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How We Make Eating Alone Our Own

By Jess L. Eng, Contributing Writer

Looking around the dining room, I meet the gaze of a stranger. Within seconds of our eyes locking, I reach for my phone and start scrolling incessantly. As a solo diner, I hope my phone will make me appear occupied in a flurry of dining hall conversations. But moments later, I feel embarrassed for recoiling.

I wasn’t the only solo diner — in fact, I was surrounded by many solo diners. Why did I feel particularly ashamed about eating alone?

It’s common for us to frequent dining halls, alone, at weird hours — we’re college students with unpredictable schedules. Unfortunately, phrases such as “eating alone” and “table for one” strike universal fear not only in the minds of college students anticipating the next meal but also adults around the world.

These fears, while perfectly natural, can be partially overcome through reading. The internet, for instance, provides a rich, historic record of articles and blogs that empower the solo diner. Headlines range from personal stories such as “The Best Way To Dine Alone” to “Table for One: The Art of Dining Alone,” which both portray dining alone as an inherent fear we can conquer and even master. People tend to agree that there is nothing wrong about eating alone once in a while. In fact, seasoned solo diners such as Nevin Martell tell us that we should learn to embrace this aloneness, center ourselves in the act of eating, and enjoy the food more as a result. Martell assures diners that they can “be as talkative or as quiet as [we] like” and not “let people make [us] feel like a social outcast.”

We should not be ashamed of eating alone. Other cultures, in fact, have made eating alone a custom, depending on the cuisine, country, and size of the dining room. People can learn tips for eating alone by reading online articles, but these fears can only be conquered through the real experience of solo dining through different cultural contexts.

When I think about eating alone, I try to conjure images from my recent first trip to Japan. I thrived on solitude there. I wandered the streets, read silently on my commute to work, and feasted often as a single diner. I never felt the anxious rush of averted eyes or being an island amid raucous conversations. Most notably, my phone rarely surfaced during dinner.

Ichiran, a famous ramen chain I often visited, epitomizes low interaction dining by constructing “flavor concentration booths” for diners. Single booths feature foldable frames that can cover adjacent seating areas. A server will also hand diners their bowl through the drape in the private booth. According to Ichiran, they want to “encourage guests to dine alone and focus solely on the bowl of noodles in front of them.”

Japan prizes these methodically curated dining experiences. During the Shogun period (1639-1853), when Japan was virtually cut off from the world, it fostered a culture rooted in isolation and intense self-reflection. With a nod to their history and desire to destigmatize isolation, appreciation for solo food experiences has developed over time. Japan’s eating culture — ramen counters and sushi bar conveyor belts — embraced my singleness. For the first time, I felt at peace as a solo diner.

In other countries, eating alone carries more negative connotations, but solo dining continues to galvanize fans. In South Korea, technology, music, and media offer acceptable and mainstream ways of coping with lonely meals. Mukbang, a cultural phenomenon originating in Korea, features videos of people eating visually appealing foods and interacting with viewers through a live stream. According to cultural critic Jeff Yang, mukbang can attribute its beginnings to unmarried couples and Korea’s communal dining culture. It’s no surprise then that millions of Koreans tune into daily mukbang for virtual companionship during meals.

More recently, mukbang has spread to other countries in Asia such as China and Japan as well as the USA. However, tuning into mukbang in the USA is seen as a private activity, not to be shared and discussed with others. Korea is a prime example of how some practices associated with eating alone may not be fully understood across cultural boundaries.

Similarly, in many Chinese and Chinese-American restaurants, eating alone retains a certain stigmatization. From rotating lazy susans to the lack of bar space, Chinese restaurants make it explicit that they expect more than just a single diner. While emerging technologies, cookbooks, and internet videos have ushered in more acceptance for solo diners in Chinese culture, it is impossible to fully eliminate cultural dining rituals meant for more than one person. Nonetheless, eating alone anywhere, even in Chinese restaurants, can be made into an enjoyable dining experience.

Dining alone encompasses many factors — both controllable and uncontrollable. Our perspectives on dining alone can change after examining various restaurant cultures, the people around us, and the dining rooms environment. My perspective has certainly changed. Equipped with new dining experiences, I don’t feel a sense of shame in pulling out my phone or even making eye contact with a stranger. This is how I eat alone.

— Contributing writer Jess L. Eng’s column, "Takeaways From Chinese America," wrestles with the possibilities and boundaries of food culture from a third-generation Chinese American perspective.

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