As a proud Bangladeshi-American, I think of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month as a testament to our significant presence and impact on the American narrative, and a reminder to recognize the good, the bad and the ugly of the milestones we’ve championed to achieve the global recognition we have today. As a South Asian-American, Muslim, female — along with my luggage I know that I also carry the weight of my identity with me, to every new destination I travel to. Whether it’s yet another “random check” or a blatant stare, I know that traveling across the world is always going to be a slightly more difficult feat to accomplish for me, but it’s a challenge I’ve happily accepted. Alas, after overcoming many obstacles, conquering many fears and waiting for what feels like a lifetime, I can finally call myself a globetrotter.
Lessons learned, funny stories to tell the kids, tears, tips and advice — here’s a short and sweet (like me) look at what it’s really like to travel as a solo, female, Muslim, South Asian-American:
It’s okay to cry.
Pardon the cliche but — a picture says a thousand words, so I’ll let this one speak for itself. After an incredibly blissful trip, this is how I spent the last few hours in Greece at the Athens airport. In a line of 100+ people, only three of us were asked to step aside for further inspection. Now, don’t get me wrong, my namesake has lead to innumerable awkward pulled-to-the-side security pat downs, “random” bag checks, and “unable to check-in online, please check-in at the service desk…” messages, so I’m no stranger to being subject to public scrutiny in the name of security. But this was the first time I was so blatantly profiled. They opened my bags and emptied all of its contents. They asked me to remove all my outerwear and accessories. They patted me down behind a barely closed curtain and went through all the photos on my cell phone and DSLR camera. All while the other 97+ people stood and watched.
With every piece of outerwear and jewelry I took off, I felt like I was shedding a layer of my dignity. With every removed item, I felt the same emptiness that slowly filled my bag. With every pat down, question, and swipe to the next photo, I felt violated, mortified, angry and devastated — all at the same time, and so, I cried. No, that’s an understatement — it torrentially downpoured out of my eyes. I often get asked how it feels to get pulled aside like that and get comments like “that sounds so unfortunate”, or, my personal favorite “but, you don’t even look Muslim” (whatever that means) and until this day, I never know how to respond.
At times it makes me laugh, sometimes it’s aggravating and embarrassing, and sometimes it’s so terrifying that it comes to haunt me in my nightmares, like the ghost of travel past. Traveling, sadly, always reminds me that reality is sometimes unbearably stark, but it also reminds me to move past the hideous and face my fears. My passion for seeing the world always triumphs over the caveats I face to see it.
In the end, even despite having the worst ending of all my trips, of all the places I’ve ventured to through my travels, Greece was and still is my absolute favorite destination, and I hope to go back someday.
Get to the airport early… I mean, really early.
Once upon a time, I booked a trip to Paris, the city of love (apparently). On my way to the airport in my horse-drawn carriage (a.k.a. Uber pool), I received this response from my flight provider: “This message is to inform you that we are unable to check you in at this time. Please check in using an airport kiosk.” Between NYC traffic and how often I get stuck in some sort of extra security check, I always allot extra travel time for myself, so I stayed calm and kept my anxiety at arm’s length. I had no bags to check and was traveling light. “So I might get a terrible seat, worse things have happened,” I told myself. My pep talk was abruptly interrupted by a message that glared at me from the self-service kiosk — for reasons unknown, I had to check in at a service desk. I stared at the seemingly unending line of people that stood in front of the one and only available service desk for standard check-ins and for the first time while traveling, I panicked. Even the extra three hours I gave myself were not enough — I stood in line for two hours before I finally got to the desk. And unfortunately, it didn’t end there. At the desk, I was bombarded with questions. Why was I going? Why don’t I have any bags? Am I meeting someone there? What is my itinerary? Where will I be staying? How much money am I bringing? By the end of it, I had exactly twenty-three minutes until my flight departed. As I left the desk to enter yet another endless line to get to the security, I left thinking “Paris, the city of hate…because I hate you right now”.
