The Risk of Going Solo

Have you ever stopped to evaluate the risk we as foreign women take when we navigate public transportation alone? Maybe you haven’t because ignorance is bliss. Initially, the adventure and excitement of exploring the city with only a few Chinese phrases and a bus pass at my disposal outweighed even the thought of danger. However, the longer I lived in China, the less inviting public transportation became. I’m not trying to scare you. If you’re still in the honeymoon stage, be encouraged that I still love public transportation, however I’m a lot more cautious than I used to be.

A few incidents in my last couple of years in China gave me second thoughts about traveling alone. About a year ago, while chatting with a taxi driver, he suggested we exchange contact info. I obliged because we’ve made friends with taxi drivers before, and it’s convenient to have someone to call in a pinch. I remember thinking “Oh, he’s got a wife and kid and wants to be friends. That’s nice.”

Instead of a new friend, I got a photo of a penis as soon as I accepted his WeChat friend request. And instead of calling a creep a creep, I felt guilty for being too friendly.

I’m angry that I’m given such unwanted attention from complete strangers who think they might be able to have a little adventure because they perceive me as a “loose American woman” (North Korean classmate who made a gross hand-shake pass at me, I’m talking to you!) I’m also sad that women in the world at large are treated so badly. Stuff like this is not okay, and I’m tired of making excuses and blaming myself for the completely unacceptable behavior of others.

It’s not my fault someone sent me a sexually explicit photo, solicited me for sex as I walked down the street in broad daylight or broke the driver/passenger protocol and asked me to be their American girlfriend *wink, wink* (lost count of that one).

It’s also not my fault that a few years ago while traveling by myself with a two-month-old baby to visit a friend and attend a women’s conference, I had a run-in with a crazy stalker at the train station.

I sat in the train station McDonald’s, minding my own business and NURSING my infant when a man entered through the side door of the suddenly deserted restaurant (Where did the crowd go? They all got up at once it seemed). He began hungrily scavenging the leftovers on the un-bussed trays. Then, he came up and asked me for money. If I hadn’t had a baby attached to me at the time, I would have bought him breakfast instead of handing him cash, but I gave him a 20 and told him to go buy some food. And he left.

Five minutes later, he re-entered through the same door as before and did the whole act again, this time stopping at my table and asking for more cash to buy a ticket.  Still nursing and trapped in a corner where the cashier couldn’t see us, the guy just stood there, staring at me, not moving for a long, drawn-out minute while I tensely refused to look at him and wished he would get the hint and go away. I finally found my words and said, “You need to go!” Thankfully, he turned and left.

I was so freaked out I packed up and decided to go sit at my gate to wait for my train. However, on the way down the escalator (baby strapped to me, overnight bag weighing down the other shoulder) I looked up, and passing right by me on the up escalator stood weird hungry dude from McDonald’s. My strange reaction as we accidentally locked eyes was to smile, I guess because I’m generally a friendly person (it was just a reaction and goodness why did I smile??) At that, he turned around and RAN DOWN THE UP ESCALATOR to try and engage me once more.

This completely spooked me, so I did what you see Jason Bourne do in the movies–entered a crowd and tried to blend. A tall foreign woman in a jacket with a fur-trimmed hood and a baby in a purple snowsuit–I couldn’t blend and most definitely couldn’t go to my gate and risk him knowing which train I would board.

I practically sprinted to a random line of passengers and tried to hide in the que of people, ducking and slinking until I finally found the sanctuary of a kiosk for cover. As I hid, I dared to look back and saw the stalker circling the area where I had just lined up. I’m convinced he was looking for me. I waited as long as I possibly could to go to my actual gate.

Nervous to be discovered, I sat down beside other passengers waiting to board and shrunk low, hoping the baby wouldn’t cry. When the boarding gate to my train platform finally opened, I jumped to the front of the line and high tailed it to my seat, without looking up at anyone. Thankfully, the stranger (bless the Lord it was a woman) who sat beside me on the train made up for the station incident like an angel sent by God as she enthusiastically helped with the baby the entire four-hour journey! Traveling mercies abound, especially when we most need them!

