“Mei, are you okay? You look sad.”
“Mei, why are you angry?”
“Mei, my intern is scared of you. She says you look fierce.”
Ahh, the perils of the Resting Bitch Face Syndrome. Don’t get me wrong, I am actually quite nice and friendly. The thing is, I look like a semi-murderous Cruella de Vil when my face is expressionless, typically when I am zoning out or thinking with full concentration. No wonder the poor interns are afraid of me.
Besides intimidating interns into making me coffee, the one other good thing about having a resting bitch face is that it screams “DON’T MESS WITH ME!” This is a lifesaver for when I am travelling on my own.
Ladies, if you want to travel solo, being adventurous and having ‘balls’ is not enough. I always tell girls to pack three things: a guidebook, extra underwear, and a bitch face.
No Miss Nice or Miss Trusting when you are in a foreign land alone.
In conservative countries like Sri Lanka or the Middle East, some men have the perception that foreign women are easy. The sight of an exotic female form will naturally garner plenty of unwanted attention from local men.
They will ogle at you. The harmless ones would try to stir a reaction out of you with a “Hi” or a “Where from?”, sometimes followed by a creepy smile. The more daring ones would try to chat you up. They would walk up to you and start a conversation. These men usually speak good English, are very friendly, and can be quite the charmer.
They are the one you want to be extra careful of.
I learnt this lesson on my very first solo backpacking trip. I had just landed in Amman, the capital of Jordan, and was wandering around town. A bespectacled man in his mid-30s said hello and I, so young and naive, returned the friendliness. He introduced himself as a professor from Cairo in town for a conference. He looked the part too, with a passport and camera in his hands.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m just headed for the Citadel. I heard it’s nice.”
“Oh, I’m on my way there too. Let’s walk together.”
So young, naïve, and stupid. As we started chatting I thought it was weird that a professor of hospitality and tourism couldn’t answer my questions about how the war in Egypt has affected the tourism industry. Five minutes into the conversation he offered me the extra bed in his hotel room for free.
The alarms in my head started ringing.
“Oh, no, thank you, my hotel room is fine. It’s nice… A big toilet? That sounds nice. Yes, I’ll think about it. ”
I was scared. I didn’t know how to ditch Mr. Professor. To make things worse, the route to the Citadel was through a quiet hill.
He stopped to get batteries and asked a few people for directions; my panicking brain tried to conceive an escape plan. When we finally arrived at the Citadel safely, I breathed the largest sigh of relief in my life.
As it turns out, Mr. Professor was not a horny tourist. It was worse. He was a horny local pretending to be a tourist. When we bought our entrance tickets, I noticed that his was significant cheaper than mine. When I curiously asked why, he said Egyptians get a cheaper ‘neighbour rate’. This made no sense. I knew from my prior research of the country that tourist sites in Jordan only offer discounted entrance fees to locals.
Once we entered the Citadel, I abandoned Mr. Phony Professor without so much of a smile or a tata. It was rude of me to leave him like that, but it might have been a move that saved me from his hotel room.
When you are travelling alone and faced with uncomfortable attention from strange men, this is what you need to do. Ignore them, scowl, cross your arms, walk away, say no, wear a fake wedding ring, make it clear in your tone and body language that you are not one to be messed with.
If a man asks if you are alone, lie. Tell him you have friends waiting. Tell him your boyfriend is sick in the hotel room. Tell him you are on your way to meet your friends.
A few days after that incident with the “Egyptian professor”, I boarded a rather empty public bus. A local man boarded the bus and deliberately picked the seat next to me. In the Jordanian Muslim culture, men and women should not sit together unless they have no choice. This man had choices, in the form of 46 other empty seats. I felt uncomfortable, but was too shy to do anything about it. I sat there quietly during the entire bus ride, hoping that he keeps his hands to himself.
Present me would’ve given the young, naïve, and dumb me a big nudge to just stand up and switch to a different seat. At times like this, you need to have a thick skin.
More often than not, these curious men are just testing the waters. Acknowledging them, even with the slightest smile, gives them permission to tread further.
The rule of thumb is to trust no one but your instincts. Always keep your guard up when an unknown man starts being friendly. Be aware that he could be after your money or your body. That little voice inside your head will tell you whether he is safe to have a conversation with. If the little voice is muffled, put ‘bitch face’ as your default response.
That happened to me on one hot Egyptian afternoon. I was walking to the Luxor Temple when a boy, about 19, walked up to me. He was a very friendly chap, very curious about universities in Malaysia. I answered him with as much aloofness as possible yet he remained positively chirpy. By the end of our conversation, he hailed the bus I needed to get on, told the bus driver where to drop me, paid for my bus fare, and enthusiastically waved good-bye with a big, sincere smile.
I had given this very nice guy the bitch face of a lifetime. I had immediately stereotyped him as other men with wicked intentions when all he did was showed me kindness and hospitality. I was so mean to a person who did not deserve it. Am I a bad person?
I carried this guilt with me for a little while until I came to a very important realisation. It dawned on me that my potent bitch face was not reserved for sleazy man, it was reserved for people I do not trust.
When you are a lone girl in alien territory, that should mean everyone. I recognised that my safety is the most important thing. I shouldn’t feel like a bad person when I was merely guarding myself from potentially dangerous people.
If there is one thing to take away from this article, it’s that you are not a bad person for protecting yourself. We all grew up learning to be well-mannered and cultured, if being impolite goes against what your teachers taught you about being a lady, remember that your mom also said that your safety is the most important thing in the world. In the case of solo travellers, safety comes before manners.
My mom had always taught me to be polite, to always smile and say hello, to always be honest and friendly. But I’m sure she wouldn’t mind me putting on my resting bitch face when I’m out there with only my guidebook, and extra underwear.
My resting bitch face? Yeah, I’ve embraced it.
A version of this story, “The most important thing to pack as a single female traveller“, was first published on Zafigo. Founded by Marina Mahathir, Zafigo offers tips, guides and insights to make travelling better and safer for women. Read more from Zafigo here.