We asked the Two Travelling Aunties for the real on travelling amidst the pandemic as Asians — is the grass always greener on the other side?
2TravellingAunties all started with Norah’s budding interest in motorhome travels — the camper vans, the community and of course, adventure. As serial vacationers, this was the obvious next step in their evolution of travel. With Susie quitting her corporate job, soon the idea became a reality for both of them. They were now committed to a year on the road. The plan was somewhat simple: they would leave in September 2019 and drive through Europe. They would start in Amsterdam before crossing through the English Channel to the United Kingdom and Ireland. They would then head back to Europe towards the African continent, for Morocco, then finally return for East Europe before catching their flight back to Singapore from Amsterdam. Little did they know that there would be several bumps in their epic getaway.
Ever since the term ‘Chinese Virus’ was coined by Donald Trump, there has been a notable spike in racial stigma and xenophobia against Asians in the age of COVID-19.
According to CNBC:
- 45% of Asian adults have experienced a racist incident
- 27% have had people act as if they were uncomfortable around them
- 27% have been subjected to racial slurs or jokes
- 16% have been told to go back to their home country
- 14% have been blamed for being the cause of the coronavirus outbreak
With these alarming stats flashing across the news, I was a little concerned and curious to know how Susie and Norah’s ongoing travels were like. Were they a victim of these numbers?
Familiar Cities Turning Into Foreign Spaces Filled With Mistrust
Aware of the lack of Asian representation in the west, Norah and Susie’s solution to discrimination was by beginning their travels at familiar countries before branching out to the rest of the continent.
“Much thought and planning went into safety considerations. We were mindful of travelling to popular destinations and parking at high traffic areas with people around, and the presence of bright street lights — that is, until we gained more experience and courage to venture off the beaten track.”
They soon realised that travel would be different even in places and spaces that they have been to for both work and leisure before. It’s a tough pill to swallow, realising that the pandemic was now not just limiting where one can travel to but also changing the kind of travel they once knew and loved — the ones filled with interactions and new friendships formed.
“Meeting new people became very awkward. Gone are the warm handshakes, hugs and kisses. In its place is mistrust and caution — all from at least three feet away.”
What Asian Discrimination Can Look Like
In addition, proper planning can only do so much to protect you from a bad experience, and discrimination was inevitable since day one of Norah and Susie’s travels. It started off innocent — hearing shouts of “Corona!” was not unusual for the duo. They attributed it to ignorant youngsters just having fun, so they brushed it off. However, the pandemic got a lot more serious, with countries going into lockdown. It was then that things started to escalate. Not only was Susie constantly addressed as “Chinos” in Spain, because of her skin colour, but she would also often get ignored or rudely dismissed while out and about in the UK. Thus, Norah had to take the reins when it came to asking for directions or even requesting for hot water at cafes.
In places where they once met some of the warmest and friendliest people, they now received strange looks, coughs, points and avoidance. They were even picked on by the local law enforcers in North Macedonia for not wearing a mask in their own van, and for apparent speeding whilst stuck in a traffic jam.
“One night, when we were parked at a mall in Killarney, Ireland, we were woken up by the loud revving of engines. A quick peep out of the window confirmed our alarm — several cars were swerving around our motorhome. In a bid to avoid confrontation, we quietly drove to another carpark just half a km away.
In times like these, we had no choice but to keep away from certain places to avoid threatening or unpleasant encounters.
Unfortunately, misconception, stereotypes and xenophobia exist in a lot of societies. We try to not let these things bother us but rather, use them as an opportunity to learn about others. Luckily, we have not come across any violent incidents but we must not let fear of such things stop us from doing what we want to do and from pursuing our dreams!”
2TravellingAunties’ Checklist For Safe Travels
While Norah and Susie are always hoping for the best, they are prepared for the worst:
- Have the local & national police hotlines on speed dial. In the case of emergencies, they are just a button away.
- Extra security fasteners for front cab doors just in case there are expert lock-pickers around. You get an extra sense of security.
- Torchlights – to screen surroundings. Also great for sudden blackouts
- Keep car keys within reach at all times
- Mindful positioning of vehicle for a quick escape when needed
Silver Linings: Moments of Kindness In A Pandemic
Still, travelling as an Asian during the pandemic is not all bleak. Norah and Susie tell of a time they were refuelling at a petrol station when a bunch of 12 to 13-year-olds came up to point, laugh and make rude remarks. However, before the duo could react, they were defended by the pump attendant who scolded the boys and made them apologise for their bad behaviour.
“When we stopped and took a little time to have a conversation with them, most people turned out to be friendly, helpful and kind. After they find out that we are from Singapore, they are always keen to listen to our stories of home and travel.“
Currently in Turkey, the duo would gush about the country’s natural beauty, history and hospitality of the locals. Apart from free electrical repairs, people have even extended invitations for tea and a warm meal.
Even when they visited the hospital for emergency care after Susie had an infection that made her throw up all night, a security personnel greeted them with genuine help and sincerity despite the language barrier.
“It’s in the beauty of these kind gestures and through the stunning landscapes of the places we visited, like the hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia, that far outweighed any small or rude obstacle that we have had to endure from time to time. Even the pandemic cannot stop us from the joys of travel.”
“While we missed the usual hustle and bustle of tourist attractions, we ended up being the only tourists in Pompeii — and were able to take great photos (and our own sweet time) at the archaeological sites because of the lack of tourists around.
On the flip side, we couldn’t get into the Colosseum in Rome (one of the planned highlights of our travel) as well as the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City because they were closed due to the pandemic. The empty streets felt strange — even the souvenir stores were closed. In fact, because most of Italy was closed, we had to look for alternative activities and places to go.
While we didn’t get to visit Sardinia, Venice and most of the Southern and Northern parts of Italy, we still discovered many free natural hot springs that made our visit to Italy equally memorable.”
Van-living was a unique experience that ensured social distancing by default because they were usually parked away from the cities and other travellers who stayed in hotels. Out in nature, they were exposed to fewer crowds, and essentially isolated, making it a rare and precious occasion when they did meet fellow van-lifers.
Discriminations can come in all forms and is present in every society. While it is unavoidable, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, listening and starting a conversation about these differences will definitely help to stop the spread of ignorance. However, while we should be brave and stand up for ourselves in such instances, always do so politely and respectfully. After all, we are but visitors in a foreign land.