My House, Our House
Our bedroom is small and crammed up. All bedrooms. The mattress takes up to two-thirds of the floor and the wardrobe around one-fifth. There’s this small empty space for when we need to pray, comprising of one prayer rug. There is always a mirror—my mother’s is a tiny piece of broken mirror she taped onto the wall, mine rectangle and framed portrait, my second brother’s rectangle and framed landscape, my father’s his cupboard’s equipment, my eldest brother no longer has a room since he’s moved out—and random clothes hangers or nails hammered to the plain white wall. Our house is never a fan of color except the decorated ceiling painted in green and yellow and some figures of 3D flower around where the lamp is placed. Our fence is metal and black, while the gate in which the fence is planted is dark blue but washed up by rain, probably close to navy by now. We don’t have a garage, maybe my parents didn’t plan to buy a car then, so ours now is just parked there in the front yard, protected under a roof made from black fiber, fully clothed in its grey cover.
The house is facing the east, at its most radiance when the sun is up but thankfully a few years ago our neighbor bought the land across our home and turned it into a house for his horses—the perks of living in a small village with a rich cowboy neighbor is to know if a horse is not only a symbol of power but also of attention paid. At least we are sidelined from the burning ball of fire in the sky that generously burns the earth and dries my mother’s cacao beans.
Everything we protect is in the house and everything that leaves the house is protected. Hence, never do we leave the house without a jacket or coat to house our skin. Our collection of jackets, ranked:
My mother’s are knitted sweater, red jacket from a motorcycle company, a white with creme stripes jacket looking like a varsity jacket but is actually not, another jacket from a motorcycle company (this one is black and feels like a parachute—maybe it is), a Boss Side A Side B jacket that is actually mine but she altered its zipper then claimed as hers. Mine: a black cardigan, a black hoodie, a grey sweater, two identical and interchangeable creme parkas. My brother’s: a black hoodie, a white cotton jacket, a black sweater, a black sports jacket with red stripes. My father’s: one motorcycle jacket for as long as I know—the simplest man.
Recently we got three ACs installed in our three bedrooms. It was actually four, but my mother, the Ministry of Household Economy, didn’t think it was okay to splurge on one more AC since my father already had got an exclusive fan so he was out from the equation. It was actually secondhand ACs, since our monthly electricity plan couldn’t afford to load three more electronic devices, that work like a fan. Not cooling the whole room like a fridge, yet spinning and blowing air. It still functions. We are all grateful.
On the first night after the installment, my mother invited me to her room to sit down—I thought, judging from her seriousness that manifested as forehead wrinkles, she was going to tell me a secret about our ancestor or the recipe of her anti-aging avocado mask—and feel her AC-fan. “Look at this,” she insisted. “Do you feel anything? It’s broken! Only unnecessary noises!”
“You may want a refund,” I replied, placing my hand below the AC-fan, and indeed felt nothing.
“I wish. I just want it to be replaced like your brother’s. Do you want yours to be replaced too? Does it work? I think yours works just fine. I will contact the AC guy, telling him to come here again and replace mine.” She didn’t pause, never seizing the chance to lose her train of thought. “Look at it. It’s broken.”
A crammed up house is good when you are the kind of person who pays attention to even the surliest details; how a speck of rubble flies alongside the sunshine, why there’s even a tan line on the brown wooden table, where the trail of big ants departs from and goes to, when you decide to exactly put three large boxes of old things with sentimental value in the shelf, which furniture needs to be refurnished annually, and whose sweat drips on the white marble floor being visible. Crammed up house is good when you want to feel small at most times and yet, quenchless. Eyes full of wonder.
I never actually read Miranda July’s It Chooses You, as it collects dust in the corner of my mini library, only skimmed the pages wherein those supporting and decorative photographs are put as if I was feeding only the right hemisphere of my brain. Ancient hair dryer, a dining room which is filled with crystal lamps and lights from a humble crack, old mails, black leather sofa, fish pond that is overgrown by moss, other ephemera. There are a few pages in the chapter of making The Future (2011), her second feature film that stars Paw-Paw the cat, that match the general fashion of those photographs. I believe July’s life is just as cinematic and she herself a hoarder, just like my late paternal grandmother. She, for some reason, would collect patches and buttons and broken porcelain for something later in the future, maybe a recycled doll or modified tunic or reused napkin. Nobody ever knows. Nobody but her.
I inherited that gene, or, say, preference, to hoard things: torn up cards, a miniature of truck that has lost its tires, papier-mâché, collar and lace, used brooch, several beads threaded together on a string—to name some. My mother often complains when noticing me squirrel away those stuff and keep them in my room like a prized possession. She doesn’t quite understand why I collect them for the sake of collecting instead of seeing a particular function, when to me hoarding is comparable to admiring little things which have been misplaced or discontinuous—broken. A personal museum for breached goods.
