Everybody has different levels of tolerance for solitude. Me, I’ve always had well-developed solitude management skills. I would do just fine on house arrest. It actually sounds kinda relaxing to me. Even when I was a little kid, when my mom would send me to my room for the early 70s version of a time out, she would come look in on me a while later and find me giggling and having a grand time, all by myself, no toys in sight. Sequestration wasn’t punishment to me at all. Rather, it was a welcome break, and an opportunity to check in to the vivid, interior amusement park of my head. It drove my poor mom bonkers.
I’ve never had any trouble going to movies or restaurants alone, and I rather prefer to go to museums alone. Well…at least, objectively alone. I often have very agreeable company right there in my mind. Don’t worry, I don’ t mean the kind they give you antipsychotic medication for. Let me back up.
Something most people don’t know about me is that I’m secretly fascinated with Bruce Lee. If anyone ever asked me that old chestnut of an interview question about who I’d most like to have dinner with, “Bruce Lee!” would fly out of my mouth before they even finished the question. Not because of his movies (although those are pretty cool), or the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death (although that is intriguing), or the supposed curse that felled his son (sad, but that movie was dreadful), but because everything I’ve ever read that he wrote, or that is attributed to him, strikes me as the kind of profound that is so simple, it should be common, but unfortunately isn’t. He had an understanding of human nature that was chillingly deep. If you read his philosophical writings, and remove them from the context of fighting, they apply in almost any situation. Dude was wise. Plus, he was not only a peerless philosopher and fighter, but also a wicked dancer—he was the 1958 Hong Kong Cha Cha Champion. I bet he could properly caramelize onions, too. Alas, we’ll never know.
Anyway, some time ago, I started having imaginary hangouts with Bruce Lee, in my head, whenever I found myself alone and bored. In these sessions, Bruce is never defending attacks from villains or breaking boards with his forehead. No, mostly, we bake pies, crochet sweaters for my cats, or put seasonal decorations around the house together, while I tell him about my current thoughts, problems or conflicts, as he listens quietly and nods, and, at appropriate intervals, says thought-provoking things like “if you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done,” or “a goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at”—pearls of wisdom that he actually did say, and that I find exceedingly helpful and insightful. I love my play dates with Bruce. I always feel better and more sorted out after we’ve spent time together. And, since I don’t actually talk to him out loud, no one is the wiser, and I haven’t been packed off for involuntary analysis over it. Yet. So, if you ever see me alone on the ferry or at a restaurant, or even in the car, and I seem a bit lost in thought, don’t mind me, chances are good that I’m hanging out with Bruce Lee in my head, and we’re canning peaches or something.
This quirk comes in tremendously handy for a solo traveler like me, as I seldom feel awkward sitting in a restaurant, going on an excursion, or just hanging out alone. However, it does nothing to comfort the multitudes of people who feel awkward around others who perambulate about all by themselves. When I said, above, that everyone has different levels of tolerance for solitude, I didn’t mean tolerance of just their own isolation. I also meant their tolerance of other people who are alone. As I wander, I am finding that the global comfort level with parties of one is generally low. People just don’t like to see someone alone.
There’s a host of reasons for this. Some are cultural. In Asia, as in other places where family is of paramount importance, people tend to see a person alone—particularly a woman—as someone who must have no family, no friends, no…minions. Their default thought is not that you are independent, or brave, and enjoying your freedom, voluntarily on your own. They might think that after talking to you, but at first blush, it just seems sad to them. They project onto you how they think they would feel if they were adrift alone, and feel sorry for you. It makes them uncomfortable.
Sometimes, it is economic. Restaurants are much happier to see couples or groups than a solo diner who is going to occupy a whole table and only order one person’s worth of food. Entertainment venues aren’t thrilled to have that vestigial seat empty next to you that they can’t sell unless another lone weirdo comes along. These are, of course, generalizations, but you get the idea. Put these factors together, and you have a recipe for resistance.
