This was a talk I first gave at PechaKucha Petaling Jaya. Video transcript below.
When I was 18, mum and dad packed my bags and sent me off to the US for a working holiday programme. I was hesitant to go, but my parents were so excited for me to see the world. It was an opportunity they never had.
You see, my parents are small town folks who never really left town. They lived a sheltered life. So when my brother who was working in Colorado suggested to ship me over, my parents said yes.
Little did they know it would plant a dangerous seed in me.
I worked and travelled in the US for four months. It was my first time living away from home and it felt like someone unclipped the wings I never knew I had. Travelling was awesome! I got addicted to this new sense of exploration, discovery, adventure, and independence.
To my parents’ dismay, I didn’t stop travelling when I returned home. First, I did internships that required me to live in Mauritius and in the jungles of Malaysia. But that wasn’t enough, I yearned to travel solo.
The first time I told my mom I wanted to travel solo, she asked if I had depression. This was about 11 years ago, solo travelling wasn’t a thing then. Good Asian girls don’t travel solo.
My mom told me all about how dangerous it would be. I heard her, but I didn’t listened. I thought to myself: ‘I’ll be fine, nothing’s gonna happen to me. If a guy can do it, why not me? If my brothers would be allowed to do this, why can’t I?’
My mom tried to stop me, but it was too late. The seed that she planted when she sent me to the US had already bloomed. So I did what every good Asian girl should NOT do: I lied to my parents about travelling with some friends, and secretly planned a one-month solo trip to Egypt and Jordan.
I only confessed to mum that it was a solo trip when I was in week two of my journey. I called her from a hotel room in the capital city of Jordan, far faaaaar away, where she could not murder me.
I was safe. Or so I thought.
On the second day in Jordan, a scammer pretending to be a visiting professor ‘invited’ me to stay in his hotel room. On my second week there, a taxi driver groped my thigh, showed me porn on his phone, and said he wanted to take me to a hotel room. Not my hotel, A hotel.
I didn’t tell mum about being sexually harrassed in Jordan, or in Sri Lanka, or in Europe, until years after it had happened. I was struggling to win her trust and I didn’t want her to stop me from travelling.
Mum never liked the thought of me travelling solo. Each time I announced a new adventure, she would sigh and ask “don’t you have any friends to travel with?” And then, she would go to the temple and get an amulet to protect me on my journey.
I never really considered mom’s concerns as a reason to stop travelling solo. Instead, I sent her frequent ‘I’m safe and alive!’ postcards and texted often to assure her that I can take care of myself. I just wanted her to stop worrying about me.
Mum says I am too fearless and adventurous for my own good. She would sigh and wonder where I got my fearlessness and adventurousness from. Probably not from her because by nature my mom is a timid and anxious person.
When people ask me how my mom feels about my travelling solo, I laugh and said she’d given up on me.
Over the years, solo travelling had transformed me into a stronger, more independent and empowered woman. While mom learned to travel through me, she remained in her cocoon. I wanted my mum to be as empowered as she had allowed me to become, I brought her to this all-women travel conference called ZafigoX.
I gave a talk at ZafigoX. I remember looking at my mom in the crowd, and for the first time I told her how I was followed and molested by a young man in Sri Lanka, and how it became an entire police investigation.
After I got off stage, my mum came and gave me a tearful hug. “Why didn’t you tell me,” she asked.
I said I was afraid. Afraid to break her heart.
Everyone else wanted to know one thing – how did mom found the courage to let her only daughter travel solo? Mom floored me with her answer.
“It’s only natural for a parent to be afraid. The fear will never go away and we hide that fear, because we don’t want to transfer that to our children. Whether it is our daughter or son, we have to let go. The only way they can learn is to let them go and hopefully, they do not fall too hard,” Mom said.
I was speechless. At that moment, I realised that my mother didn’t give up on me. What she gave me, was the gift of travelling.
I’d been travelling for all my adult life, but I never once thought how difficult it was for my parents to quietly watch me go on all these selfish solo trips. I’d never once considered how difficult it was for mom to know how dangerous the world is, yet allow me to walk into the danger all on my own.
I have a confession: People always tell me how brave and fearless I am for solo backpacking, but it’s not courage. It’s ignorance. I wasn’t afraid because I didn’t think about the dangers of solo travelling as a woman. When I finally found out, it was stubbornness that tide me through. I was unwilling to let my sexual harassers defeat me.
Honestly, having been through all the near-saves in all 11 years of travelling, I don’t know if I would ever be able to let my future daughters or sons travel solo.
But I know that one day, I want to be as strong, courageous and as inspirational as my mother.
NEXT, watch my ZAFIGOX talk on solo travel:
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