new Things I Ate in Cambodia: On Eating Alone

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

On Eating Alone

(photo from

Having just returned from six weeks of dining alone as a 19 year old female in China, I am torn on the subject. Dining alone like everything else contains good and bad. It is complex - often scary, often intensely satisfying. I wouldn't want to do it all the time, but it is grand for travel, for special occasions, when people just piss you off.

There are perks to dining alone.

I love not having to debate with everyone else about what to eat. I don't have to worry that so-and-so already *had* Mexican this week and that whoever *can't stand* squid and the infinite other permutations you get into with groups. I can order whatever perverse, icky, spicy or expensive dish I want and no one gets to complain.

I also don't have to deal with people wussing out on sharing the bill. ("Oops! How did I forget my wallet?") I don't have to suddenly discover that a close friend has ridicuolously appalling table manners and that everyone around me is staring. I don't have to deal with anyone horse-laughing, getting sloshed, or being mean to the waitstaff.

In China especially, dining alone truly is a good way to meet people. Unlike in the states, the Chinese have no compunction whatsoever with seating a lone diner next to another group or another person. This can sometimes be awkward, especially when people shoot you hairy glances or are obviously dining with a signifigant other, but it more often led to my meeting people I wouldn't have otherwise met.

One night, I was dining at my usual place and was seated alongside two middle aged businessmen. They immediately took a shine to me and began plying me with baijiu (super-strong Chinese liquor), mutton chunks, and fish. They critiqued my chopstick skills and I drew them pictures of dragons and terrified sheep. The older one kept on topping off my class until I admitted I had just turned 18, whereas he responsibly cut me off; "Xiao haizi!" (Little girl.) Of course, I was already pretty drunk by then. In any case, they ended up buying me dinner and I promptly forgot their Chinese names. But I will remember their kindness. And the headache.

Another time, I popped into a deeply beloved Xi'an noodle place near the Lama Temple in Beijing. I was seated across from a beautiful Chinese woman wearing sunglasses, who I initally ignored, figuring she didn't speak any English. She immediately looked up and said, "Hi! I'm Cindy from Washington DC!" Turned out she was a banker who went to Georgetown, visiting her parents in Beijing. She was genuinely concerned with my welfare; "You're here all alone?" and insisted I take her phone number. She also managed to pay my bill without me noticing. Thankfully I never had some sort of horrible international emergency that necessitated me calling her, but I hope I can extend that same kindness to someone else next time I'm overseas....

But dining alone can really suck sometimes, especially when you're really alone, when everyone around you is celebrating a birthday or something and you're stuck with a tremendous portion of food you can't possibly finish, people glancing at you like you're some sort of desperate social outcast. Then yeah, your thoughts turn dark and you wish someone was there with you, even someone who splatters their food and hits on the waiter.....

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