These experiences have changed me. I’m now less friendly with male taxi drivers. If I get even the slightest “weirdo” vibe from someone, I’m out. Perhaps these are valuable lessons as I’m realizing I don’t need to show God’s love to everyone, especially if that puts me in a questionable situation.

Is ignorance bliss as far as you’re concerned when it comes to public transportation? 

What’s your advice for a woman embarking on a solo journey in a foreign country?

How do we travel aware but not afraid?

P.S. I came across the article about a week after I wrote this post and it turns out I’m not alone! Read about Chinese women protesting harassment on public transportation here (and I promise I used the word ‘weirdo’ before I saw this).

23 Comments

  1. Abigail June 14, 2017

    My first year living in SE Asia as a 23 year old girl, my team leader told me over and over to stop being so nice. I did not owe nice answers to all of drivers of our common public transportation options. It was hard for me at first, but now, as a 40 year old woman, I totally agree!

    1. M'Lynn June 14, 2017

      Abigail, that’s great advice I hope others profit from.

  2. Sue June 14, 2017

    One of the things that helped me when I felt rude by not being as friendly to men in my host culture as I was in my home country was to recognize that in my host culture this was seen as being respectable, not rude.

    1. M'Lynn June 14, 2017

      It’s so important to know the cultural norms and follow them, and I love your point that it’s “respectable not rude.” Thanks, Sue!

  3. Sarah Cate June 14, 2017

    When I first arrived in South Asia as a single 23 year old, I definitely had the mentality of ignorance is bliss. It wasn’t until I got trapped in the back of a taxi that would not stop when I told him to that I began to understand how scary public transportation could be. After this incident I was more careful. If I had a bad feeling about a driver, I would skip over him and wait for another guy. Even then, this little tactic I had didn’t protect me from every bad driver. One day I grabbed a ride with an older gentleman. He seemed very kind and he was trying to talk to me, but I told him I couldn’t understand him. He stopped talking for a while and then he tried again. This time when I told him I couldn’t understand him, he pulled over. I asked if something was wrong and instead of responding he turned around and sexually assaulted me. I never expected that I would go through something so traumatizing. This incident had me wanting to run back to the states, in fact, I almost did. The only thing that stopped me was that the Lord made it so clear that He wanted me to stay. He told me to trust Him. He provided the support that I needed and the comfort that comes from reading His Word and proclaiming promises. It wasn’t an easy road to walk and even a year later, I still have hard days.

    My advice for a woman embarking on a solo journey in a foreign country is to listen to your feelings. If something doesn’t seem right, get out. When riding in public transportation put in ear phones and listen to worship music. This helped me with calming my anxiety and it gave me a reason to not interact with the driver. If you have the option, try and get your own car or scooter. I started renting a scooter right after my incident and it really helped me. I felt like I was in control. If you can, get connected with friends and travel together around the city. Finally, enjoy the different modes of transportation your country may offer.

    1. M'Lynn June 14, 2017

      Sarah, thank you for bravely sharing your story here. I truly appreciate it. My knee jerk reaction is to not tell anyone, but by keeping stuff like this to ourselves we help no one. My prayer is that women will travel more aware and lend awareness to others. I’m so glad the Lord grabbed you in your heartache and showed you how to stay. I’m lifting you up as you continue to follow Him!

  4. Renee June 14, 2017

    In my years of living in Asia, I’ve had several creepy stalker moments where guys followed me, as well as scary taxi drivers. In one incident I was on a subway and a guy wouldn’t stop staring at me from far across the subway train (not your normal staring — it was super creepy). I was so scared I got off at a stop and was going to just catch the next subway train. He got off the subway car with me. And then when I got on the next train, he got on that one, too. And he never stopped staring, and was clearly following me. What I did in that situation is what I often recommend to people who find themselves in a scary situation in public — talk to someone in their language and point out the scary person to them. On that subway train, I went and stood with a group of college-age local girls and told them I was scared and felt like I was being followed by that guy. They immediately rallied and stood around me and left with me at my destination, walking me to where I felt safe. I would encourage you to know at least enough of the local language to be able to engage in a conversation like this. And like others have said — if you ever feel something is simply “off,” trust your instinct and get outta there.

