When I was growing up and just starting to learn the nuances of the English language, I remember being unable to differentiate the questions “What do you do?” and “How do you do?”. Because I was too young then, I was never asked the first question, and I found the second question odd-sounding, even ungrammatical basing on my rudimentary grammar lessons. I was taught by my kindergarten teacher to ask “How are you?” and wait for the canned response of “I’m fine. Thank you. And you?” where in the only possible reply was “Fine, too.”
But as for “How do you do?” my young mind was too inexperienced to process this complicated idiomatically complex sentence. Usually my response would be whatever the task at hand. It could be “doing my homework”, “having my recess”, “or playing hide-and-seek with my classmates”. I took it to mean “What are you doing?” which was hilarious since it was obvious that the person asking knew what I was doing at the moment by simply looking at me. And it was interesting that I did not bother asking my mother who is an English teacher in a nearby public high school; it was already rather late when I realized that she is in fact one of the best English teachers in that secondary school.
Now that I am twenty-three, whenever I am asked “What do you do?” I am at a lost for words. It’s a difficult question to answer especially at my age when things are beginning to be more complicated. I’m doing a job that is of no interest to me; I’m a part of a company that I do not want to have anything to do with; and I am with people who are although nice and kind but definitely not the kind of crowd I want to be with. In fact I do not want to be a part of a crowd.
Then I gather that I am starting to become the kind of adult I used to hate and feel pity for when I was too young to know the appropriate response for a “How do you do?” question. I am drunk by the nostalgia of what has been, whining about my present condition, and abnormally worried about my future.
I was inside a bus this morning from a part-time work in Makati. I was hungry, sleepy, tired, and probably smelly as I hadn’t bothered to change to a fresh pair of jeans and shirt; I was still wearing the same set of clothes I wore the previous night. I felt like a loser. I was downtrodden, distraught. My phone rang. It was my mother, and her call reminded me how lonely and alone I have become (as if the adjective alone can be qualified, as if it is possible to be more alone or to get the title of the ‘most alone person on the face of the world’. “How do you do, anak?” I kept my tears from falling, although I knew my mother already noticed the change in my voice. “Ayos lang ko ma. Kamusta kamo ni papa?”
“Anak, daw ginapasobrahan mo gid imo kayod dira haw? Wala man may galagas sa imo. Pahuway ka man bala.”
I knew she would say those words. Mothers are always like that. I told her that I barely have time for rest. I have three jobs. I write and read in between these work. And I work out in a gym everyday. Whatever little time left is spent for sleeping, and I barely have sating sleep. I deliberately misunderstood her question. I answered her as if she asked “What are you doing?” instead of “How do you do?”
Because I could not bring myself to give her a more accurate response. I did not have the courage to tell her: “Ma, I’m dying.”
At some point, I stop for brief moments and ask myself whether I am still relevant, whether the world still benefits from my existence. Sometimes this does not just happen once, but several times, until it becomes an obsessive preoccupation. And that the only way to stop thinking about these thoughts is to work myself to death, until I cease to feel anything but bitter numbness. Until I stop asking “Am I still relevant?”.