“Would you like to get something to eat?” Yerit, my French Airbnb host asked after I had settled into her apartment in Madrid. I had just arrived after more than 20 hours of travel from Manila, including a layover at dawn in Istanbul. I had also managed to find her place without mobile data, in a suburb south of the city center, as there were no open sim card stores at the airport. I had navigated metro transfers and streets with nothing but screenshots and my eyes. Food would be a welcome relief—a comfort at the end of the upheaval of transplanting myself.
“Sure,” I said.
I thought she was taking me to one of the neighborhood restaurants. We stepped out and walked a few blocks, right into a grocery store.
Of course, I had been inside grocery stores before, but never for sustenance. All the meat, vegetables, and rice I ate had magically appeared on our dining table at meal times. My trips to the supermarket were often about buying my favorite coffee, or a bag of chips.
The Philippines is known for exporting domestic workers all over the world. Salaries back home are so low, with a monthly average of less than $300, that this demographic also includes people with university degrees. Many white-collared workers earn just as much if not less than domestic helpers do abroad.
The effect on its citizens back home, however, can be the opposite depending on one’s social strata. Due to labor being cheap, many middle to upper-class families can afford—and have learned to rely on—stay-in maids. Growing up, all of my friends’ families had one. It was normal to hear a mother lamenting how her family couldn’t seem to find a decent, trustworthy maid; or moving abroad and lamenting how hard life was when they had to go to work and do the house chores.
For most of the population, the scarcity and low labor cost are scaled and applied across the board. Having house help in the Philippines does not equate to affluence as it does in developed countries. A middle-class family can be one serious hospitalization bill away from poverty and raise offspring who haven’t chopped a vegetable in their life. I remember the first time I sliced an avocado open, surprised at how easy it apparently was.
Maids in my country aren’t a luxury, but more a result of the widespread desperation for jobs and lack of access to opportunities to get a leg up in life. If you go to the posh malls in Manila, you will find that their elevators have people whose job it is to sit in there all day and press the floor buttons for patrons. You try to park your car along a public street and bystanders will clamor to help you find a parking spot and guide you into it for a tip. The smallest tasks are chances to make a living.
In the Philippines, if you were born into at least the middle of the pyramid, you will live a life doing a negligible amount of menial work for yourself. This is true for both the 1% and those who are college educated but drowning in debt for supposedly basic rights, like the education of their children.
This is the country I left.
My main goal at the supermarket in Madrid that afternoon was to not look stupid in front of Yerit. I knew moving to Spain meant I had to finally become domesticated, but I was expecting the day of my arrival to be some sort of buffer day. I land after 20 hours of travel and immediately there’s an exam? (I now realize how unrealistic this expectation was. One lands after 20 hours of travel.. and one needs to feed oneself). Yerit, for all her good intentions (she was a Superhost), had no idea that this was how I was taking her kind and practiced gesture.
Vegetables. I grabbed a tumbler of cherry tomatoes because they required zero prep. Protein. I was not ready to face the raw meat section. Instead, I bought a pack of six ecological eggs. I had no idea what that meant. I chose them because I also didn’t know how to cook eggs, and the regular eggs came in packs of 12. If these rotted on my watch at least I was only wasting six. Bread was easy enough. I patronized local bakeries back home. It was at the cheese and cold cuts section that my brain finally started to freeze and short-circuit with decision fatigue. I gave up.
“What should I get?” I asked Yerit. She gave me ready suggestions and I took them. We headed home to prepare our separate lunches together. I made myself a haphazard sandwich hoping I didn’t look like a fool.
Living in the same two-bedroom apartment for two weeks, I couldn’t pretend forever. Yerit noticed me struggling to open a pack of cheese.
“Mira,” (Look) she said, taking a knife and strategically creating a flap in the plastic for easy access.
Yerit asked if I had any clothes I wanted to include in the load she was throwing in. I said yes, and then asked if she could also show me how to operate the machine.
I know of another Filipino girl who came from a similar background. She stayed at a student dorm while she was earning her Master’s degree in Barcelona. She went down to the building’s laundry room one evening and took so long figuring out how to make the machine work that the security guy who was watching the CCTV went down to show her how it was done. “He even put in the detergent himself.”
There are generations of Filipinos who are high functioning as they move around the academic and professional worlds, but go through life with the most basic parts of adulthood yet to be installed.
As I got more comfortable with Yerit, who seemed truly willing to extend herself in any way she could, I asked her to show me more things. How do I fry an egg? “Compro huevos pero no sé como cocinarlos,” I admitted (I bought eggs but I don’t know how to cook them). How do I cook pasta? She not only showed me how to hang different kinds of clothing, but also how to fish one out if it fell from your outdoor clothesline on the third floor.
There were zero traces of condescension on her face as she readily launched into her demonstrations. She helped me without making me feel stupid. She also occasionally left me simple meals in the kitchen, like pasta or chicken with rice and vegetables. The plates came with little notes: “Cate — Calentar en micro” (heat in the microwave).
Eventually, despite her great attitude, she could no longer keep her curiosity to herself.
“Were you not raised to be… independent?” she finally poked matter-of-factly, peering at me sideways.
“En mi pais normalmente tenemos criadas,” (In my country we normally have maids) I explained to her, as well as the economic reasons for this norm.
At the end of my stay at her place, Yerit drove me to my new apartment and released me, her two-week baby, into the wild. Friends and family fell off their chairs watching my Instagram stories of chicken breast cooking in a pan and dishes being washed as soon as I was done with them. The latter used to be my most hated chore, but my new life didn’t afford me the space to indulge this hate. I also learned how to adapt a purely clinical disposition when it was time to scrub the toilet.
Domestication, I would figure out, was mostly common sense. And the main reason I was so bad at it was that I was treating it as this science that I was terrified of getting wrong. And I would get it wrong at times and consequentially realize it was usually not that big of a deal. No one was watching, and the only person who had to eat my mistakes was me.
Two years into my move, if you open my fridge this is what you’ll find: cherry tomatoes, mixed leaves in a bag, and a tumbler of blueberries—zero prep fruits and vegetables. A dozen eggs, cups of Greek yogurt, parmesan cheese, butter, a packet of smoked salmon, microwave vegetable lasagna, full-cream milk, and bread. I used to also have pre-marinated chicken breast that I would cook for pasta during the one hour—the only hour in a week—I would spend in the kitchen to meal prep. But I recently got a new job that came with free lunches (five meals I no longer have to make, I noted), so I have stopped cooking. I now live off scrambled eggs, salmon salads, and the aforementioned microwave lasagna. When I want better tasting food, I go to restaurants, order on apps, or benefit from the kindness of friends who love to cook.
Before I left Manila, I apparently joked to my friends that I would learn how to cook paella and they believed me. I quickly learned, though, that domestication for me was more a matter of logistics than filling a space with warmth. It’s the things I do to live a clear and functional life. Maybe someday I will evolve to also be “the light” of my house. Maybe I won’t and this is it. But I am alive—in great health, according to every thorough check-up I’ve taken. I step out in clean clothes and come home to a space that gives me peace.
For me, for now, that’s more than enough.