    1. M'Lynn June 14, 2017

      Renee, I like your strategy to involve the locals or gather a group to help (even a group of foreigners if one is available!) I never thought of that! And it’s good to talk strategy BEFORE these situations happen because brain waves can short out in a stressful situation! I would love to see something about women traveling safe brought into pre-field training for women and men (because if the men aren’t aware they can’t help…) Thanks for sharing your creepy stalker guy story!

      1. M'Lynn June 14, 2017

        Okay…I think something was said in pre-field training like “Hey single ladies! Stay safe out there!” And maybe a little more like go in groups at dark, etc. But I still feel the subject lacks awareness. Wouldn’t it be a great “Top Ten” list? Top Ten strategies for traveling safe alone…

  5. Michelle S June 14, 2017

    Thank you for this, M’Lynn! It’s an important topic that I’m afraid often gets overlooked. I’ve never been in a really scary situation, but there have been plenty of inappropriate things said that tell me that it’s not safe to let my guard down at all. When I’m travelling public transportation alone (which is most of the time), or in town shopping, or anything like that, I take care never to look a man in the eyes or smile at him; in fact, if one starts walking with me and talking to me (which happens very frequently), I turn my face a little to the other direction. If he asks me questions I answer as tersely as possible, and I don’t give personal information like what area I live in or even my name. It’s cold and sometimes even rude (even in this culture), but I’ve found that most men here, if I give them an inch of friendliness, are instantly ready to take a mile–partly because, as you said, they have the idea that all American women are “loose.” But usually if I treat them this way, they give up on me pretty quickly. I also avoid going to any unpopulated places alone to guard against ending up alone with a man.

    I tend to be looked at as overly cautious in these things, but I’m determined to stay responsible for my own purity and not trust it into the hands of wicked men, because, obviously, they’re not trustworthy. They’re way too friendly, and way too willing to be more than friendly. It’s not that I live in fear; not at all. I’ve rarely been in a situation that even made me nervous–but I’m proactive about avoiding those situations. I 100% believe that God is able to protect me when I take risks for Him, but I also believe it’s foolish to just close my eyes and run unnecessary risks.

    1. Michelle S June 14, 2017

      Just wanted to add, I don’t mean to imply that whenever we end up in bad situations it’s because we didn’t take proper precautions. I do think a lot of bad situations can be avoided by taking care, but…going solo is still risky!

      1. M'Lynn June 14, 2017

        All very well said, Michelle. Especially this: “I 100% believe that God is able to protect me when I take risks for Him, but I also believe it’s foolish to just close my eyes and run unnecessary risks.” Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hadassah Doss June 14, 2017

    We’ve been lucky not to have to use public transport very often because we own our own vehicle, but recently friends came to visit and I took them on public transport to the museum because my husband needed the car. (I’ll share how I don’t drive in this country, anyways, later.) We hopped on the metro and all was good on the way there. But our return trip was during the busiest part of the day, which meant trouble. We tried twice to get in a metro car, because here, both the people going in and the people going out rush the door at the same time. We were traveling with small children and my biggest fear was they’d somehow get left, so we surrounded them and merged into the car as best as we could. I still remember looking down for my youngest, calling out to her, and laughing when her little face popped out from under us. She was in the center of our very tight circle! We decided to stay that way, to know where the kids were, and because people were crowding us. I noticed a few times that my friend’s wife was moving oddly during part of the trip. I thought she might be targeted because she was fair skinned and blond, and started to watch more closely. I was right! There were hands reaching for her. I used my bag to push them away, and we moved her into our circle. But I felt terrible! She wasn’t saying anything. If she had, I might have been able to make a fuss with the bit of Arabic I do know. I wish the story had ended there, but 21 stops later, we arrived at the station. Now, we needed to hop on a microbus home. These are 14 passenger vans that are crowded to hold about 20 or more. Except, where I was used to getting them no one seemed to be going to our town. They kept naming a place, and I kept naming our town, and they’d shake their heads. (Turns out they were saying “driver” and not the name of a place. They wanted us to rent the whole van and even that might have been ok, if I’d known what they were saying.) I told our group we’d have to walk further to catch one, and on we marched. As we were walking in the now dark of night, a young boy attached himself to our group. He said he was going our direction and was asking looking for a van, too. He offered to help, and talk to a few of the drivers for us. I was feeling thankful, until he started to say there was a stop further down the road. We were walking in that direction, but it was further and further away from the crowds of people. It seemed he was luring us into the dark which in this country, where there is so much light everywhere, is unusual and scary. I got worried. I started to ask anyone passing by for a van, and finally some older men told us we were close to the train station, to follow them. I chose the group over the boy, and in another few minutes, we were thanking them as we got on the local train. It wasn’t moving yet, and we only figured out later that we should have bought a ticket before getting on (no one asked us for any and we ended up riding for free), but the boy didn’t get on and seemingly disappeared. I still wonder if he truly was wanting to help or hurt us. The saga didn’t end there. When the train finally did arrive near our town, we still had to walk quite a ways to get back into our secure campus. My husband picked up part of the group while I got us dinner, but I have never been so happy to walk through our school’s gate as I was that day. It was more of an adventure than I’d been wanting to give our friends, that’s for sure. And my youngest? She’s not forgotten the ordeal. To this day, she doesn’t want to ride the metro–ever again!

