In Isolation with Candice Chung

Location: Sydney, Australia

The restaurants have opened again. We’re in the middle of a dance. I learned, listening to a podcast while I watched instant noodles grow fat in a salty broth one day, that we’ve all become bit players in something called ‘the hammer and the dance’. Since the bloom of the virus, we’ve been living by this invisible pendulum.  

In my tiny kitchen, I thought it sounded like a Russian play. The lockdown was the ‘hammer’, the podcaster explained. “Bam, everybody has to go into their houses,” the staccato of his voice taking on a sportscaster’s pace. “But once you get the deaths down to a minimum, then you begin the dance.”

It was a hard thing to reconcile. That our freedom to return to our favourite eating spots hinged on the nation’s death toll felt odd, if not altogether dystopic. I listened to the rest of the podcast at my coffee table, my pandemic lunch spot, and thought about real hugs, real ramen, and eating at a real restaurant. I thought about leaving the tight borders of my own flat; free from the Orion’s Belt of where I ate, worked, and slept.

But months of being kept at arm’s length from the world has also made me wary of getting close again, and the idea of breaking bread in public has started to feel like setting foot in an ex lover’s place—familiar, yet quietly unsettling.

In isolation, I’ve been craving a different mealtime dynamic.

I miss the strange intimacy of watching other people eat. Living above an alleyway cafe helps. The changing sounds of the crowd used to be my constant. I never needed a clock to tell time, just the swell of coffee and all-day breakfast orders booming from the takeaway line. Some mornings I would wake up to the smell of brisket being cooked for the week’s toasties. A garlicky yawp from the world that I looked forward to—even as a vegetarian—when all else turned grim and quiet.

There are rules to being a good mealtime observer. In restaurants, one must live by the code of aggressive disinterest. No flashes of joy or shock should cross the face as we take in a neighbour’s order, their salt intake, and the wittiness of their conversations. Did they laugh more? Or did we? Are we building the kind of life that leads to a plate of dry lasagne on a Monday evening while our shadow self (Table 6A, excellent beanie) splits a dessert with someone so pro-kiss that they must be either enviably drunk or French?

I have taken notes on nights like these. After all, my work depends on it. What else must a journalist do but mark the happy sighs or annoyances in the room as we lay bare our desires to strangers for the briefest moment, in the most foundational hope to be looked after, to be fulfilled?

Author Edwidge Danticat captures this off-kilter, communal vulnerability in her short story,In The Old Days, when her narrator Nadia describes the conversations she’s overheard at her mother’s Haitian restaurant from a table that’s out of view:

I heard men and women declare their love for each other then listened as others confessed that they had fallen out of love. I heard parents explain the birds and the bees to their kids then leaned forward as a girl at another table revealed to her mother and father that she was pregnant. […] Why did so many people think they could confess the most shocking things to each other over a meal?

The truth, it seems, is that we are at our most unguarded when we eat. I think of all the times I’ve sat across from a crush, my own plate untouched, watching as their face softens—a borrowed intimacy owed to an arbitrary pancake or a messy taco that’s comically hot, unpredictably hands-on.  

But not all watching is quiet, passive. In my inner city apartment, after months of hiatus from the eating world, I start looking for a fix of the easy communion I’ve missed, and stop at a Mukbang video made by a blue-haired YouTube star named Soy.

Like all live-stream eating channels, hers is a show-and-tell of enormous meals eaten alone while chatting casually, sometimes distractedly, to a loyal audience. This particular clip features dishes from a Vietnamese takeaway spree: a chicken pho, turkey noodle salad, a ginger-glazed wild salmon, and a plate of sweet, smoky-looking bò lúc lắc (or ‘shaking beef’).

Then she reveals the reason behind that meal: that her Vietnamese grandmother had passed away in the pandemic, and being stuck on the other side of the country, she had no way of attending the funeral, or letting loose her grief. The video is her one-person wake. And we were invited to it.

I watch, dumbstruck, as she turns the act of being watched into something wholly open, participatory. In watching her eat, we’re asked to sit with the raw shock of her loss—sharing what seems unsharable across a virtual table, a solitary meal. 

Later, I meet a friend on Houseparty. Through my phone, I watch her reheat leftovers and nurse the spicy stew in loungewear I’ve never seen. I crack an egg into a frying pan as she speaks, hot oil hissing as the glossy white bubbles and the edges crisp.   

At the sound, my friend freezes.

“Wait—are you in the bathroom?” she asks.

In the fluorescent light, with only my face visible against the cream tiles of my kitchen wall, I instantly understand her confusion. We’ve shared countless dinners and brunches in real life, but neither of us have been inside each other’s homes. I pan out my camera to show her the noisy culprit—and vow to say something next time I live-fry anything on the phone.

In isolation, this is our new dance. Rather than sharing what’s on our plates, we bond over deeply domestic parts of our days. We play out mealtime rituals in parallel, and bear witness to each other’s needs as grief and gladness continue their quickstep dance.

By Candice Chung