The Interrogative Mood: Questions with Vinton Poon

The following questions are taken from Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood.


What for you are the characteristics that make a person extremely likable? 

For me, extremely likeable people are those who know who they are and are happy with who they are. These people have nothing to hide or be ashamed of, and they will not try to construct and maintain a persona (or facet or identity) they are expected to have, but have difficulties maintaining. They are ready to accept their own abilities and shortcomings (and are ready to work on improving them). They tend to take personal responsibility for things and not blame others for their faults. These people are happy and content, and they radiate this happiness to those around them.

It is painful to live a lie. Those who do are not able to truly accept compliments because they believe that they are not directed to their real selves, nor can they enjoy the company of others, because they believe that other people are only enjoying the company of their constructed selves. These people radiate negative energy, and much more effort is required of others to like them.

I understand the second kind of person very well – I used to be just such an individual as a teenager.

What are the top three things in your life you wish you had not done, or done differently from the way you did them?

1) I wish I had started learning badminton when I was younger. Starting at the age of 23 has hampered me from gaining the touches that only a child can acquire.

2) I wish I had recognised earlier that I was not to blame for my parents’ divorce, and that it was not my fault that my father beat me when he lost money gambling.

3) I wish I had learned more about Buddhism earlier, and had come to understand sooner that one’s fate is not completely determined, but can be improved through good efforts.

Was there ever enough time? 

In most cases, there is enough time. There is not enough time when deadlines are looming or when I’m chatting to someone about an interesting topic (preferably over a cup of nice tea).

Would you like to send a love letter to anyone? 

Yes. If love is not bound to mean only romantic relationships, then I’d love to send a love letter to each individual who has helped me and given me love, care and inspirations at the various stages of my life.

But then, since there are no clear deadlines on this, I tend to just leave it till tomorrow.

Can you list the things you are afraid of, or is it easier to list the things you are not afraid of, or are you afraid of nothing, or are you essentially afraid of everything?

I’m your typical hypochondriac. I’m constantly and irrationally afraid of serious and rare diseases. I’m so scared of some diseases that I am afraid to list them here. This is especially the case when I’m under stress.

At what age would you say your character was set—that is, when do you think you were you?

I believe that people are capable of constantly changing. I’m happy with who I am now (except for the hypochondriac part), but I cannot say this state of self is set. I believe I will change (for better or worse) as I gain new insights and have new inspirations.

Do you keep a neat living place or a messy place? 

Hmmm… I love to keep my place tidy, but I don’t think my standard of tidiness is the same as many other people.

Is there a particular odour or situation guaranteed to nauseate you? 

Many odours nauseate me, and it would be a long list if I were to write them all down. When it comes to situations, I guess what would make me very uneasy is when I have something (facts or news or opinions) that I feel obliged to hold back from those who I am interacting with.

Does your tolerance for people about you increase or decrease as you age?

I’d say increase. I used to be very intolerant of people who are intolerant (racists, homophobes, sexists, extreme nationalists, and etc.). Now I will try to understand why they think the way they do. Doing so not only makes me more “tolerant” in a sense, but it also allows me to find such people entertaining rather than annoying.

If you could select an endeavour in which you have no talent and instead be magically and hugely talented in that endeavour, what would it be?

It’d be meditation. I wish I was very good at meditating, so that I could gain a clear mind much more easily.

Are there more problems in the world because of historical, linguistic, or mathematical ignorance?

This question can be read in two ways. Does it mean 1) will the world have fewer problems if there is less ignorance in general, with historical, linguistic, or mathematical ignorance being three examples; or 2) which of the three kinds of ignorance – historical, linguistic, and mathematical – bring more problems to the world?

I guess it is the second reading for which the question is set. Otherwise it’d be an obvious “yes”, and there’d be no fun in answering this question!

To answer this question, I believe linguistic ignorance brings more problems to the world. First, I know very little about mathematics, and I do not see how my mathematical ignorance is bringing this world too many problems (but maybe this kind of ignorance is exactly how mathematical ignorance brings problems to the world?)

