not turn me into a defensive frame of mind, I learn to avoid bringing out the subject myself unless the new acquaintances ask me about it. And if I am asked, I tend to give a quick answer and do not babble too much about myself if I do not feel comfortable. The same applies when people ask me about my job, my income and my asset. These questions are shot at me sometimes only after a short exchange with someone new to me. They are asked out of curiosity in most cases, but these are subjects far too personal to discuss with people I barely know.
Marital status is another FAQ when interacting with local people. For some reason, the subject draws the local people’s tremendous interests. I reckon male travelers do not attract the same level of interests by the locals on this regard. Indeed, in societies where gender awareness is an idea beyond discussion, a woman traveling independently can be quite a rarity and might become a subject of study. In a street market in Penang, I was asked by a nosy Malay-Chinese uncle, first of my age, then of my marital status. Coming to the third question, he went straight asking if I need any help to find a local husband. ‘A woman needs a man’, he told me.
The gentlemen in some Islamic countries are famous for their straightforwardness when they chat up female travelers. A local guy might strike a conversation and move on quickly to a direct question of the traveler’s marital status. If the traveler is single and tells the guy so, she might soon regret telling her new friend the truth. The situation is probably easier to handle if you tell the enquirer that you are married, even more painless if you tell him you have kids.
The gender tag is a thing people cannot get away with. Female solo travelers sometimes attract unwanted troubles. While gender is a fact one cannot conceal, and attempted advances are hardly avoidable, a more pragmatic approach is probably to think ahead the strategy to get away when they happen. If the woman shows annoyance and rejects firmly the first instance when a pesterer tries his luck, he would most likely give up and get lost after a few initial attempts. Like thieves and robbers, troublemakers pick on easy prey, and lose interests if their targets make their tasks difficult. In any case, the traveler’s stance counts.
Over the years of my travel life, I put myself at risk in a few episodes. My own recklessness and misjudgment were to blame. They were absolutely avoidable if I had exercised more caution and alertness. It was sheer luck that no real harm did on me. They were good lessons.