Spots of Time

March 16, 2004

Cold-Hearted American Bitch

Being culturally aware has turned me into a cold-hearted American bitch.

But, please, let me explain.

It all started in India. Or, did it? Maybe it started when I first began to travel, alone.

My friends know me as a usually easy-going, friendly, and sometimes flirty female. I’m not shy, tend to be chatty, and don’t mind having conversations with total strangers. This openness has helped me to meet people while on the road and around the world. It has started friendships, broken down barriers, and allowed me to pass freely through Customs more times than I can count. It is a part of my personality I especially like.

However, my personality changes while traveling, especially when talking to non-western men - those who come from cultures where a woman’s role is not as independent, equal or liberated as in the United States. This can be said about most of the Southeast Asian countries that I have visited (to an extent), but most especially about India.

In many parts of the world, a single woman traveling alone is seen as an oddity. I can’t even count the number of times I have been asked if I was married, if my husband knew I was traveling, or, when I explained that I was not married, if my father knew that I was traveling. In a lot of parts of the world, it is almost inconceivable that a man would allow his daughter/wife/sister/mother/etc to travel alone. India, aside from pockets of liberalism in the big cities, is like this.

Hollywood movies, the media, and girlie magazines add a new dimension to the western woman traveler. We are often seen as loose, wild, immoral creatures – or, at the very least, naughty girls. Girls that wouldn’t mind a hand on our thighs, a brush against our breast, or an invitation for some extracurricular activities (wink, wink, he smiled, if you know what I mean).

Of course, this behavior is not exclusive to non-western men. I’ve been felt up in Australian bars, pinched in American dance clubs, and once, while riding the cable car in San Francisco, had a dirty old man press his lower extremity into my backside, then pretended to not understand why I was upset. But, while reactionary tactics such as a well-placed slap, an angry glance or some harsh words can do wonders in familiar territory, preventative measures are much more effective in foreign lands.

We women are not totally innocent. The lack of conservative dress among many female travelers does not help our case. Women who wear short shorts, cleavage revealing tank tops, and body hugging clothing in countries where such clothing is considered at the least inappropriate and at the most an invitation, help to perpetuate the stereotype seen in movies and on television. Let’s not forget that "Baywatch" is one of the most internationally watched television shows on the planet. It is shown nightly in India – a country where women at the beach almost never enter the ocean, and if they do, only while fully clothed.

Before the roar of the liberated woman rears its head, I want to explain that while I personally don’t think that a woman’s dress is an invitation to anything, I am a big believer in respecting the culture of the land in which I am a visitor. If the women don’t show their legs, I will not show my legs. If the women wear a head covering, I will wear a head covering. This does not make me a less liberated woman – this makes me a culturally sensitive and aware one.

But, let’s get back to me being a bitch.

In order to protect myself while traveling, I have found that I transform myself into an aloof, reserved and no-nonsense woman. I don’t smile very much, I keep a distance in transactions with waiters, shop keepers and hotel staff, and I tend to ignore all men that call at me from the streets – be they shop keepers, taxi drivers, or pavement Romeo’s.

Recently, however, I have been called out on my behavior. First by my brother, while we were in the Philippines. And, second, by a male traveler in Goa. The traveler, a young Aussie, said that I exhibited stereotypical American behavior in my interactions with a waiter – acting like I was better than him and not giving him the respect he deserved. At first I was offended. Then I was hurt. Then I was horrified. My protective shell had morphed into something more. Instead of being aloof, I was being elitist. Instead of being reserved, I was being rude. Instead of being no-nonsense, I was being a bitch.

I was as guilty of the stereotyping of Indian men as some of them were in stereotyping American women. My information had come from my own ignorant perceptions, from other travelers, from guidebooks and from "friendly" advice. The young Indian man on the plane, who despite chatting amiably with me for a few hours encouraged me not to talk to strange Indian men who made overtures of friendship. The older man in Goa, who after seeing a young man offer me a "lift" on his motorbike, said I should never accept a "lift" – from anyone. The female traveler, who said that while on an Indian beach, a group of Indian men had asked if they could take a picture of her in her bikini. All these comments paired with some natural fear about a new place and a new culture created a "monster" in my head.

Today, I left the shelter of my hotel room (complete with over 60 channels of satellite television, at least 10 of which were in English, one showing Baywatch later that evening) and roamed the streets of Trivandrum, a city in the state of Kerala, in the southwestern part of India.

I wasn’t doing anything special – just running errands. About 4 p.m. I was hungry, and not wanting to spoil my dinner, I decided on a snack. Instead of buying some fruit or packaged snack food in one of the "safe" stores, I decided to do what the Indians did. I went to one of the tea/coffee stands and ordered a tea and a savory, donut-like snack. Then, like the Indian men at the stand, I ate standing up.

While this may not seem like a big deal, there were no women at the stand. Prior to the recent commentary by my fellow traveler, I think I would have avoided this place, concerned that I would be drawing undo attention to myself, or putting myself in a potentially compromising position.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sure, I could tell I was the topic of conversation for some of the men, but besides some second glances and a few staring eyes, no one approached me. And, standing on a busy street corner, pedestrian traffic on all sides, I was perfectly safe. When a street seat became available, I sat down. The older man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. Instead of answering abruptly and turning aside, I spoke kindly with him, answering his questions about where I was from and why I was in India. We chatted for a few minutes and then he left, wishing me well. He was totally harmless and benign – simply curious about a stranger in his hometown.

It’s been less than two weeks since I have been in India, and my culture shock is slowly subsiding. Will time here change me back into my old, open self, smiling freely, making eye contact and chatting with strange men? No, it won’t. While my interactions have been 99% positive, I am still a solo woman traveling the world – and I am not stupid. I still believe that prevention – keeping myself out of potentially compromising positions – is the key to a safe, happy trip.

So, I will continue to follow, as much as I can, the culture of the place in which I am visiting. I will watch the local women, to see how they behave – and follow suit. I will keep a polite distance and expect that others do so as well. I will stay in well-lit areas, avoid "lifts" from strange men, and cover up with my sarong while on the beach.

But, I will also keep awareness that not all invitations are lecherous ones. That not all conversations have an ulterior motive. That a moderate level of friendliness has its place. And, that elitism, even under the guise of aloofness and self-protection, does not.