This leaves either historical or linguistic ignorance. I see that understanding of history primarily depends on the way we use and perceive language, since the majority of historical events are recorded in the form of language (most of them written and a few spoken). What follows, then, is that historical ignorance can easily stem from linguistic ignorance. This means, the failure to have an accurate perception of history comes from the imprecise ways in which we (mis)use language, and/or the ways in which we (mis)understand language.

Of course, one can argue that the origin of historical ignorance is not linguistic, in the sense that people can use precise language to record wrong perceptions or understandings of historical events. This argument, however, is based on the assumption that perceptions of propositions are not linguistic in nature. This assumption is at the very least questionable, if not outright wrong. It is widely accepted that our perception is largely dependent on language. Without language, our cognition is very limited. So, even if the culprit is the ignorance in perception, instead of the language used to record the perception, this ignorance is still linguistic.

So, I’d say linguistic ignorance is most to blame.

Whose death, recent or not, do you most lament?

I am a semi-Buddhist. According to Buddhist teachings, all sentient beings, unless having achieved nirvana (i.e. enlightenment), will keep coming back to life and dying again. With this belief, I most lament the death of all sentient beings who will have to come back to die again. Death is a horrible kind of suffering. Having to die again and again is unimaginably sad.

Do you appreciate that an oyster has, among its other organs, a heart?

Wow, I’ve never thought about that! Now I am aware of this fact, I don’t think I will ever be able to see oysters in the same way again.

What to your ear is the best-sounding language?

This is a hard one. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint one language that’s the best-sounding. Many languages sound beautiful. But for the most interesting-sounding language, I’d say Xhosa. I love the clicking sounds!

What’s just about the worst thing you ever heard of?

That our current life is not the only one we suffer from. All sentient beings will suffer again and again in many, many lives. As long as we hold on to our ego, we will keep coming back to life in different shapes and forms to endure much, much more suffering.

If you could be instantly fluent in a language you do not now speak, what language would it be?

Oh this is a difficult one. For different reasons I would want to learn different languages.

For fun, I’d really want to be good at Xhosa (as mentioned above).

For having a first-hand experience of understanding some linguistic elements that are absent from my native language, I’d go for Hungarian (or other Uralic languages) because of their many different cases.

For my recent obsession with Korean variety shows, I’d want to speak Korean fluently.

For the verification of Benjamin Whorf’s hypothesis of linguistic relativity, I’d like to speak Hopi as one of my native languages and see if I can really perceive the world without a sense of time.

Do you want something said of you, or nothing said of you, when you go?

I hope that they will say Vinton had brought more benefit than harm to the world.

What are three basic things you need to be content in life?

On top of the basic substances for physical survival, I’d say I need 1) a clear mind to perceive the world as it truly is, 2) a good sense of awareness, and, perhaps most importantly, 3) thankfulness.

Discontentment comes from the lack of these three elements. For instance, one may wrongly see that one’s success is solely achieved by oneself. One is prevented from being content if one lacks a clear mind or the awareness to see that one’s achievements are almost always the aggregation of many different factors outside one’s control (e.g. people’s goodwill, good timing, and even sheer luck).

Alternatively, even when one understands the true nature of success, if one is not thankful for these external and uncontrollable factors, he or she will likely be discontented.

I guess, in other words, an over-inflated ego is the source of discontentment.

Are you still living in such a way that suggests you are waiting for the real living to start at some later and unspecified date?

Life is real from day one, whether one recognises it or not. So, no, I am not living like I’m waiting for the real living to start, because my real life started as soon as I was born.

Is there anything you’d like to ask me?

If you could only use five adjectives in your life, what would they be?

Tammy Ho: The translucent skin of a late afternoon, a rush of flaming vowels, a confused din of consonants, a violent sun breaks through the clouds, the endless corridor of winter.*

*Lines taken from Octavio Paz’s “Impreface”.


VintonJust like an average person, Vinton Poon assumes many different identities. To name a few (not in any particular order), he is a son, a lecturer, a badminton enthusiast, an extrovert, an elder brother, a debating coach, a semi-Buddhist, an academic, a friend, a hypochondriac, a volunteer, and a pursuer of good tea. [Click here to read all entries by Vinton.] [“Interrogative”]

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