A Perfect Answer To A Perfect Question

Listen here and please forgive my attempt at basic Thai!!


There’s this lovely woman in Chiang Mai who reminds me of a tea cozy. She wears slacks like my grandma did and starched floral blouses, and she has baby-fine salt and pepper hair and friendly eyes looking out of a soft round face. She works in a shop on my old street, where I used to live. Each time I enter the shop she’s there sitting at the front door just hanging out, and I ask her, “sabaidee mai ka?” How are you. Her response is always ha-sip ha-sip, but she says it in English––”fifty-fifty”––with her charming Thai accent and baritone voice, followed by a laugh. 

Fifty-fifty. It’s the same answer to the same question every single time. And it’s the perfect answer. It’s neither here nor there. Neither up nor down. Neither in nor out. And with the risk of sounding like a Katy Perry song, neither good nor bad (double entendre not intended).

What she’s saying is that there’s no need to qualify her present state. She just is what she is. In Sanskrit, a common mantra for this is so ‘ham, or I am that, which is inherently neutral. But in fifty-fifty there is some acknowledgment of the duality in our moment-to-moment experience that competes for our attention on one side or the other. 

Don’t we qualify nearly everything we experience? You lost your job, probably bad. You got something for free, usually good. But we acknowledge that it can also be good to lose your job or bad to get something for free. We believe it depends on what we’re talking about, and it does to an extent. But more important is what we think about it, that is, how we frame it in our minds. 

As an example, last week I caught myself writing something along the lines of the thought of it makes me sick. When I re-read that statement, I noticed that I’d focused on the thought, rather than the actual thing itself, which hadn’t actually happened. We say that a lot because we intuitively know that how we think about something influences how we experience it. Fifty-fifty points out with perfect clarity how accessible somewhere in the middle is, between here and there, good and bad, noticing and integrating. Every experience contains a little of this and a little of that.

So, how are you? 

Every culture has a different way of asking this question, and it’s one of my favourite travel discoveries. It tells you something about a culture. Now, during my seventh stay in Thailand over a period of eight years, I’m finally learning a basic greeting that most people learn to say when they go somewhere new. Even the laziest short-term tourist learns the first go-around.

I know sabaidee mai ka translates to how are you (with ka indicating the speaker is a woman), and so I just assumed that that’s what people said, so that’s what I always asked after saying hello (sawadee ka). It must be a thing if there’s a word for it, right? Words are mostly functional. It’s how we combine them that give them juice. 

So sabaidee mai ka asks how someone is, except that no one really uses that greeting, sort of how in Canada, no one really wants the honest answer to the question how are you. If we get it, which we inevitably do sometimes, it’s a bit awkward. Oh really? Your cat drank brake fluid and died? Shit, sorry. Knowing the real answer requires tact, patience, and compassion. It may also be a bit uncomfortable because asking how someone really is beneath all the ways they think they’re supposed to be is the start of a real conversation that we don’t always want to have. Perhaps it’s better not to know. I’m not saying it’s my preference, just an option. 

Generally, when we ask how are you we’re not actually asking someone about their big picture life. We’re asking primarily from a place of conditioned courtesy, not really expecting more than a thumbs-up. But there’s another layer. We’re also asking about their right-now self, which tends to be quite different moment to moment even when the big picture arrangement remains the same. One experiences, the other recalls. They’re not seen with the same eyes or reported by the same self––the one that attends to different things at different times for different reasons. Daniel Kahneman distinguishes them as the experiencing self and the remembering self. 

Thanks for hanging in here, by the way. I know this is a bit chewy.

I’m intentionally learning Thai now, which makes it more an undertaking than just something I do in theory (I’m going to assume I’m not the only one banking a few of these). Setting a time and place to learn it and pay for it helps etch it into a commitment. And as I begin to skim the surface of the language, all those little Thai ways make a bit more sense. The same goes when I’m in Indonesia too. The more words I learn to say, the more things I learn about the culture, and it’s the little things that count because they’re how people do daily life.

Thais don’t ask each other how are you, unless they’re reciprocating your how are you out of politeness. They generally say where have you been? And in the case of more personal interactions between locals, have you eaten? (An essential question in a land where the food is this good and this cheap. It’s common to see people eat in large, somewhat sloppy groups, thrown together like a last minute supper, whatever you’ve got in the fridge. Everyone’s welcome). 

