Obsessing over being a better question asker seems to miss the point of the exercise; the exercise is always in people. Anyone I talk to who relentlessly seeks to find and filter for depth often misses it.
The answer to intensity is often to match around it then go a bit above or beyond. The only reason to cut someone off if their guard is so high or inane and there’s no sight of what is interesting – not because there isn’t something there – but because it’s not worth getting towards. Choosing who is worth diving for is the play at life, anyway. All I am is looking for a pool I’d like to swim in. All I am is choosing between murkier and clearer waters, where I can see the rewards in sight yet am always pleasantly surprised. People might just be pools. The feeling of drowning in the ocean is the closest I’ve ever gotten to replicating the feeling of truly knowing someone; if we write song and poem to capture the noise of falling in love then submergence is the equivalent of human complexity. Outside of my own head I forget that I am just one ripple of the water; but the human experience is cavernous and overlapping, sometimes I’m so stuck on finding people who have felt the same things as me, stuck on those who have grown up with the same traumas & stories, needing a sense of grounding familiarity because I don’t know what else is worth wading for.
Living in America has exposed me to so much diversity of background that depth-diving becomes a more relevant topic. I’m a person of storied history and every interaction is an attempt at finding what has come to bring us to this moment; how we can understand this moment together. That is: I’m afraid that everyone I meet today has far little time to know me than kids on holiday a decade ago, where life was simple and we couldn’t talk about much but the shape of the sky. Now I can’t just talk about the sky. I need to know where this has all begun. Why you talk the way you do as a consequence of what was unasked, what you did ask, what you had paved in this lifetime.
I like empty pleasantries in the street, but conversations in club bathrooms that lead to free drinks and leads to deeper places are even better, and emails over something that you thought no one else in the world but dead authors wanted to engage you on with mounds of context and open stories at the sleight of a search are even better. Depth-diving holds meaning both offline and offline as the only prerequisite is sustained engagement because the diving never truly happens in one session, where stakes are often determined in the foundation of this meeting and rarely adjusted until someone takes the leap. But there are certain questions that work well and make some better divers than others.
What I talk about when I’m talking about the weather is the foregrounding of all that is coming for the week – so I need you to know a bit more than the universal belief that warmth and sunshine is all it takes, because I like it when the rain pours particularly for the clearing where the benches at the park are wet and it’s empty and I can sit at the craggly rocks and I don’t care that my clothes are wrinkled or that my hair is damp because more than seeing I want to just feel everything. What I talk about when I’m talking about my favorite television show isn’t just interest in the last thing Paul Mescal was in, or a need to talk about the anime in season, or a need to see what the show everyone else is talking about for the sake of talking about it – I can only talk about something that has directly meant something to my life, because nothing is particularly empty so forgive me if this gets a lot deeper than we intended. When I go around in a circle and give off an answer to our favorite food I would rather kill myself because we’re calculating how to come off as quirky enough but not too offputting that we’re trying too hard with the quirk and that someone can come up to us with the answer after, and what I want to really tell you is a mundane answer like steak because I’ve cooked it a hundred times at this point and my family and I used to split a steak every Wednesday where they would douse it in soy sauce in a particular way and it is one of the only meals where I could ever truly feel the love in the house and I used to have it well-done all the time, even at the restaurant against the pressing of the server, because my public hospital worker parents in their underfunded institutions have only gotten out of it a fear of the reds in their food and so much exhaustion that they only know how to say I love you and nothing else. And also because I was on Reddit way too much as a teenager and had the humor of a white American boy with no understanding of what I was saying, and definitely had better grammar then when I was correcting other American boys but have now far regressed. I can’t tell you all this in a circle and go wind down those other paths. I can’t be that Asian talking about food again because you want to hear the easy story about tears and peeled fruit but in my house it was well-done steak doused in a mix of A1 Steak Sauce, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, and a regular bottle of Kikkoman for the steak with no garlic yet pooled enough juices to make the rice go black.
I’m only interested in the weather and the empty television and the show you put on blankly and your dog that looks like a hotdog once I know all of you. I love small talk because it never really is small. But I want to know more than how fucking ugly your dog looks after its last haircut because I honestly don’t give a shit about its picture and when I call it ugly I genuinely mean it – but I do want to see who you call when you’re on vacation and need someone to watch the stupid hotdog dog, the way you talk to it (and if it’s better or hopefully worse than the way you talk to other people), the way you love it as a signal for how you love yourself too. I want to know that the weather is one part and that your teeth are too sensitive to sip any cup with ice in it so you need a straw and even drink iced water with a straw at home. I want to tell you that I don’t care for the format of television but I did have four exhausted pencils scotch taped together to switch the channels or raise the volume on the box TV we had at home, and that the first sign of non-normalcy I found was in the way I determined what show should be on by channel number in relation to time of day and constructed a specific formula and TV watching guide for others in the household.
