What I do remember is the pleasure of eating hot food after a chilly walk with a new friend in a foreign city.

October 25th, 2013, 4pm

On a recent trip to Beijing, I made a friend, someone who offered to show me around the city. After taking in sunset at Jingshan Park and exploring the hutongs near the Drum and Bell towers, we stopped to eat at one of the many restaurants lining the streets. “This place comes highly recommended on Yelp,” my friend said, so in we went. After glancing through the endless menu, I asked if Yelp recommended any particular dishes before stopping short. Checking out reviews before making a decision was a habit I was trying to kick, I explained. Paying for a bad meal is annoying, but stomaching the occasional misstep is worth it if I can keep the beauty of surprise.

With almost one zettabyte of information at our fingertips, it can be easy to go overboard when searching for information. Thinking about making a reservation at that new brunch place on [insert street name here]? It just makes sense to check out reviews on Yelp, HungryGoWhere, Burpple, or wherever the Google search lands. More than just the food quality, others may feed you in about what you can (or should) expect from the ambiance, service, crowd, whatever you are curious about. This can be helpful of course, say if you are trying to pick the right place to host a special event or a large crowd. But for everyday meals, it can unnecessarily taint an unblemished palate and ruin the joy of discovering something new. When you finally arrive at the restaurant, and your mind is chirping with reminders of others’ opinions, do you dare order an unreviewed item?

Because it is so easy to intake the opinion of others, can opting to do so become a form of laziness? After all, it can be faster to read a few opinions and come up with an “informed” reaction than to stop ponder what we really think. In today’s world, there is constant pressure to do, learn, and accomplish things faster than ever before. If we can’t be all we want to be at once, we can look for inspiration in the public personas of those who appear to have our version of “it all” already. A 15-minute bus ride seems just enough time to scroll through your Instagram or Facebook feeds catching up on all the aesthetically appealing things your friends, and the cool strangers you follow, are eating, drinking, and/or wearing. Does the aftermath bring satisfaction, of feeling caught up on what is going on in the world, or do you feel cheated, having spent time absorbing a good quantity of unnecessary information?

Instant connectivity is not all bad. The ability to immediately connect with those we care about is a modern blessing. Perhaps the danger comes when we start to feel left behind when our social media feeds are not checked at every spare moment, or uninformed when online opinions are not on consulted for every decision. In wanting to maximize productivity through quick intakes of information, we can be in danger of fast-food-type consumption. We may feel temporarily accomplished, but exhaustion or dejection from consuming endless updates and reviews distract us from listening to our own voice. It is difficult to make and own decisions if we are constantly seeking approval for our choices. That aimless 15 minutes on the bus might be the space needed to piece together scattered ideas, and half a day exploring a new city without an itinerary can be a richer experience than spending the same amount of time frantically searching for a recommended “city’s best” hidden gem.

We all have a finite amount of time and energy. For introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts, I think there is value in reducing unnecessary distractions and increasing pockets of time set aside for tuning in to yourself. Sherry Turkle, a MIT professor and author of The Second Self, Life on the Screen, and Alone Together is a strong advocate for this. In her 2012 TED talk, she says “We slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone. But we’re at risk, because actually it’s the opposite that’s true. If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely”. The share versus solitude spectrum will vary for each person, but ultimately time deciphering how best to carve the life that works best for you will be time well spent.

As for me, and my final meal in Beijing, I can’t remember exactly what we ate or how it was cooked (no picture was taken and shared). What I do remember is the pleasure of eating hot food after a chilly walk with a new friend in a foreign city. For me, that is enough.

(These thoughts first appeared on OpenBrief).

Vivien and Christine said thanks.

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Jennifer Lien

Works, plays and dreams with words. Twitter and Instagram @lienje

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