OPK (OTHER PEO­PLE’S KITCHENS)

“I’M FILIPINO, I’M GE­NET­I­CALLY PRO­GRAMMED TO CLEAN THE MESSES WHITE PEO­PLE MAKE.”

Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTES & ESSAYS - BY CLARA BALA­GUER

A Swiss guy who made nice chapels for min­ing com­mu­ni­ties in the east of France once said to some­one that the house is a ma­chine for liv­ing in. As is the hu­man body, a ma­chine whose en­gine is all heart. And if both the body and the house are ma­chines run by hearts, the house’s heart is most def­i­nitely in the kitchen. Warmth runs from there to all other rooms and spa­ces, and if the kitchen’s path­ways are not clear for ef­fi­cient flow, you’re look­ing at a recipe for a heart at­tack.

I travel a lot. But I don’t like to stay at ho­tels. I live in the third world, where out­sourc­ing the up­keep of your too-large home to four peo­ple liv­ing some­what close to the poverty line is not only an ac­cept­able con­ven­tion. It’s a debt you pay to society. So when I travel to the first world, I like to play house, the house I don’t play when I’m in Manila. I like to cook and clean and tidy up after my­self. But I don’t have a house to do it in, so I stay with friends who let me fret over their break­fasts. I am hap­pi­est as a slave to all sorts of love in other peo­ples’ kitchens.

In my coun­try, cook­ing isn’t al­ways so ten­der. Apart from the hu­mid­ity, the lady who cooks and the lady who cleans look hor­ri­fied when I try to join the house­hold fray. Which is awk­ward. And then there is the matter of struc­tural kitchen apartheid. Many res­i­den­tial ar­chi­tects make a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween the kitchen to be used by the help and the kitchen to be saun­tered through from time to time by the lady of the house. They are called the clean and dirty kitchens. You don’t have to be Le Cor­bus­ier to fig­ure out who be­longs where. Homes in the Philip­pines suf­fer from con­gen­i­tal colo­nial heart dis­ease. Which makes it some­times hard to breathe in their kitchens. It’s hard to put love into what you cook when your kitchen stands for a caste sys­tem you did not in­vent but can­not de­stroy. Un­less you razed the house—but ar­son is as im­prac­ti­cal as it is il­le­gal.

So when I travel to homes in civ­i­lized na­tions, I go straight to the sink with the pile of dirty dishes. Some­times even be­fore I wash the KLM out of my hair. My friends in ad­ver­tis­ing who don’t sleep, my gay hus­bands, my Cau­casian one-night stands, my friends who en­ter­tain with cen­tollo from the Bo­quería mar­ket on Thurs­days, my long-dis­tance Dutch lovers, they all watch in awe as I gut their cup­boards and re­place chaos with metic­u­lous or­der. The most un­be­liev­able thing about my OPK OCD is the fact that, any­where else, I’m a bloody mess. “Why do you do it?” they ask me. I know some of them think it’s be­cause I am too much me and need to con­quer the spa­ces I oc­cupy, to the detri­ment of their right­ful own­ers. Oth­ers think I wash away the guilt of in­vad­ing peo­ples’ pri­vacy by be­ing overly so­lic­i­tous. The kinder ones think I have ex­quis­ite man­ners.

I make jokes and say, “I’m Filipino, I’m ge­net­i­cally pro­grammed to clean the messes white peo­ple make.” We all laugh, be­cause it’s not racist when I say it. Filipinos care noth­ing for po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness. Maybe be­cause our politi­cians are so cor­rupt, any­thing po­lit­i­cal makes us lose in­ter­est quicker than can­cer.

I spend happy, painstak­ing hours ar­rang­ing spices. Cheap su­per­mar­ket va­ri­eties in the back,

pretty tin cans of pi­men­tón in front. I take the veg­eta­bles out of their imi­ta­tion Glad Wraps and fluff the leaves of let­tuce just so. In­side the re­frig­er­a­tors, I make sure all the la­bels on all the fancy mus­tards are fac­ing out. On the coun­ter­tops, sea­son­ings are ar­ranged by size, shape, and

fre­quency of us­age. (Salts and oils on the right hand side, only if home­owner is right-handed.) Also, by my per­sonal fa­vorite cat­e­gories: color and/or emo­tional charge. Blue goes with blue. Heir­looms go with sou­venirs of the ghost of re­la­tion­ships past.

Why do I do it? Be­cause I have a Mary Pop­pins com­plex. And be­cause I loved all of the peo­ple whose houses I’ve re­ar­ranged. Pre­cisely be­cause I loved them all, it makes me happy to think that once I’d got­ten their heart­bro­ken kitchens to beat again, bub­bling with chicken with olives and prunes, their lives would maybe be a bit bet­ter for the wear.

Your life can never start over un­til your kitchen is clean. So scrub your coun­ter­tops ev­ery night, be­fore you die or sleep, if you want to live happy. Or have me over for a weekend. Just give me con­ver­sa­tion while I take a sponge to your con­vec­tion stove­top. Will work for chicken mas­saman curry.

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