When I was little I fantasized of having a two-story house. The first floor is a huge ballroom for dance event and a spacious living room because, as much as I tend to be misanthropic, I used to imagine hosting so many guests for some egoistic-Leo reason, while the second floor will be full of bedrooms and other rooms for private activities; little reading corner, bubble bath, a small pantry for me to experiment with meat or pasta, just an empty nook for when I want to just do nothing in secret. In the backyard there is a fireplace and camping tents and gardens full of white and red roses also peach and apple trees, my lovely little farm during summer break from school. I projected my inner child into bushes shaped like elephants and standing lamp built from silver or chromium. My two-story house is a countryside castle surrounded by other similar castles that I would get confused at first glance.
I wouldn’t be dizzy in the slightest sight of heights and having baby is never in the plan—I’m afraid I have to equipped the house for child safety that doesn’t correspond with the general aesthetics—although probability will always be there. I would either wear my ancient dresses or walk naked on the marble floor. I portrayed no swimming pool, but artificial lake or small pond as my room’s view. Perfect humidity.
Years later, I found out I probably wanted only one story house, just like my real house. Small and spot on. Having it (and living in one) has its own perks. The L-shaped building we occupy, which has been standing still since 1983, needs low maintenance. Everyone is having babies now and no one is afraid of accidental falling from the stairs—I love seemingly noncorrelating event that impacts our real life. We clean the house with minimal energy and things are way easier to be found. You know what else is easy in our house? Spotting stuff with sentimental value. We save things with no doubt. And we let go of them unproblematic.
Living in a tropical country entitles me to two seasons: dry and rainy. During “summer” my father dries paddy, my mother wears surgical mask when riding motorbike, I decline to go out without picking the most comfortable sunscreen to spread on my face that doesn’t leave white cast. During “winter” we appreciate whoever invented a raincoat or an umbrella for our body, anticipate cold and influenza which actually don’t have to coincide with rain or storm, exsiccate our clothes indoor as if we protected them from laundry thief. Since the earth temperature is up and up, it is hard to define when the sunny season starts then ends, when the cloudy season starts then ends. The sky is as moody as yours truly with premenstrual syndrome.
As a child, I thought about countries with four seasons a lot. Snowy christmastime as advertised on television, blooming tulips and many other flowers that I’m struggling to pronunciate or relate to, sunbathing in beach and the fancy striped bikini, fallen leaves in piles that look like a dump or garbage but the kind that makes me want to cease sweeping up and lying down on it instead. The name ‘four seasons’ ring to my ear like a name of a hotel that it is, not something chronological that requires material adaptation and body adjustment. My lipstick is that one same lipstick year-round, my coat is light, and my sandals are never slippery no matter the fabric—static ambiences surrounds me annually and drives me to think that all updates should be answered by “not now.” Living in a tropical country makes me imagine if four-season country is better to live in for the variations on weather and natural disasters, as if the sun and rain were less romantic to express solemn admiration in a form of season-inspired fashion modes or, to some degree, survival kit.
Living in a tropical country brings color to my fruit and vegetables stand. Yellow, green, orange, intense purple, variations of red from cerise to perhaps also ruby. It means most of them are juicy and sour, indicating the land and the air they grow up in and with. Living in a tropical country makes me wonder whether I’m more of a brown person or a yellow person. To think about my distant ancestors is to think about so many colors, uneasy to condensed to only one box. My skin is pretty fair for a Southeast Asian person but the region alone doesn’t quite encompass the sense of belonging to either group. I’m often uncertain. To this day I would like to think I’m an unspecified species of woman of color. (Or maybe I’m just not brown enough.)
Our willingness to perform emotional labor is often manifested in physical labor; that is the gesture my family agrees on. Having raised in a rather broken home—home full of psychological turbulence, if any consolation—inside a crammed up house is a perfect combo. It taught me, among others, how to survive within my own means and practice self-defense by acquiring domestic skills. I learned that sometimes tenderness is hard-earned; there is no place or time to fault each other for what has happened. During that time of recovery, we did so many laborous work to regain the sense of togetherness.
In our house, we don’t say “I love you” to each other. The understood arrangement regarding the language of love is never a word or hugs but sacrificial action—preparing meals for other people, fixing a motorbike’s black and white plate, sweeping the floor from dust and sometimes lizard’s trail, wiping the glass window as clean as possible, cleaning bathroom tiles with citric acid, watering the fig trees and bougainvillea, delivering additional pillows from the other room, not eating the tropical fruit inside the fridge, taking turn to play with someone’s baby when everyone else is temporarily working on something else, etcetera. Loving my family means making time to do the grossest thing possible such as brushing off the toilet bowl to ease the business of other people. Loving my family means we the members have people to pray for: I pray for your prosperity, I pray for your future spouse and future descendants, I pray for your joyful moments. We don’t say “have a good day” out loud in the morning to each other. In silence, we instead say “Dear Lord, please protect them every day.”