DO YOU HAVE TISSUE OR A KITCHEN?

That things become a peculiarity when they’re taken out of a familiar context is one thing I’ve cottoned on to while living outside of the Philippines. Take the travel-pack white facial tissue. Who would have thought that tissue would become such a major issue to grapple with? I certainly didn’t. But ever since I started residing in Singapore, tissue has become a major point simply because when you eat at the ubiquitous hawker centres or food courts there are no packets of tissue available unless you buy a pack from the drinks stall. Tissue is not big a deal in the Philippines – it’s always readily available when you buy food anywhere. The issue lies in the quantity.

The habit of stuffing packs of tissue into my backpack carried over to Indonesia where I was stationed for several months, which I found to be slightly redundant because tissue is available. You just need to know where to find the plastic tissue box, for example, in the cafeteria of Global Prestasi National Plus School.

It also never crossed my mind that tissue would become the temporary sentinel of a table in a hawker centre, food court or fast food joint in Singapore. The sight of packets of tissue strewn on the tables made me think that people were forgetful or that the stall owners were feeling generous and decided to give their patrons packets of tissue. I was wrong on both counts.

“They already choped the table,” explained my then colleague whose eyes busily surveyed the place for a tissue-free table.

Choped?” I asked in uncertainty.

“They already reserved the table,” she said drily, a hint of annoyance leaking out of her tone.

I filed that little fact away for future sharing to new FOBs.*

I can’t remember whether it was a spoof in a local TV show I watched or a reported incident in the newspaper years ago, which had me laughing about this tissue ritual. An angmo (Caucasian or American), uninitiated to the tissue ritual, was roiling in exasperation in seeing the tissue-reserved tables at a food court. He maintained that tables were free-for-all until occupants were literally sitting and their plate of food set in front of them, but the locals remained unperturbed. The next time round he came earlier than the lunch crowd who was not amused with what they saw. Each table had a roll of tissue paper placed at the centre.

Table-reservation at food courts (there are no hawker centres) in the Philippines is done by having one member of the party guard the table while the rest go off to buy their food. Similarly, in Indonesia, people play guards at food courts. With a live protector at the table, it makes it easier to determine that someone is indeed occupying the table, doesn’t it? I doubt if you can get a word out of the tissue.

Another oddity, I find, apart from the tissue ritual, is the cooking of meals in one’s rented apartment. While it’s a general practice for the locals to always eat at restaurants, hawker centres or food courts, it’s a custom that’s not always practiced by foreigners. Most like to cook their meals at home because it’s healthier and definitely lowers expenditure. My friend just received a text message from his landlord saying that cooking in the kitchen won’t be allowed starting next month for fear of the kitchen becoming dirty. It’s a bizarre landlord’s rule because it begs a list of questions: Why lease a flat and not include the kitchen? How can you prepare meals at home if the kitchen is off limits? How can you eat if you can’t cook the way you like? What do you do if you don’t want to eat outside?

Other landlords are more amenable and agree to “light cooking” as opposed to “heavy cooking”. This is the first time I’ve heard of such cooking categories. Light cooking is defined as no deep-frying in a wok and, obviously, deep-frying is considered as heavy cooking. Steaming and boiling are allowed, but how long can one feast on bread, boiled egg and blanched vegetables? And are baking and grilling approved?

I suppose, in the spirit of fitting in and adjusting to cultural differences, you pack tons of travel-pack tissue in your bag and alternate Subway with chicken rice and yong tau fu.

*FOB – fresh off boat

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