The Art of Eavesdropping

For Valentine’s day, my husband took me to a Japanese izakaya for dinner. The restaurant was so enormously popular that after waiting an hour for a table, we were finally given one in a private room which was clearly a table for 4 divided by a makeshift screen. This meant that we would be sitting right next to some other couple, but pretending we were at two different dinners. Due to the routine Chinese practice of squeezing around overcrowded tables with strangers, or perhaps my own incurable nosiness, this was not a problem at all. In fact, it promised to be quite interesting.

When the other couple finally showed up, they turned out to be French. By happy chance, this was one of the languages I was forced to learn during a childhood spent shuttling between countries. It’s a horrible, mongrelized French, the sort that produces semi-illiterate essays liberally marked up in red, but it’s enough to eavesdrop and my husband knows it. So while our neighbors were murmuring to each other in the language of eternal lovers, he looked meaningfully at me. What are they talking about?!  his eyebrows signified. I could hardly blame him. Who wouldn’t want to know what two French people were discussing on Valentine’s Day, especially when they seemed so intense and gesticulated from time to time?

Fortunately, they seemed unaware of our scrutiny. Oblivious of the two Chinese people innocuously eating just a hand’s breadth away from them, they locked gazes, engaging in some kind of power struggle. I was able to avert my eyes only because the food was so good. In fact, in complete defiance of his low-carb-anti-allergy diet, my husband was happily wolfing down a cheesy crab and potato gratin, while I helped myself to glistening slices of hamachi carpaccio.

When dinner was over, I made my report. “It was all about food.”


“He kept saying that he wanted to try dishes that were more a la Japonaise, but she ordered the wrong things.”

“And the arguing?”

“That was about the asparagus.”

“Oh.” I felt rather sorry for the poor French lady whose date had dissected all her choices, and wondered whether it was worth accosting her in the bathroom to tell her to abandon him.


As we headed out (I had thoughtfully left my high heels at home so that I could eat more without toppling over), I recalled the time I was eating lunch by myself at a Korean restaurant and couldn’t help overhearing a juicy conversation involving adultery, embezzlement, and some incredibly evil but good looking guy. My eyes were getting rounder and rounder and I had given up all pretense of eating my sul long tang, when it dawned on me that the speaker, a middle-aged Korean auntie, was enthusiastically recounting the plot of a popular Korean drama. I was terribly disappointed by this, particularly as she talked about it as though it had all really happened to people she knew.

Perhaps a little more fuzziness (or an extra beer or two) would have produced better stories. Then I could have imagined that the passionate French couple was planning to run away together instead of debating the merits of vegetables. And that life really can resemble a soap opera complete with psychotic Korean heart throbs.

Photo 1:, Photo 2: Still from The Good, the Bad, and the Weird. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t talking about Lee Byung Hun, but that’s whom I was picturing…

What’s the most interesting thing you overheard at a restaurant?

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12 responses to “The Art of Eavesdropping”

  1. I was once at a coffee shop with one of my best friends, during college, and we saw a woman stand up, say something like “You bastard!” (the exact language is fuzzy in my mind now), then pour her coffee on him emphatically and storm out! I turned to stare WITHOUT A TRACE of subtlety — I wasn’t even TRYING to be subtle– and my friend was like, “turn back around.” Ha.

  2. Back in the days pre-children, I was on a work assignment in Singapore and my other half came out to join me as a tourist. She shamelessly exploited all the hotel privileges that I couldn’t partake of since I was at work; one of these was tea in the executive lounge. Given she visibly looks Irish and being in a Southeast Asian country, the two Israeli ‘businessmen’ sitting at a table next to her clearly did not count on someone, in such a setting, understanding their conversation that was conducted in Hebrew. She was most intrigued by their less-than-inhibited discussions about the arms deals they were progressing!

  3. I enjoyed your post YangSze. One time I ended up at a restaurant separated from another friend on a blind date by a half wall and some plants. Pure chance of course. After being unable to resist eavesdropping, I ended up moving tables. The conversation topic? Food. [KK]

  4. Hahaha, that’s funny! Vegetables are the last thing I expect they would be talking about. In some restaurants in Tokyo one does sit quite close to the next party and many times can hear interesting conversations:)

  5. […] In my case, I’m so far gone into auntie-hood that I could only gaze enviously at his airbrushed complexion. I wouldn’t mind looking like a nubile twenty-something. We even have the same hairstyle. My husband has other opinions. “NO! I don’t want you to look like a guy!” But is he really? Coyly posed behind a tree, he does send conflicting signals. I think on the whole, I’d prefer some older “uncle” type like Lee Byung Hun. […]

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