    1. M'Lynn June 19, 2017

      Wow! I’m so glad this story ends with you getting home safe! And this is a good example of traveling aware and trusting your gut (as so many have said here in the comments). It seems to be that we all have those stories when we’ve had to go the less than desirable route to get where we’re going, and I’m so glad in those situations we can pray. I’ve asked God for angels to help me along in my travels and He’s provided–whether it’s a situation where we had to trust a driver we didn’t know in an unfamiliar place or keeping me safe solo in a taxi at night– I know God has hand-picked drivers for me in certain situations before, and it sounds like he did the same for you!

  7. Jewel June 16, 2017

    After having lived a few years as an American single lady in a spanish country, there are a few tips that I can pass on.
    1. The questions of why you’re not married, and if you wish to get married, and if you want to have children etc, those are all opportunities to give clear answers of faith in God and of your Christianity.
    2. In a taxi, always sit in the back if there is space. To sit in the front beside the driver is an invitaion.
    3. Always assume that every man, especially the nice friendly ones, have ulterior motives. Guilty till proven innocent. The good guys will not be offended.
    4. Remember the rules your mom taught you of never getting into a car with a stranger, and never accepting gifts from a stranger, etc. Thsoe rules still apply!!!
    5. When a man asks for the time, or for directions to get to somewhere, or any other ‘legit’ question, answer and leave. They continue talking in friendlyness until… your husband, dad, brother or whatever man you are with appears. Then they suddenly disappear.
    6. When riding public transportation, mind your own business.
    7. NEVER go out in the evenings and nights alone. You are only asking for trouble, even if you think it safe. That is when the bad girls go out.
    8. But all that said, do not be scared. Trust God. What we must do, we do, even when it is dangerous. But it is those things that we just WANT to do, and are having fun, and… It is a principle of life in all areas, whether you are on the internet or whatever. When you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, there is less danger and God will take care of us. But when we start messing around, and filling time, etc, that is when we are unprotected.

  8. Phyllis June 17, 2017

    Now I’m wondering if I’m naive, lucky (?), live in really safe places, or what? I’m at 15+ years of using public transportation all the time, and no incidents, at least nothing related to the fact that I’m a woman. Thank you, Lord! All these scary stories….

    True, I’m always aware, I don’t really stand out, and I speak the language, but I’m very thankful for God’s protection.

    1. M'Lynn June 19, 2017

      I’m glad you can report that you have zero scary stories to share!

  9. Megan June 17, 2017

    What worked for us in the part of SE Asia where I was, was taking the taxi driver’s number, but NOT giving him mine…The friendlier ones would ask for names, occupations, how long have you been here, etc, but I never gave out my own number. If they offered their number (some of them habitually camped out near the supermarket, and would carry us home with all our groceries), I would take it, and it would go in my contacts as “Upendra-taxi”–and then the ball is in my court as to whether or not I ever contacted him again. I was also fortunate enough to be in a part of the world where ‘tourists’ are highly valued commodities and rarely ran into the truly creepy creepers. But definitely, never sit in the front seat if you’re alone with the driver, and be circumspect in your information sharing! One final thought I might add–be aware of your local dresscode, and follow the local dictates of modesty–maybe even err on the conservative side for good measure. We stand out enough as foreigners without adding unintentionally inappropriate clothing into the mix! And trust God. Circumstances are in his control, and he can work all things for good, and his glory!

