We start the conversation slowly, talking about food: love-it-or-hate-it dishes and regional delicacies. Soon I notice something strange: she doesn’t love anything or hate anything. She likes ‘garlic cheese’ but doesn’t care much for it. She listens to music but can’t invest the time to know the bands’ names. She watches movies but doesn’t like to think about them afterwards. “For me, because I like a little bit of everything, I don’t really follow anything.”
Sure, I’ve heard “I listen to everything” before. I’ve heard “I really don’t know what I like to do” before. But it’s never true. With sharp skill, the layers of passive I don’t know’s can be trimmed away. I’ve had lots of practice. Most times, I only have a few stops on the train line to get to know someone; to get a feel for that person. I’ve gotten good at cutting the fat off conversations. I’ve gotten good at finding what makes a person smile. But in this case…I trim and trim only to find more fat.
There’s a question I ask that can often reveal a lot about a person: If you could spend the day with your (half your age) self, at the end of the day, what would your younger self be most impressed with about you? She makes a face. “Honestly, I don’t like kids very much. So I’m not sure what I would even tell my younger self. I don’t think my younger self would like me enough to be impressed by anything. So honestly, like, I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.” I’m starting to realize that maybe this isn’t just a defense. Maybe it’s not that she’s too embarrassed to talk about what drives her. Maybe, this girl from Singapore with well-shaped eyebrows really has no defining interests; really has never let herself develop a passion; really has no shape, conforming to the container she’s in: this girl is like water.
Her brother, I learn, is more like me. He has dreams and ambitions. He enters a conversation knowing what he wants. He talks of deep things. She does not. “All my conversations are really surface, because, I guess I think that nobody really cares about my opinion anyway.”
I like to stare into the depths of people’s souls—I like to know what makes them. When I see a face, I imagine what makes it smile; what makes it frown, cry, grow sad, look puzzled; what makes it laugh. The week before, I visited a crossing in Shibuya with literally a river of people. Thousands of bodies, moving in and out with the flow of traffic lights. Thousands of faces. I looked at as many as I could. I stared into their eyes. I tried to see their souls. I tried to imagine their families. I tried to imagine how they grew up and who they were. I didn’t want to see them as water. I didn’t want to dehumanize them. But this Singaporean girl on the plane, who likes ‘garlic cheese’ but doesn’t care much for it, this girl who watches ’11 ways you know you’re really Singaporean’ but doesn’t particularly enjoy it, this girl with well-shaped eyebrows who sums herself up as a ‘squiggle,’ she may well be water.