In Indonesia, the parallel how-are-you greeting is mau ke mana? meaning where are you going, and the typical response is jalan jalan, or walking walking (so evasive). Indo has a lot of double words like that, which take the edge off the place. Another is hati hati, meaning be careful, though directly translated it’s heart heart. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or if the word heart has the same significance in Indonesian culture as it does in North America. In biological terms, which ultimately informs every human experience, it’s the heart that keeps us alive so saying heart heart is a fitting reminder to be careful out there.

Both the Thai greeting and the Indo greeting reference time and location. That’s what really stands out for me because in contrast, how are you is open-ended. It invites any number of responses (as we’ve all painfully experienced), and it doesn’t ask how are you right now, or how were you yesterday, or how will you be five minutes from now

How are you makes no reference to location either. We may craft our answer around location, or time for that matter, but it doesn’t directly ask us where we are, where we were yesterday, or where we want to be, either tomorrow, or ultimately in 1,825 days in alignment with our 5-year plan. 

The question how are you is simple but pretty fucking murky. Do you want to know that I just stubbed my left big toe and it’s throbbing like a mother? Or would you prefer to know that I’m feeling terribly insecure about how I’m living my life and whether I’m getting old and neurotic? Or, shall I just say fine thank you, and we’ll all get on with our pretty-painted sunshiney days? 

In Thailand and Indonesia, the question is fairly clear––where have you been? and where are you going? Just before now and now respectively, are implied. But maybe not. We could also accept either question as an inquiry about our overall life direction, but I highly doubt that’s the intention. That market lady probably doesn’t care about my existential status. Where have you been sounds a bit more overall-ish to me than it’s intended to be, but perhaps I have a traveller’s bias. 

In its deeper sense, where have you been elicits the feedback of the remembering self. How are you asks our experiencing self. And where are you going speaks to the self that plans for the future, which we could call the anticipating self.

So, to ask where have you been and where are you going is like asking how are you in that we really just want a basic answer. But I can’t help but see how symbolic a teaching these three simple greetings are based on what’s happening not only in my individual life right now, but in the lives of so many of us and on a global, if not cosmic, scale too. 

Where have you been and where are you going are really important questions to ask ourselves, but I don’t think they’re any more important than asking where are you right now through the lens of the little picture, at “zero distance” from ourselves and our experience, as Richard Lang describes. At the smallest level and the closest distance to ourselves what have we got? Space, and a great deal of it depending on how closely you look. 

One recent morning I was out for a bike ride and took my usual route up a killer hill. I always take a few motionless moments at its top to enjoy a north-south view of the island that shows me two sides of the same sea, two sides of the same sky. I love it. I stood at the top of the hill recovering from the effort of the climb and took a few honeyed breaths in that pleasant transition moment, the one that comes after the work and before the reward. Job well done combined with the sweetness of anticipation. So lovely. So seemingly short-lived. 

That little moment at zero-distance, in all its quiet and sudden ceasing of motion, is pregnant with insight. It awaits the wisdom of the hard-won journey. It’s the space between where I’ve just arrived from and my new starting point. Where have you been and where are you going? And if I’m listening, it also asks how are you?

That moment is much more than a transition from one past story to a future one. It’s the moment that’s happening all the time if we’re paying attention. We’re always at the top of the hill and simultaneously at the bottom. The after and the before are happening at the same time, and if we could drop our pretenses then we might realize that there’s room for everything. There’s no need for memory or hope to suck up all the oxygen. 

What if we could just experience that space as it is, empty and full up all at once? 

What really ends and what actually begins? Where have we been and where really are we going? We only know by looking back at a story or designing a future. We only know by how we think about it. That means there’s a wide open space between all our desperate attempts to go somewhere, do something, be something, to start something or end something, to choose one thing or another, or to let it all be.

So, where are you now? 

Halfway between here and there, between everything and nothing, between the end and the beginning. We don’t have to waste ourselves worrying, drowning in concern or worse, non-concern, burning out or trying to keep up. When we look really closely, like zero-distance kind of close, then fifty-fifty is a pretty good and spacious place to be for a crisper awareness of our experience, that is––how we are, right now, in the space between all our comings and goings. 


4 thoughts on “A Perfect Answer To A Perfect Question

Add yours

  1. Hi Colleen,

    Hope you had a great day. Thank you for your post, it is outstanding as usual. I hope you’re keeping well and hopefully we can talk sometime soon.

    Love Dad xoxo


    Liked by 1 person

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