    Travel safe!

    1. M'Lynn June 19, 2017

      Great advice–if the taxi driver asks for your number, get his instead–but then again I think I’d go a step further and say ask a trusted friend (whether foreign or national) who they call when they need a ride. Having a tried and true go-to driver in a pinch is worth so much when it comes to times like needing a ride solo to the airport at night! Or even better for newbies: an English speaking driver. It seems it can also be a geographical phenomenon. We had multiple trusted drivers in one city but never ended up finding one in our next city!

  10. Amber June 18, 2017

    Oh, M’Lynn. Thank you for posting this. I think so many women feel shameful or guilty when something like this happens to them- me included. And it’s so hard to bring up, because people instantly want to try to fix what happened to you- “Oh, you should have…” “Why didn’t you…” And honestly, that made me shut down even more and I didn’t want to share what happened. But brining our brokenness to the light is the only way we can be healed. And I’ve learned so much about the power of vulnerability and how our boldness can help others feel less alone. So here’s my hard story to share:

    I was waiting for a taxi. One driver saw me, but I had to run across two lanes of traffic to get to him- and the light changed to green- and everyone started honking. So he leaned over and opened the passenger side door, and I ran across traffic and hopped in without thinking. The way there, he started asking me questions. I was so excited to be practicing my Chinese! But really, looking back- I told him I was a single woman, living in Shenyang with no family. How naive of me in that moment. Then he started saying he wanted to be friends, and I could call him if I ever needed a taxi. Then he touched my leg to get my attention and pointed to something. I started feeling creeped out, but we were almost there and I already had my backpack in my lap. Then he started insisting that I give him my number, so we could be friends. I said no, and tried to scoot over as far as I could. Then he reached over and assaulted me. It was kind of a blur- but I remember elbowing his arm away and throwing money at him and getting out quickly.
    The aftermath of that incident left me angry, hurt, confused, and disdainful towards my host country, so it took me about two years to find healing and be in a healthy place.

    My advice:
    Lie. If a taxi driver asks if you’re single- nope! You don’t owe him anything- why does he need to know the details of your life? He doesn’t. And after I answer that I am happily married, I pull a “I’m sorry- I don’t understand” and continue my ride in peace.

    Sit in the back. It seems so clear to me now- but it’s just a wiser choice. So, if at all you can, choose to do so.

    Don’t! Awkwardly play on your phone, or seem scared and skittish. Attackers see that as an easy target- someone distracted and unsuspecting. There was a study done that showed women were much less likely to be hurt if they walked confidently and made eye contact with people as they were walking. (Also, if you can help it, don’t wear a ponytail if you’re walking by yourself at night- it gives an instant place for an attacker to grab and keeps you immobile.)

    Watch self-defense videos on YouTube! Seriously, this made me feel so empowered and so much safer, walking home alone at night. I’d think through the steps I’d take if I were assaulted and it made me feel less afraid, knowing I was prepared.

    Find a verse that really resonates with you- and recite it over and over as you’re walking. That always brought me so much peace. And it was harder to worry about the “what ifs” if I was going through a long verse in my head, trying to say it perfectly.

    1. M'Lynn June 19, 2017

      Amber, thank you for sharing your story! I also kept stuff like this to myself and felt guilty or shameful that I must have been to blame. Finally one day it all came pouring out of me as I wrote and wrote and realized I was not to blame for the universal failure of the world in its attitude toward women (not blaming all men here…)…and I needed to tell others so they could either be free to tell their similar stories shame free or at least be more aware. And…So what that you were in the front seat! Yes, in hindsight the backseat is safer, but how many times have a group of us piled in and someone HAS to be in the front seat? Or, like you said…The traffic was roaring and the door was open. Not. Your. Fault. I also tried to walk aware (even when suddenly alone in broad daylight like in a corner of the park, etc) I’d carry my awesomely sharp Chinese screwdriver keys ready to stab someone especially at night. The ponytail thing is good to know! And I like the idea of becoming more aware and learning about self defense. Way to go!

