Without a doubt, the four most common questions any traveler gets asked while abroad are (in order):
- Where are you from?
- What is your name?
- Are you married?
For me, even Question #1 can be pretty loaded. After all, ethnic minorities are still a rare concept in largely homogeneous-looking societies, and at least once a day, I’ve got some random stranger telling me that I “can’t possibly be American because, well,… you know…” Then they put their fingers to the edges of their eyes and pull to show me what my face looks like.
It’s irritating and exhausting, and every few months of travel, I completely freak out, log in to my WordPress, and produce one of these. Honestly, though, my case is pretty unique. For most people, Questions #1 and #2 pass without incident. It’s Questions #3 and #4 that can get really tiresome. Depending on who’s asking, you could get a simple, “Why not?” or you could get a lecherous smile coupled with the sudden, unwelcome sensation of a hand on your thigh. Or, as I came to find out a few years ago, you could get the unsolicited opinion of a man lying under a tree. There are a lot of things I will tolerate when I’m on the road. However, being lectured to about my life’s trajectory by a man who is both shirtless and shoeless by two in the afternoon is not one of them.
Anyone that knows me well can attest to my lifelong aversion to marriage and kids. It’s just not for me- never has been, and unlikely ever to be. I have nothing against either, and know lots of happy people who chose one, the other, or both. That said, once you hit your 30s, it somehow becomes open season for people that barely know you to make distasteful comments about your rapidly decaying eggs. It gets pretty damn tiring being patronized about it all the time, and I’m never entirely sure what the presumptuous ass talking to my face is trying to achieve here. Being constantly reminded that I’m getting older, and that the window for biological parenthood is closing, is a little like being told that I’m getting too old to be a firefighter, or a gymnast, or something else I never said I wanted to be.
Yes. I hear you. And?
Parents are great. I admire their tenacity, patience, and determination. If it wasn’t for good parents, our society would have devolved into a cannibalistic wasteland long ago. I respect them and understand that they are doing something that benefits us all.
Similarly, I like and respect firefighters. I admire their courage and dedication to society. I wish they were funded better and given more support. I acknowledge that we could never live without them (Hell, my entire state would have burned to the ground by now if not for their valiant efforts). But I’ve never wanted to be a firefighter. I don’t have any affection whatsoever for my garden hose, and I don’t subscribe to Firehouse Magazine. I wouldn’t even know where to begin shopping for a pair of overalls.
So, in short, I enjoy smart, cheeky, well-behaved children in the same way that I enjoy my house not being on fire. That is to say, enormously. Doesn’t mean I want to have them.
I know I’m in the minority, and I’m fine with that. None of my friends at home have ever pushed the issue, and, being from the SF Bay, I often forget that my stance is somewhat uncommon. Maybe once every two years, I’ll encounter someone who has the temerity to challenge my decision (I don’t know why people think that telling a full grown woman that she doesn’t know her own mind is ever OK, but there it is) and I’ve been all too happy to swiftly and resolutely shut them down.
Oh, travel… when “having a husband” keeps truck drivers’ sweaty, lustful hands at bay, dodges old ladies’ pitying lectures, and helps your friends’ long-distance girlfriends sleep at night. It just,… it just makes things so easy.
So, a lot of us will lie about it. I certainly have. After all, my entire first round-the-world trip was spent “on the way to meet my fiance,” a phantom character who I’d artfully named “Boris McHookhand.” Boris had it all- he took out the garbage and talked tennis with my dad. He was gainfully employed and didn’t believe in premarital sex. He was a championship boxer, but also an avid animal lover who brought home stray cats to feed. He was a catch. But, above all, if you needed to know anything about Boris, it’s that he was jealous. Very jealous. That’s why he’s not here, after all. Oh, he will be. Right after he finishes serving time for stabbing the last guy that looked at my rack, that is.
It’s stupid and tiresome, but almost all of us have done it at some point. It saves you a lot of grief and people almost automatically ease up– especially if you have pictures (I’m pretty certain that if Kai Newkirk and I were to ever meet, we’d fall madly in love, so I feel like toting around images of him is OK. It’s kind of like taking out a cash advance on my love life).
But, lately, I’ve been having second thoughts. In a few moments of unchecked annoyance while hitchhiking through South Africa in 2012, I was asked whether or not I was married and I answered with a curt, “No. And I won’t be, if I have any choice in the matter.” I looked over at the driver, expectantly. The response was surprising- “Yeah, me neither.” My ride and I smiled at each other in a moment of understanding, and the conversation moved to something else.
A similar exchange in a backwater Tajik town rapidly evolved into a spirited discussion where a 28-year old librarian eagerly disclosed her wish to travel the world and live free one day. “Both my sisters have gotten married and had children. Why do I have to as well?”
The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We, as travelers from industrialized nations, have an almost embarrassing amount of cultural influence on the places we visit. Filipino hairstylists sing to Destiny’s Child at work. Laughing Swazi village children wear shorts with the Union Jack plastered on the butt. Cambodian touts can urge you to buy their postcards in German, or Japanese, or Russian, or Dutch, or Korean, or whatever other language you want to try to avoid them with. Maybe it’s pompous to say, but, in many ways, our presence has a hand in shaping the young people of many developing nations.
We push on, always to lesser-known places, helping out on a farm here, teaching English there, and many return home to work towards improving literacy, health care, and environmental stewardship overseas. And almost all of us do all of this while solo. My female traveler friends fight for gender equality and negotiate aggressively for maternity leave and a fair salary… and yet still lie about marriage and kids to “just make it easier”. Why, when most travelers I know are happy to brave dengue and armed conflict and death-defying chicken bus rides, are we afraid to simply just attest to who we are? Why shouldn’t we proudly reveal our relationship status as well, and be happy to answer the questions that follow? After all, I’m not doing anything wrong, and my choice isn’t hurting anybody else. Why sidestep questions about a choice I’m proud of when the potential impact to a young girl sitting behind me on the bus, or to an eavesdropping student in the internet cafe, may be huge?
And so, my proposal to my single traveler friends is to step out from the veil of secrecy, stand up for your single-dom, and say it loud and proud. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprising discovery, but I’m finding that there are some people (men and women) in those barely-touched corners of the world who maybe don’t want that, either. Maybe they just need someone else to take a stand. Answer the questions. Tell off the presumptuous asses. Maybe they just need to see someone doing it first.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” –Steve Jobs