It was a Friday morning. I was in the elevator of my residential college when I bumped into an old classmate from my junior college. For formality’s sake, we greeted each other with conversations revolving around school. She was complaining about her essays that were due soon, and that was when she told me, “I think the last time I ate was about 24 hours ago.”
“Oh dear, why?” I asked with a frown on my forehead.
The answer she gave was nothing special. Expected even, explained simply by the fact that we were students and that we were in Singapore. On top of it all, it was also the mid-term examination period.
“Oh, I just had a lot of work to do.”
I spared a quick glance at my wristwatch that showed lunch-time. By that time, we were about to part ways.
“Then you should go have lunch now.”
Her answer was, again, nothing special. So typical. And might have even left my lips at one point or another. She gave me a wry, slightly embarrassed, slightly factual smile. “Oh, I am looking for people to eat with.” So human.
And it struck me.
All the struggles I faced for the fear of eating alone. And when I reflected on them, I realized that this plight had brought me a long way.
This fear had led me to cocoon in my circle of old friends. It had also landed me in awkward dinner tables trying to strike small talk with my housemates. Ultimately, it was the push that propelled me to shamelessly “jio” newly-met friends for meals. Not seldom did it end up with a packed banana muffin or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich hidden inside lunchboxes and ziplock bags to be munched while walking to classes. And although this predicament is something that we get over with, something that may no longer be plaguing us by the end of the first semester, or something that I am sure the year twos or threes or fours can no longer identify with but will reminisce with bittersweet familiarity, it is a common experience for most (if not all) freshies.
That line my friend gave me, if anything, flooded me with a huge wave of reassurance and relief. A reassurance that I am not a loser after all. And the relief that I, like everyone else, am but a mere human.
This experience of “looking for people to eat with” is something that is very close to my heart, given the awkward potato that I am. I remember clearly the night everyone moved into the residential college. We were all strangers to each other. More importantly, we were alone together (although yes, some of us were lucky enough to have familiar faces around). My house’s Telegram chat group was buzzing with questions from confused freshies and answers from experienced seniors. But by dinner time, the magic “jio” started.
“Anyone wants to have dinner?”
“Me and XXX are already at the dining hall”
“Where are you I don’t see you”
“Come come everyone lai”
“We are at the first long table near the door”
I was sad and alone. But at the same time, I was (and still am) a huge awkward potato on a dinner table. The only choice I had then was either to suffer through an awkward dinner or not to have dinner.
That night “being awkward” prevailed. That night saw me sitting amongst seniors and freshies, smiling awkwardly, answering questions about my courses and major, asking questions about their courses and major, suffering through awkward silences, and back to smiling awkwardly. Truth to be told, all this awkwardness was a self-imposed construct that I had in my brain. It was actually not awkward, but I still dreaded it nonetheless.
Some other nights “no dinner” or “no lunches” prevailed. But what I wanted to point out is that all these “jio”s from seniors were actually a form of them understanding the social anxiety that we freshies faced, simply because they had been in our shoes. And all those “jio”s from the freshies were the manifestation of our insecurities and our conscious attempts to integrate into a new community. After all, for survival reasons or otherwise, we all feel the need to belong and fit in somewhere, don’t we?
Some other days, when I felt too overwhelmed with polite conversations and cultured smiles, I would resort to retracting back to my shell and desperately look for old friends. These are the days that saw me texting friends and making appointments for dinner, either at Cinnamon or the RC4PT dining halls.
But the most comforting thing about seeing all these familiar faces was not the fact that they were familiar. It was also not the fact that we were eating together because tomorrow I would most likely go back to being alone again. It was the fact that when I told them “I am so sad, I have no one to eat with,” they looked at you with equally desperate eyes and said, “Oh my goodness! Same! I have no one to eat with too.” And they would add, at the end of everything, “I am so glad you asked me for dinner. Let’s have meals together again soon” – which meant the whole world to me.
At that particular moment, we were no longer labeled by our majors, year of studies, or places of residence. We were just equally lonely souls in need of company. We were glad to be surrounded by comfort friends with whom we did not have to adopt any kinds of public persona, and with whom we did not have to crack our brains scrambling for new topics of conversation. Our hearts felt contented reminiscing the past and laughing at old jokes. And nothing withheld us from exposing our vulnerability, mourning our misery, and sharing our happiness with each other.
At the surface level, it seemed that these were what those meetings meant. But as these survival meetings became more regular – became a weekly breakfast or dinner appointments – I realized that it was no longer about survival. It was, to me, a means of keeping those friendships. We were once classmates, hostelmates, or countrymen who were forced into the same social setting. Our friendships were first formed on the ground of those “forced” settings whose fences had now been torn down. Now, we were no longer bound by classes, rooms, hostels, or CCAs. The only thing left that would keep us together and our friendship alive is, therefore, conscious effort. The conscious effort that stemmed from “I am looking for people to eat with”.
Although I am a huge awkward potato (I would like to apologise for saying this for the third time), I felt slightly relieved that I am not the only awkward potato out there. Having to face such a predicament had sometimes been a blessing in disguise, especially when I could identify, relate to and bond with fellow potatoes who were as socially anxious and as in need of company for meals as myself.
On those days where there were no house “jio” and where your old friends were having classes, your thoughts would wander to that new friend or WhatsApp group. But even this involved a few minutes (or in my case, a good 30 minutes) of thinking, typing a message, deleting the message, typing the message again, and staring at the send button. And finally, when the clock struck 11.30, the thinking stopped, and the deed was done.
Sometimes it went:
“Do you want to have lunch today?” (to Singaporean friends)
Other times it went:
“Lunch yuk gaes” (to my lovely Indonesian friends)
So there went the hopeful heart. Your heart soared when you saw “sure!” or “yuk!” (or the more hipster version, “kuy!”). And that one confirmation served as a basis for subsequent “jio”s because it subconsciously told you that those people might not have friends to eat with as well, and hence were potential lunchmates. Again, a Monday lunch became Monday-Wednesday lunches, which then became Monday-Wednesday-Friday lunches, and so on and so forth. Soon, before you know it, those lunchmates became the people you spend your first semester with, complain about school with, mug with, and celebrate the end of finals together with.
Just like that, the plight of “I am looking for people to eat with” had allowed you to meet beautiful/ ingenious/ eccentric/ incomprehensible souls that you will keep and bring with even when you are out of university. And I am eternally grateful for those friendships formed by chance but kept by choice.
By the end of the first semester, I have to admit that this problem did not bug me as much anymore. I am now able to sit alone during breakfasts without feeling anxious about the imaginary whispers of “loser, loser, loser” behind my back because the truth is, no one actually judges me. And of course, being alone is not a sin nor a shame.
As much as I felt sad and depressed in the beginning of my first semester and as trivial this woe may seem, there are a few takeaways that I myself learned from this entire situation. It feels heartening to know that almost everyone (Singaporeans or not, JC students or not) battled through this at least once in their university life and that they all grew over it. The worries and hopeless attempts to look for people to eat with have also seen me planting new seeds of friendships (that will continue to grow and blossom), rekindling and preserving old ones, and becoming less afraid of judgments. And as clichéd as it sounds, perhaps it is true that nothing really brings people together like (good) food.
Shania is often confused about herself and the world around her. She has troubles naming her favourite colour, favourite song, and favourite food, simply because she is really bad at making life decisions. Yet that does not stop her from revelling in the beauty of arts and paintings, having her heart drowned in the flow of melodies, and loving her friends ardently over a plate of chinese mixed rice.
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Picture credits: ‘everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too’ by Jomny Sun