  11. AJ June 18, 2017

    I do public transport and have even hitchhiked in sub-Saharan Africa. I am CONSTANTLY sexually harassed. Don’t feel guilty. The existence of the patriarchy shows up when women start to feel guilty and afraid of being in public spaces and even occupying space on the street. The answer is not to change your life in order to escape harassement! I have several tactics:
    1) I suddenly pretend I can’t speak French and act confused. Eventually the guy gets frustrated and leaves.
    2) Say I’m married or that I don’t know how to cook (this is a deal breaker for the guys around here)
    3) I give him a withering look and say, “Would you talk to your mother this way?” This works in shame cultures
    4) If I’m trapped with them like in a car or taxi, I explain to them why their comments are degrading, and that he should think about the way he talks to women.

    I was followed one night by a guy who seemed mentally ill and or drunk. I was heading into an isolated area, and he was ignoring my rather biting remarks about wanting to be left alone. I had a gut feeling and turned around, heading to the nearest house where a man and his teenage daughter were sitting on the porch. My stalker followed me and wrapped his arms around my waist–I didn’t get the chance to punch him because the man on the porch grabbed him by the shirt and chased him off. That whole situation rattled me, and I am little more careful about walking after dark.

    If you haven’t already picked up on this, I’m a bit of a wild child.

    But what is the alternative? I have to be out at night for my job. I am a night owl, and thrive in the night life. I understand that I am taking risks, but the alternative is a quote suffocating lifestyle (in my opinion). I am also over 6 feet tall, a former college athlete, and I went boxing…once. What worries my about some of the advice being given here is that it’s not all things to all people in all places. Somebody said only bad girls come out at night. Whelpppp…I guess I’m guilty as charged. Someone else mentioned clothes. I have had my ass grabbed while wearing baggy scrub bottoms in the US Midwest. In urban north Africa I was followed by men making sexual comments while wearing a giant sweatshirt (longer than my oh-so-temping butt) and jeans. I was dressed appropriately for the culture and weather in both cases. Modesty is a whole side issue, but what I’m trying to say is that some men don’t care if you’re in a burqa or a bikini, and women need to know that the way they are dressed is not “causing” the harassment.

    My advice is to follow your instincts. Don’t push down those uncomfortable feelings or talk yourself out of them. And when safe, challenge men on their behavior. I am teaching mostly young male students right now, and I have had many talks with them. No, it’s not funny when you joke about child marraige to your patients. No, you cannot sexaully assault the practice dummies without severe consequences. (I am a nursing instructor, and yes, those were real examples). One of my favorite quotes is by Jenni Konner: “The only thing standing between men and outdated, hideous behavior is their ability to get away with it.” Obviously not all situations are good for confrontation, but don’t be afraid to when the time comes. You are not doing anything wrong! Fight back.

    This is not meant as an attack on men, but on men who harass women. Many wonderful men of different nationalities have called out harassers on my behalf, and that always gives me hope. Sorry if I got all up in arms here. I’m a fairly new reader of your site and appreciate how relevant everything is to my life. I keep reading posts and breaking into tears because I know exactly what the author means.

    Stay strong sisters, A.J. (Central Africa)

    1. M'Lynn June 19, 2017

      A.J. your comment rocks! Thank you for taking the time to share. I agree that we can’t solve the issue with broad stroke “don’t go out at night, dress modestly, all better.” Each of my situations have happened in broad daylight and clothing was not an issue (and even if it was I strongly disagree with verbage such as “well she was just asking for it”) I especially loved this: “The existence of the patriarchy shows up when women start to feel guilty and afraid of being in public spaces and even occupying space on the street.” YES!!! It’s time we all start finding our inner A.J. and stop quietly putting up with this. However, there are situations for many when the language barrier is more than they can tackle…And fight or flight also takes over! (and you’re definitely all fight!) This is so helpful for all of us to be able to think through scenarios and say “I’m not the victim and I’m not gonna take this!”

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