I’ve had restaurants refuse to seat me because I was alone, and others where they dispatched kitchen workers to sit with me so I wouldn’t be. Many tours, transportation shuttles, and cultural classes or events won’t allow a singleton to book, even if there are other parties already going. And don’t get me started on the dreaded “single supplement.” I ran into this problem so often, in so many contexts—from restaurants to snorkel excursions to candy-making classes to the cushy seats at the fancy VIP movie theaters in Bangkok—that by the time I got to Singapore, my patience on this issue was fraying just a tad. And then this happened.
There’s a massive Ferris wheel in Singapore called the Singapore Flyer. It was the biggest Ferris wheel in the world until earlier this year, when a bigger one opened in Las Vegas. It’s very cool; it has big, enclosed glass cabins that comfortably fit about eight or so people each, and moves almost imperceptibly in a 30-minute revolution that gives you breathtaking, eagle-eye vistas over the whole city, from the Marina Bay Supergrove to the Esplanade to Serangoon Road to the National Stadium.
They do this groovy thing, too, where they turn some of the cabins into lovely VIP dining cars, with linen tablecloths and candles and butlers, and take guests on a couple rotations while they serve a four-course repast. They do it for dinner, but also for high tea, which is one of my favorite things.
I went to the ticket office and tried to buy a ticket for the high tea service, but the cashier said there was a two-person minimum. I asked if other parties had already reserved, if the dining cars were shared, and if the table was communal. Yes, yes, and yes. So, I pointed out that their two-person minimum had been met, and that I would just join the group. The following exchange ensued:
“Would they take a party of three?”
“Then they don’t just take parties of two.”
“It has to be at least two.”
“But, you said there are other people already booked. Is it a private party?”
“Then, there will be more than two, and I should be able to go.”
“I can’t do that, each group has it’s own bill, and the minimum for each bill is for two people.”
“Ah, I see. Well, what if I just pay the minimum?”
“No, because they would prepare food for two people.”
“Lady, do I seriously look like someone who can’t put away two people’s worth of cucumber sandwiches and petit fours to you?”
She glared at me, said to wait while she got the manager, and snapped the box office window shut.
As I waited, I hatched a plan that, if the manager wouldn’t budge, I’d just buy two tickets and, when I showed up for it later, gesture to invisible Bruce Lee at my side, and say to the person at the entrance “yes, we are both here, can’t you see?” Just let them try to deny me admittance. But then, I pictured some guys in white coats waiting for me at the exit with butterfly nets, and thought better of it.
So, when no one had come back after almost a half hour, I surrendered and skulked away in defeat. Not that I couldn’t wait out the standoff, it’s just that, after a while, I’d had a chance to think about what they might do to my food if I persisted over their objections. I waited tables all through college, you see, and although I never sabotaged anyone’s victuals myself, I was witness to a few hidden kitchen vengeances that I’ve never forgotten. Don’t piss off people who serve you food or cut your hair, gentle friends. It’s just not worth the risk.
Still, the idea of high tea in Singapore had germinated, and I was determined to get my pinky in the air if it killed me. It just wasn’t going to happen above the skyline. Lucky for me, one of the best places for high tea in the world is right there in Singapore, in the Tiffin Room at the historic Raffles Hotel.
When I called for the reservation, and was asked how many of us there would be, I almost panicked and made a reservation for “Lee, Party of Two,” but I caught myself in time, and before committing, asked if there was a minimum party size. Thankfully, there wasn’t. At last!
On the appointed day, I arrived in the closest thing to Sunday Best that I carry with me when I travel, and was shown to a dainty little table in the corner, the surface of which was obscured almost entirely by a thick volume of the latest Vogue magazine. I asked the hostess if the table was already occupied, indicating to the magazine. No, she said, the magazine was for me. Because, I was alone. They wanted me to have something to distract me from the stares of pity, I guess. Still, it was pretty thoughtful, considering how most people feel about dining alone.
Nevertheless, I picked up the magazine and handed it back to her, thanking her for her thoughtfulness, and saying that I needed the space for scones and tarts and crustless curried chicken salad sandwich triangles. She didn’t need to know the truth: who needs Vogue when you’ve got Bruce Lee?