Monday, August 15, 2011

On Traveling Solo or Coupled

Abu Dhabi International Airport

I'm currently hanging out in Ab Dhabi International Airport awaiting our flight to Istanbul. The trip has begun! This means that until October, you can expect lots of pictures and travel stories from Turkey, but not a lot about Taiwan. I hope you enjoy it anyway. In late October I'll be back in Taiwan and back to blogging on my more usual topics.

For now, some thoughts on traveling alone vs. traveling with my husband.

Not to brag or anything (OK, fine, TOTALLY to brag) but in years past I did a fair amount of travel by myself. Sometimes to perfectly safe places like Prague and Hong Kong, sometimes to places where people would blink a bit when they realized that I went alone, as a woman not yet 25 years of age. Laos and Thailand (totally fine for a solo female traveler, but would still earn some double takes), India (requires a bit more precaution but still fine) and Bangladesh (which seems like a place a young white woman shouldn't go alone but actually I found it to be safe and hospitable).

My point isn't to be all "look how tough I am" but to say that when I did these trips alone, locals in those places did accord me respect. Especially in India and Bangladesh, people went out of there way to accommodate a young foreign female - friendly ticket agents booking me in train carriages with families who would look out for me on long journeys, student groups inviting me along on field trips, hotel owners keeping an eye on me to make sure nobody dodgy was on my trail. I booked my own hotels, picked up my own boarding passes, talked to people as me, alone. All things that we Western women do when we travel and don't think twice about.

And all things that I had taken for granted in Taiwan. I write a lot about women's issues there, and sometimes I may make it out to have more problems in that realm than it does. For the record, compared to the rest of Asia and much (if not almost all) of the rest of the world, Taiwan is pretty damn good when it comes to women's equality and rights. Not perfect - there are some discriminatory practices and laws I'd like to see change - but pretty good.

In Taiwan I never feel like an accoutrement - an accessory - to my husband. I feel addressed in equal measure; generally whoever we talk to will address whichever one of us speaks first. If it's clear I'm the one making the plans (which I usually am because I'm good at it) or I am the one who speaks better Chinese (which, sorry sweetie, I love you, but I do) people will talk to me. There is no underlying assumption that I am subservient to or deferential to my husband, or that he is the de fact head of the "household" to whom everyone should speak. There is no assumption that he will speak for me or make decisions for both of us.

Instead, in Taiwan I very much feel that there is an underlying acceptance that while clearly a couple, that we are two people and either of us can be addressed initially without taking away respect from the other. If the person approached is my husband, I get some eye contact or at least acknowledgement. If it's me, he gets the same.

Now, we're on the road. I've mentioned our upcoming Turkey trip and here we are, waiting for our connection to Istanbul in Abu Dhabi International Airport. When we landed in Manila for our first leg, the person who picked us up didn't even look at me. "Are you Mr. Brendan C.?" he asked my husband.
No asking who I was, no eye contact, not even a hello. He didn't even seem to notice I was there until I said hello to him and asked him to confirm that our luggage had made it through. When he answered, though, he answered my husband. I am used to, you know, having someone answer me if I ask them a question, not automatically answer my husband.

If that were a one-off deal I wouldn't be writing about it, but the truth is that the same thing happened in India in 2009: I booked hotels online and received confirmations reading "Dear Sir", and proprietors, agents and other people we interacted with once again talked to my husband, not to me. I would occasionally, but not always, get eye contact or at least an acknowledgement (I do know that eye contact between men an women in India is a cultural issue). Never an extended and unless I extended mine first (and before you go all "India is traditional, some men won't touch women they aren't related or married to!", well yes, some Indian men adhere to that but where we were in the south it's not really an issue. When traveling alone in southern India or major cities I shook plenty of hands).

I specifically remember booking some hotels through one agent - my name on the e-mails, I said hello first when we went to his office in Bangalore, and yet he looked right past me at my husband and shook his hand and asked him about our trip. My husband, bless his heart, replied "you should ask my wife, she's really the one who planned it." The agent looked surprised.

Which, you know, not to devolve too far into a feminist rant, but GAH! I'm not used to that - I'm used to equality. Especially as a woman who traveled alone for years before Brendan and I started traveling together, my "normal" is to be treated like a human being. I have stayed in Taiwan for so long because it's one place where I can live abroad and still enjoy basic equality (even though I came alone, I did not feel in China as though I was seen as equal to a man). An American background, more than five years in Taiwan, have created that expectation, although I would bet good money that a Taiwanese woman abroad with her husband would be just as taken aback.

It's quite a shock, and not one that I care to "get used to". Rather one that I politely resist without - I hope - being rude. As Rachel DeWoskin noted in Foreign Babes in Beijing (not an exact quote but a paraphrase): it's condescending to accept bad behavior in a foreign country that you'd never condone at home. I can't condone sexism, and treating me as unequal to my husband is sexism. I'd rather "be the change I want to see in the world" and politely demand more equal treatment (although I'll make allowances for men in other countries who feel that they are being disrespectful to me by looking me in the eye or shaking my hand - I do expect to be spoken to as an equal person, however).

That's not to say that traveling with Brendan is all disadvantage: it helps to have to brains, especially when one or both are cranky, exhausted and/or confused. I love being able to say "honey, I'm totally dead. We need to get from A to B - can you take care of that because I'll just get us lost?" I won't lie - traveling alone meant that I have been the victim of sexual harassment (entirely in India. Sorry India, but you kind of suck in that regard). With Brendan it has not happened and I can say with confidence that it probably won't again, or if it does it'll be the exception rather than an ongoing problem as it was on my solo sojourns in India. I don't have to worry about being the only woman in a sea of men - which doesn't bother me per se, but it is true that it can be a dangerous situation. I can try more food because we can order different things in restaurants and share. Hotel rooms are a better deal, often the same price as hostel beds for two would have been. We have in each other a companion, someone to experience things with and mull over the stories at the end of each day or over breakfast.

I would say that the good parts of traveling with a husband far outweigh the bad. It's just that this one issue looms over the whole shebang. I do hope that by the time the next generation of brave women starts to travel that they can do so alone without having to constantly be on guard against wayward hands, and they can meet wonderful life partners and travel with them - and if those life partners are male, they won't ever feel like a second-class citizen when on the road together.

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