Empty questions suddenly mean everything once I know you, but I can’t use them to get to know you.
Forgive me if the first few questions are frightening, and forgive me if the task of ‘reading each other’ is fun even when I acknowledge its impossibility. There’s too much novelty in me, I self-confess, and my deepest fear is the ocean not just because we don’t know what’s in it but because I think it’s the easiest body that I am drawn to and have walked into far too much and I was surrounded by ocean growing up but lived in urban Manila where walking to the coast was a luxury comparable to owning a bathtub and shampooing your hair without sachet packets. And then I can tell you the drowning stories. And then I can tell you, right after the taste of saltwater, that at this point everyone (in our world) knows that the blobfish thing is no longer funny but incredibly tragic as it is a creature only known by its appearance in an extremely deformed, imploded state and that normally it just looks like any other stupid fish. And right after that I can tell you that I’ve researched the body in various states of decay after entering the water, and you can tell other people this because a friend who was writing a novel and wanted to know knew it, and I can tell someone else that this is all because I wanted to know what would happen to my body.
Where do I walk to find people who aren’t afraid of the ocean these days? If it’s the most common and cliche fear, like heights – but we all fawn over the sport of diving though don’t really seem to understand it, and in our heads dives have more turns and tumbles than they actually do a precise cut into the water. Someone one day needs to tell me what the body is like when it slices water in two, or the game you played of Moses and God in the shallow part of the swimming pool, or when you dove into the water to try and push your sister up and up after she started drowning and everyone got to pull her up and ended up nearly drowning you too.
The theory lately is that so much starts with proximity: after school campuses you’re left with your colleagues and friends of friends. Continued exposure means that the shallowness evolves into something else, but we can’t expect too much of each other too fast. But I don’t particularly know the stakes of being truthful about the days and how I don’t really care about the weather with you yet, but I can talk to you about something deeper. I don’t mind you knowing how I felt about the water when my best friends still don’t and we’re never seeing each other again. I don’t think people knowing has a set progression, of course, but I mean this more erratically – like I love it when someone knows the darkest parts before my name, and another only the name for the past 22 years of my life. Depth-diving is a human activity, so we lead each other into the water and collectively decide our own pace. I hold your hand and bring you down; I can’t do this for a crowd, not in the circles where we’re telling each other how we got into something or how we believed in something, because we’re all too busy holding our breaths and not diverging. We need to walk at the bottom of the sea. I need to see how you’re seeing.
There’s nothing I can offer about being a better question asker except that it’s fun to interrogate everything. The answer to the question matters less than how you choose to answer it — whether we’re still performing to one another, how much we’re letting go, waiting because this isn’t an interview and that when you love someone and the energy is high and we’re there until 4AM or god forbid — deep at 4PM while walking to the train station too — question asking stops being a game of who is more clever and if we get each other’s references and what we want to know about each other and all becomes an excuse to just know each other. This is what I love. If we can talk about the weather and what the sky looks like I will tell you my thoughts on clouds and my book on clouds and everything remotely relevant, and when you say they spelled the name on your iced latte wrong I will ask you if you feel like you yourself were named wrong. Or what your thoughts are on naming things yourself. Or what the last thing you named was. I hope I continue to meet people whom I ask about the weekend who instead offer the story of their life. I hope it’s fine when you ask me my go-to coffee order and I tell you why I lie. I hope I offer everything I love with the same reverence in comprehension; I hope I stick with people who love asking questions, empty or not, until we get to the nice part of the water where everything is temperate and still are able to confess that we both much rather prefer it when we’re deathly freezing.
Let me begin by asking you how the water feels.
“Morning boys, how’s the water?” It reminds me of the opening analogy from David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech. And undoubtedly my answer will be influenced by the thoughts that that speech paved for me.
How does the water feel when I’m already living in it? When I’m surrounded by the pool of myself? I’ve had very few chances to step outside of the pool of myself, but each time it was invigorating. Often stepping outside the came from asking a series of piercing and piercing questions, until I found myself wandering off the well beaten path.
I’ve always been fond of the ocean or large, deep bodies of water. I imagine the deep ocean as being in a vast sensory deprivation chamber, surrounded by nothing but water and the sky.