Inspired by the questions we ask in daily conversation but never find a happy conclusion for, Nonanswers explores the feelings, confusions and tribulations of Stanford students. Every essay in this column will be centered around a timely question, and will be structured around personal experiences, conversations and stories from my time on campus. Feel free to submit a question for me to dissect, or send me an answer (or nonanswer) for one that I ask.
The theme of this column is questions: ones that lack a satisfying answer, that make you think, and that I’ve spent a long time thinking about. It’s sometimes hard for me to think of a fitting question to focus on. I want it to be timely and relatable, something that Stanford students will want to read about and explore. During weeks like this one, when I have three unstarted p-sets due, a midterm I haven’t studied for, and absolutely zero work ethic left, inspiration is hard to find. I pull up the questions from the game We’re Not Really Strangers, because one of my goals for this column is to make campus feel smaller and remind people that they’re not alone. Still, nothing is striking a nerve. Then, ironically, I land on a hit:
What question are you most afraid to answer?
I used to have a lot of these. In elementary school, I was constantly worried that I would be asked to present in front of the class or share my answer out loud — I was afraid to answer any question at all. I wasn’t shy with my friends, but being the center of attention terrified me, and I kept myself small out of the fear of being called on and answering wrong. I think I’ve outgrown that fear, because somewhere along the way I realized that oftentimes, I’m not wrong. Even when I am, sharing an answer can be gratifying, especially when it leads to new conversations and deeper insights.
In middle school, I was most afraid to answer questions about my identity. What kind of food do you eat at home? Can you speak Chinese? Why does your dad sound like that? I came from a school district that was two percent Asian, so I often found it a blurry line, whether my peers were genuinely curious and just ignorant, or being cruel on purpose. I could handle being asked to confirm or deny common stereotypes; even though I shouldn’t have had to be the spokesperson for all Asian people ever, and even though I dreaded being turned to for that purpose, it didn’t feel like a personal attack.
The questions that really scared me, the ones that left me upset for the rest of the day, were the ones about my family. When people would ask about my mom and dad, pressing me about whether they were “strict tiger parents” or where their accents were from, I would instinctively shrink. My body would go into defensive mode: I would vehemently deny any cultural differences. Thinking back on it, all of the questions I received had simple answers, but they were hard to search for, because I didn’t want to face them.
Thankfully, I’ve outgrown this fear too. I’m proud of my family and happy to share about my heritage. Being at Stanford and surrounded by many other Asian Americans, I also don’t get those questions anymore. When I think about myself now and the answers I’m scared to confront, the fear that I deal with is both the same and different.
It’s still the fear of being looked at with a funny face, of feeling small and losing my spot of comfortability within a group. When I was first meeting other freshmen at NSO, small talk was easy, and I knew people would forget my name, hometown and major as soon as they moved to someone new. But as the year progressed and our conversations in the dorm hallways extended later and later into the night, my friends and I have increasingly found ourselves in the danger zone of question-asking: If I answer honestly and show this part of me, you will remember it forever.
Personal experiences. Opinions of polarizing issues. Insecurities and deepest secrets. A lot of questions invite vulnerability, and it’s not always easy to trust people with fragile pieces of yourself. It’s hard to ask that of someone and even scarier to answer. But, when you get to know people like that, and when you trust that your honest answer won’t ruin your connection with them, I think those questions are the most rewarding to take a chance on.