When I walked into that restaurant in Guangzhou, China, I felt my aloneness for the first time that trip. I mimed to the waitress that I was just one person, a solo traveller. She led me to a table near the back of the opulently-decorated dining room. We passed tables filled with laughing men in business suits, families, and women in crisp dresses. I realised that, given my dishevelled, jetlagged state – tired eyes, aching feet, stained blazer – I was not only out of place in my less-than-pristine appearance, but also because I was unaccompanied.
I had arrived in Guangzhou a day earlier, my first trip to China. I had travelled alone before, but I always stayed in hostels. Meeting new friends was easy when I was surrounded by solo travellers my age. Now, in China, I was staying in a hotel alone. Yet, until this moment, I hadn’t noticed my isolation.
I had woken at six that morning, and walked the abandoned streets of the typically busy area of Beijing Lu; instead of giggling teenagers and shouting retail store employees, there were elderly women sweeping the trash with straw brooms. I wandered through the side streets, my boots clicking against the tiled sidewalks, and I observed the first signs of life. The chime of spoons against a pot of noodles; the bell of the 7-Eleven door; the occasional taxi motor, humming beside me; the faint smell of collected garbage; the touch of the crisp morning breeze on my face.
Eventually, the subtle signs became the loud whines of children on their way to school, their parents retorting in harsh tones. It didn’t take fluency in Cantonese or Mandarin to understand the classic parent-child emotional battles of the beginning of the school day.
I spent my day mesmerized by the confusing language flowing around me, the sun seeping in through the cracks in overhangs, the smiles of strangers that helped me when I was lost.
I was too preoccupied to realise I was alone.
But now, as the waitress guided me through the other patrons, I became aware that this was not the type of restaurant one went to alone. She stopped in front of a round table where a lone man sat drinking tea. Turning to me, she smiled, handed me a menu, and walked away.
“Hi,” I said to the man, smiling, but hoping he wouldn’t take it as an invitation to talk. I noticed my aloneness but that didn’t mean I was in the mood to chat, especially not if it meant speaking through a translator. My day had been a joyful challenge, but now, I was exhausted, barely able to keep my eyes open as I fought off jetlag.
“Hi, how are you?” he responded, in flawless Australian-accented English. I looked up, startled. It was like a burly Australian farmer was trapped inside another person’s body. My eyes widened, and I complimented his English.
“I’ve just come from a year of living in Australia,” I explained. His intonation was comforting, familiar.
Noticing I looked completely confused as I tried to decipher the menu, he guided me through the meal process. He helped me pick out dim sum and tea, and encouraged me to try the house special, the fried goose.
“And I can’t eat all of this!” he said with a laugh, pointing to the multiple plates of fried rice, dumplings, and pork congee in front of him. We would share food, we decided. Within a few minutes, I was spooning him slices of tender goose meat while he cut pieces of pork and put them on a plate for me.
K, as he told me to call him, turned out to be a businessman from Hong Kong. He’s in Guangzhou often on business, and often finds himself alone. With his perfect English and my curiosity for all things political in Hong Kong, our conversation flowed from that to religion to destiny and even to women’s rights.
We swapped opinions. “I always married for love,” he told me. That was his destiny. When one accepts their destiny, and accepts this, he tried to convince me, they will always be happy. There will be no need to compare yourself to others.
Our conversation then turned to family. K told me he has three daughters. I wondered if that’s why I felt so comfortable with him. I am one of three girls, and the sister dynamic of my family has been a large influence on my life.
As K and I finished our dinners and I licked my fingers trying to savour the last traces of the sugary egg custard buns, I realised that in the short amount of time since I walked into the restaurant, my spirits had lifted. For the half hour I ate with K, I had forgotten how exhausted I felt. I was only focused on the engaging conversation between us.
I hadn’t expect to notice being alone but I hadn’t expected to enjoy a stranger’s company either.
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