There are probably research studies out there that show that one of the things that people find most difficult doing alone is actually eating out. Not travelling, not shopping, not even living alone but actually going out to a restaurant and asking for a table for one. Something about our social structure dictates that someone eating out alone is doing so only because he or she has no other choice. “Oh look at that sad person out there in the corner by herself/ himself! We don’t want to be like that, do we?” And this in turn ensures that the person who actually is trying to eat out alone either by choice or the lack thereof is faced with a daunting prospect of having to face stares (real and imagined- sometimes we think people are giving us sad looks even when they are just going about their own business), being judged and eat their meal.
Of course the fast food culture has done a lot to mitigate these fears and make it easy for singletons to step out and eat without fear. It is easy to walk into a McDonalds or a Starbucks and quickly grab a bite/ coffee. Nobody really seems to care. But convert that into a scenario where you are walking in to a fine dine restaurant then perceptions seem to change. Not that it helps that sometimes in crowded restaurants single people are often accommodated right at the back and forgotten. I myself have faced this on two occasions and have had to do a lot of hand waving to get anybody’s attention. This can’t be easy for someone who is already trying to disappear into the background because of their perceived deficient social skills (he must have no friends to be eating out alone etc).
A lot of people from time immemorial have tried to fill the gap of not having another human at the other side of the table with a book or more recently their mobile phones. It makes your outing look purposeful. Look I may not have someone here to talk to me but I have tons of friends online and I’m talking to them right now. You get the gist.
Anyway what can make your solo dining outing even more challenging is when you are in an environment where you neither understand the rules nor the language of how things work. Allow me to explain.
A few months ago I happened to find myself in Hong Kong. There is something about Hong Kong that I really love- something about the fact that you can find your wilderness and your skyscraperness (yes I invented that!) within minutes of each other (and the fact that you don’t need a visa!) just tugs at my heart. This was my second time in the city and one of the must d0s on my list was actually visiting the Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha in Lantau Istand. One of the things that every guidebook recommended was a visit to the vegetarian canteen in the monastery.
Holy cow! This was something I’ve been looking for all my life. As a vegetarian traveller who often has very limited dietary choices when travelling around the world, a vegetarian lunch at a Buddhist monastery sounded like the most perfect thing to do over a weekend. Armed with this resolution I visited the monastery and bought my meal ticket at the first ticket counter selling it. I was told that the ticket I bought would allow me to have lunch from 11.30 onwards. There was something I missed in that guidance. For I didn’t go to the canteen until about 1.00pm when I was horrified to see this.
Of course I come from India and although crowds bother me they don’t daunt me and I was determined to get the meal I had paid for. So pushed my way in, closer to the door to see how one could get in. They had another door to the canteen and that was also equally crowded. I found a very harrassed maitre d’ standing near the door with a computer. Of course I couldn’t get a word of what anyone was saying because everything was in Chinese and nobody here seemed to speak English. What, I asked myself, was the point of being able to manage basic conversations in at least 7 languages when you couldn’t speak the one language you needed to fill your stomach?
Eventually I figured that you had to give your ticket to the maitre d who scribbled a number on it and gave it back to you. Once that was done you had to wait for your number to be called.
I could foresee a number of potential problems in this. A- all numbers were being called in Chinese (really I didn’t know if it was Mandarin or Cantonese so I use the generic term). So how was I ever going to figure out when my number was going to be called. I wish they had a display board displaying numbers but they didn’t. And because you were dealing with hungry people being made hungrier by the aromas that were wafting out, everybody waiting made it a point to stand near the door and surround the maitre d (including yours truly). I once manged to catch her attention and say that I didn’t speak Chinese could she please let me know when my turn came in English? She nodded and I felt hopeful but of course I couldn’t take a risk so I made it a point of hovering in her line of vision which she found terribly annoying I’m sure especially as I was not the only person trying to do this.
There were a number of things that were truly comical about the situation- one was the fact that I understood nothing. Second was the fact that I was the only person who didn’t speak Chinese and still hazarded to make my own way into the restaurant- ALONE. The minimum group size seemed at least 5 and here I was handing out my single ticket. I felt like telling the maitre d that I didn’t mind being seated with a big Chinese family- I truly didn’t- an added bonus would be that I could jump the queue. But of course I didn’t. So I waited -a very long time. The thing to do if you are a non Chinese speaking person is to somehow book yourself on a group tour. I saw at least 2 groups of foreigners just waltz in with their team leaders and getting instant table seating at one of the corners. I’m pretty sure I nearly cried.
There were at least 20 of us looking hungrily inside at the people who were enjoying their lunch and I kept waiting- for nearly an hour and 40 minutes before I noticed that the maitre d had a board on her desk where she had (hold your breath) ALREADY SCRATCHED OFF NUMBER 53 – my ticket number. AAAAARGGGHHHHHH!
This was exactly the situation I had foreseen. I had missed my number being called because it had been called out only in Chinese. So I ran to the maitre d and handed her my ticket. As luck would have it she had just then called 53 in the last batch so there was still a vacant table available where I was slotted in. Relief is underrated. I finally had a table and I was about to enjoy my fantastic meal. Of course I was the only person sitting alone in the entire canteen but by then I was too hungry to care. Thankfully the food was rolled out pretty quick.
By the time I was done with my meal I could hardly move. But I felt like a war veteran.
If you ever find yourselves at Po Lin, and you haven’t booked yourself on a group tour and you find yourself wanting to have a vegetarian meal- I advise you not to straightaway buy the meal ticket. There is another counter that sells snacks (noodles, spring rolls and even rice I believe). You don’t get a set meal but you get good food. The line is long but is infinitely more organised than the set meal. But if you think you’re up for an adventure, try the meal!