A table set for one with an open smart phone on the table.
Travel & Culture

Table for One

For years I couldn’t bear eating by myself. It was embarrassing and unthinkable, probably stemming from the peer pressures of adolescence. Sometimes I’d even skip lunch so that I wouldn’t be relegated to being the solitary figure in a crowded canteen.

It felt embarrassing to dine without company, the contrast amplified by the remaining seats left at the table and everyone else’s animated conversations.

Some months ago, I came across The Solitary Gourmet (Kodoku no Gurume), a Japanese manga adapted into a television series in 2012 that has lasted nine seasons and counting.

The premise is simple and almost mundane: Middle-aged salesman Goro Inogashira travels a lot on business and so he eats alone, sampling food from various eateries and restaurants across Japan. Nothing much happens otherwise.

He mostly talks to himself and shares relatable, inconsequential observations. There are a lot of close-ups as he savors the food.

Yet The Solitary Gourmet has won over fans everywhere by reawakening the half-forgotten joys of solo dining. He doesn’t use his phone while he eats yet he is anything but bored. Inogashira is fully immersed in the experience, thoughtfully chewing his food and paying attention to the diners around him.

These days I would jump at the chance to dine alone.

Eating with kids doesn’t count as relaxing since I still have to feed one of them—and nag at the older one on a bad day. Truth be told, there are also only so many things I could talk about with my spouse who has mostly been working from home since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

Not quite in the spirit of Inogashira, I just want to eat alone to watch some random, mindlessly entertaining television series. Distracted by technology, the shame from a previous life forgotten, I’m unsociable but happy.

Some say loneliness feeds on mukbang culture. Those with no one to eat with find solace in seeing other people eat. Parallel worlds would touch momentarily, complete with chewing sounds.

Mukbang, or “eating broadcast” in Korean, started in South Korea in 2010. The strange phenomenon of watching strangers consume excessive quantities of food took off in Asia. Whether people are lonely or simply living vicariously through broadcasters, mukbang helped normalize dining alone in front of a screen.

“These days I would jump at the chance to dine alone.”

Growing up, we weren’t allowed to watch television at mealtimes. My mom would wave a newspaper clipping that my grandfather had sent her as the unassailable proof that eating while watching tv would lead to indigestion. 

Ever since smartphones came into our lives, I’m sure we have all been plagued by the curse of the smartphone at mealtimes. 

People obsessively taking photos of food and preventing other people from digging in, couples eating out together at a restaurant—and engrossed not in conversations but in films on their separate phones, and parents propping a cartoon-playing phone in front of their children at mealtimes are a common sight in Singapore and the rest of Asia.

Unlike the Sunday dinners romanticized in Ang Lee’s iconic 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman, family dinners at my home are never quite as elaborate—or classically Chinese—not even during Lunar New Year.

Yet we all know too well the palpable tension behind such family meals, these days exacerbated by smartphone addiction. Everyone’s on the phone, taking too long to come to the dining table or eating with a phone in hand, not putting in enough effort to make conversations.

“I miss eating together, unhindered by masks and in spontaneous, boisterous groups almost a lifetime ago where I don’t need to worry who we are meeting or if we are dining al fresco or in an air-conditioned space.”

We don’t need researchers to tell us that diners with phones at the table are distracted and less socially engaged.

The act of eating together is evolving as we speak, already feeling the impact of smartphone usage for years and now, the pandemic.

I haven’t dined out with my parents in months. For a time, dining in was prohibited in Singapore then allowed but limited to group sizes of just two or five people.

Over the past year, we have been eating more at home and during the times when restrictions occasionally loosened, I was still skeptical of meeting friends for meals or drinks—or even inviting people over—as the risk of catching the virus is much higher when people hang out for an extended period of time without masks.

I miss eating together, unhindered by masks and in spontaneous, boisterous groups almost a lifetime ago where I don’t need to worry who we are meeting or if we are dining al fresco or in an air-conditioned space. Not because the stigma surrounding dining alone still bothers me but I’ve come to realize I too had been so distracted by my phone, I had taken commensality for granted.