I tossed in the towel and accepted that I was going to miss my flight. And then, in the midst of my despair I looked up and a group of students in front of me smiled and said: “go ahead, we saw what happened, don’t miss your flight!” One by one people moved aside and let me pass them on the security line until I was almost to the front. I breezed through security and ran to my gate. I made my flight, with one minute to spare. Lesson 1: get to the airport as early as you can, lesson 2: never forget that the world is filled with as many kind people as it is, unkind. Human hostility almost made me miss my flight, but humanity helped me make it.
People will stare, it will be aggravating and uncomfortable, but remember when to keep your cool.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from a small country sandwiched between Nepal and India, called Bangladesh. So, whenever I’m asked if I’m Indian or what part of India I’m from (assuming that I’m Indian just by my looks) I’m always ready with a response to correct their assumptions and, of course, to delve into a mini-history lesson on Bangladesh (you’re welcome for making you smarter). Bottom line: I don’t take ignorance lightly. However, over time I’ve learned (the hard way) that calling out every person that stares at you like you’re an alien, is not the best way to impart your knowledge or voice your cultural pride, because I’d have to give my speech to about three dozen people on average, per trip and it might actually become dangerous. Yikes! If you’re visiting a foreign destination for the first time, and especially if you’re not familiar with the language, I highly recommend picking and choosing your battles.
Trust me, I know that keeping your cool in a heated situation involving discrimination is probably one of the hardest things to do. But sometimes it’s best to just walk away from a situation to diffuse the tension. This isn’t to say that you should never protest, in fact, in the right situation, it’s the perfect way to start that uncomfortable dialogue about racial profiling and be a catalyst for change. But if you’re walking home late at night to that Airbnb in the slightly sketchy part of town because that’s all you could afford, it’s probably best to just get there as quickly as possible, regardless of who glares, stares, jeers or jaunts at you along the way!
Humility and kindness will take you further than any plane ever can or will. I am, by no means, a docile or non-confrontational person; I live my life to the (very loud) beat of my own drums and am one to always raise my voice against any injustice or ignorance I see or experience. But when it comes to traveling, the most important thing to remember is that it’s in human nature to fear the unknown and as a foreigner, you are the unknown.
It’s easy to forget that part when you’re constantly being stared, pointed or even jeered at, and even harder still when people are throwing dirty looks and offensive words or sentiments at you. But from my experience, the best defense tactic for these moments is to “kill ’em with kindness”. The truth is, that we live in a time where my name indicates, that I am to be feared, am potentially a threat to society or that I embody evilness…because I’m Muslim. I’ve never flown without getting stopped, pulled aside and/or questioned and with every trip I hold my breath through the security line, praying that I make it to my flight on time and seamlessly — just once (keep dreaming, I know). But, regardless of how frustrating or upsetting it is, I’ve learned (the hard way, again) that meeting people’s hateful gazes and hurtful words with the same aggression will not only land me in an unpleasant situation, but it also helps confirm their misconceptions about me, my religion and be cultural heritage. When I travel, I travel with the intention of changing the mindsets of the people I encounter along the way; even if it’s just one person of the dozens I meet, that treats the next solo, female, South Asian and/or Muslim traveler they encounter with more acceptance, that’s one more story to take away from the ignorance pile and put into the enlightened one.
Just keep flying.
Do I have moments when I want to just give up and stop traversing the globe for the sake of my sanity? Yes. Do I have a nervous breakdown and gripping anxiety at even the thought of going through airport security? Absolutely. Do I get sick and tired of being openly profiled and ostracized? Unequivocally. But, I just keep flying. Traveling isn’t always rainbows and unicorns for anyone–and as a solo, female, South Asian-American, Muslim traveler, it definitely falls in the “why do I do this to myself” category at times. But despite the stares, the inspections, and the questions, I travel to embrace my heritage and my patriotism by attempting to be an ambassador of change, treating the people I meet in the distant places I go to, with as much kindness, empathy, and open-mindedness as I can. I constantly remind myself that there is still so much to see in the world and if I live in fear and trepidation, I’ll never experience it.