Table for one, please

Reflecting on lessons from solo travel

The past few days, I've lived out of the trunk of an SUV, cleaned my face with Huggies wipes (acne incoming), and eaten leftovers from a Taco Bell that ran out of lettuce, tomato, and sour cream while I was ordering … yet I’ve been feeling incredibly reenergized and grounded. Solo travel is one of the greatest gifts I've ever given myself, and my recent road trip through the Southwest has rekindled my conviction in why.

Some context — in pre-Covid times, I was a massive travel junkie. I've solo traveled to 17 countries over the past 5 years: Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia, Oman, UAE, France, Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, Morocco, Hungary, Ireland, Vietnam, the UK, and Singapore. When I’m paving new adventures in unfamiliar places, I feel challenged, am able to rethink my deeply-rooted beliefs and reactions, and can explore my curiosities to the fullest extent. I can't wait to hit the road again when the world opens back up.

In the meantime, I’ve driven more than 1500 miles in the past week and have had tons of downtime while my hands were on the wheel to be introspective. Here are a few lessons from my solo travel experiences that have been top of mind recently:

Asking for help opens remarkable doors

Growing up, I was taught by my Asian immigrant parents that asking for help was shameful, an admittance of weakness and failure. It's a mindset I've been actively trying to unlearn over the past few years, and solo travel has been a crucible for this unlearning.

In Morocco, I asked the man next to me on the plane for directions in broken French, and he not only gave me a ride back from the airport but also welcomed me into his family's home for dinner and insisted that his son show me around the city.

Screenshot of a blurry photo that’s stuck in iCloud :( — Aissa (man with glasses on his head who was next to me on the plane) and his family in Fez, Morocco

In Austria, I asked a print store owner where I could withdraw cash to print my train ticket, and he offered to print it for me for free. In the UK, I asked an acquaintance from a summer internship if I could crash with her, and that acquaintance is now one of my best friends. Asking for help is truly an asymmetric bet -- the upside can be enormous, and the worst that could happen is simply someone saying "no".

Solo travel reminds me that people are fundamentally kind want to help you on your journey. 

People care less than you think they do

Solo necessarily means alone, but alone doesn't necessarily need to be equated with loneliness. However, when I first started solo traveling, my social survival instincts from middle school were in high gear. Eating alone? Omg the judgment! Going somewhere people usually go with their friends? Unthinkable!

A few years and dozens of meals alone later, I've come to internalize that a. people don't really care nor think about you all that much and that b. people care about themselves (and by association, what others think about them) more than anyone else ever will. Embracing this mindset is not only freeing while traveling, but also underscores two things that hold true more generally: you'll always be your own worst critic, and external validation is an unproductive mental construct that doesn't reflect the reality that nobody actually cares.

Solo travel reminds me that caring excessively about what other people think is unproductive and irrational.

Subverting stereotypes is empowering

I can't begin to count the number of times I've been told that it's not safe to travel alone as a woman, or asked why I'm not scared of traveling by myself. Though I'm accustomed to deflecting these comments, they're a sobering reminder of the mold society subconsciously places me within.

This societal container is omnipresent, and I frequently feel myself bumping against its walls in realms outside of travel. Fitness and career are two such realms. I've been nudged, both subtly and directly, time and time again to operate within the parameters of expectation — I've been told that Asian women shouldn't be too muscular, been given feedback to tone down my professional opinions as a junior woman, and rarely see myself represented in the upper echelons of corporate leadership.

Whether I like it or not, I'll always be placed in a mold of some sort. But every time I board a plane by myself, stack another plate on a barbell, or make my voice heard in a work meeting, I'm not only redefining the confines of this mold but also figuratively expanding the space for what's assumed to be acceptable and possible for people who look like me.

Solo travel reminds me how empowering it is to challenge societal expectations and reduce the friction for others to do the same. 

I’ll end this by saying that though I relish opportunities to solo travel, there’s also nothing like traveling in the company of good friends. In the first leg of my trip, I met up with friends who’ve filled my soul and made me rethink what I take for granted — I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

I’ve also shot nearly three rolls of film over the course of my trip that I can’t wait to get developed. Lots of photos incoming, stay tuned!