This Is How You Dine Alone

The Hall teems with people, all couched in the safety of social packs, gathered around tables, engaged in conversations. Laughter erupts sporadically and easily across the Hall, but for the lonesome you dinner was no laughing matter. Tarrying by the dining hall doors with tray in hand, a quick survey dismisses the possibility of you joining anyone for dinner. No matter. You shall dine alone.

But first: a seat. Not too far from people, lest they deem you in some self-imposed pariah-hood, denying yourself any wistful hope of friends possibly joining your lonely self. But surely, sitting at a table occupied by a house, IG or OG is not an option either; for then your solitude is at once overt, jarring: aren’t you lonely? Don’t you have any friends? Brimming with thought, you swiftly settle on a suitable compromise, some worthy chair to spend nothing more than 15 minutes at.

Tucking into dinner you realise that anyone pretending to look pensive while chewing is liable to look stupid, and so is fixing a blank stare at some far corner of the Hall. There is no looking at anyone sitting at the tables opposite yours, or throwing flitting glances across the Hall either, only if because both betray anxiety and nervousness. Out of options you turn to your one true friend: your phone. But even it tells you: No new notifications.

There, sitting alone, you are conscious of nothing but yourself as conscious of others’ conscious reckoning of your lonely presence. Yes, you, that lone diner, feeling a strange tugging, a nagging pull, of some perplexing discomfort sitting at the base of your (not yet full) stomach. You follow its threads, a veritable Theseus; but you only find yourself stumbling further into a labyrinth, a maze labelled in conspicuous green serif lettering, ‘Tembusu’.

It is difficult to navigate indeed, however insensibly, this space that is shaped by ever-changing, interweaving social relations that constitutes the organic whole of Tembusu. Appropriating a Tembusian identity is signing on the dotted line of an unseen social contract, one that subjects you to a multitude of vague norms and conventions, never quite explicit, but which nevertheless delineate the boundaries of this unique social space. And as a part of this community, you too find your social identity inevitably shaped by its warp and weft.

Only in minor contretemps like dining alone are its borders momentarily grasped and felt, where the dialectical tension between the individual and the community is drawn briefly into full light. That strange uneasiness that sits uncomfortably within is a necessary product of inhabiting a liminal space, a space not quite private, but not quite public either. Here, solitude sticks out like a sore thumb where the easy, protective veil of anonymity found in the public domain is not proffered; it figures intrusively in an otherwise cohesive, communal Tembusian social space. It is why you fear, as if by some Kafkaesque metamorphosis, that you might suddenly transform into a nameless Other, a socially inept ‘phantom’: haunting uninvited, ostracized, soon to be exorcized. But surely this fear is ridiculous, irrational: a figment of an overactive imagination, nothing but childish trivialities rooted in transient social judgements. Still, it creeps insidiously near the corners of your mind.

Yet, perhaps therein lies an answer, an exit. For there must be a certain comfort in finding a personal space amidst the busy hubbub of activity, a certain satisfaction in shedding away, in a crowd, the persona that you had laboured to maintain over a tiring school day, and a certain august tranquillity when you let yourself be you, little as we do in social company. Surely, dining alone in the dining hall is a tour de force, an edifying experience, insofar and exactly because it emerges in a space antithetical to the sole individual.

Eating alone is thus claiming a personal patch of Tembusu beyond your own room that does not find itself part of the social machinery. It is an island formed from the unquiet stirring of ocean floors, born from an unending tension between you and this social space, an expressive resistance against John Donne’s poetic axiom, altogether an assertion of personality in society. And in your little seat you will come to treasure this eye one rarely finds in the storm of endless social activity.

So I entreat you to put aside your reservations, suspend your self-judgements; and when you cease perceiving yourself as an object subject to ceaseless social perceptions, you shall see your fears allayed, and that, yes, there is dinner to be relished.

About the Author
Tea-drinker. Wanders between inky serifs seeking le mot juste while measuring an absurd life out of small teaspoons.