“Tita,” my eleven-year-old niece says. “Why are you always talking about yogurt?”
I am living in the Philippines on a Fulbright fellowship for half a year, so the only way I can see my loved ones back home in the U.S. is through videochat. The twelve-hour time difference and the spotty online connection in my Manila condo means that when we do appear on each other’s laptops, the moment is precious. I hadn’t realized, until my niece pointed it out, that my main topic of conversation with her is yogurt. Specifically, my obsession with inoculating warm milk with culture and fermenting it into yogurt.
For the first time since I was three years old, I am living in the country where I was born. Sure, I’ve gone back to visit every decade or so, but those were family vacations. The Fulbright makes it possible for my husband and me to experience daily life in the place where I came from.
We prepared for the journey over many months: shopping for new things, purging unnecessary things, subletting our apartment, taking care of job responsibilities, and submitting our bodies to vaccines for rabies, hepatitis, typhoid, and other intimidating diseases. I worried about access to drinking water and how best to traverse Manila, famous for gridlock. I could not imagine what my life in the Philippines would be like, which made preparations difficult. I appreciate the predictable and a schedule that I control, but I had been feeling heartbroken and a failure for a long time. I needed the unexpected.
During those preparations, I joined a Facebook group for foreign women living in Manila. Many of the women in the group, although not all, are the spouses of men who work for their home nation’s consulates, global corporations, or nonprofits. They share information about the best doctors, schools, supermarkets, and other concerns. They are very helpful. When I arrive at my rental, which had not been occupied for many months, I discover that ants had taken over. They are the color and size of 12-point font commas and they are everywhere. The ants traverse orderly lines in the bathroom, kitchen, and under my bed. I swear, when I wake up in the morning, I feel them crawling over my scalp. When I reach the last of my drinking water, contained in an opaque plastic box, I am horrified to discover the suitcase of water thick with drowned ants. The women in the Facebook group help me solve my ant problem quickly and permanently.
A lot of posts in the group are devoted to the topic of servants: how much to pay them, how many days of vacation and sick time, which ones are available now for work, which ones to avoid. Help is cheap and you don’t have to be wealthy to have a household staff of drivers, housecleaners, and a nanny for each child. I often feel uneasy reading the complaints the women from Australia, Europe, and the U.S. have about their Filipino helpers, but even I post a request for a recommendation for a housecleaner.
A couple of weeks into my Fulbright, I notice a popular thread about making yogurt. Our fancy supermarket, geared to foreigners, seems to sell a variety of yogurts in the brightly lit dairy case. Why would anyone bother making yogurt at home? The women complain about the overly sweet, watery yogurt available in Manila. It’s many times more expensive than what they’re used to paying at home and some local brands add chewy, gelatinous cubes for texture. One woman claims that by making her own yogurt, she saves a thousand pesos (about $22 USD) a month on her grocery bill.
I have never read such passionate writing about yogurt, a substance I associate with the good intentions of a Monday morning. I have started many diets at the beginning of the work week, tucking a container of yogurt in my purse. But by lunch, when it was time to eat the watery, warm gloop, I would give the diet up.
These women want their yogurt; I get it. There are things I miss from home that I can’t put my hands on in Manila. And every day, something goes against my expectations.
That’s a diplomatic way to say what I fear will make me seem ungrateful, ugly, and so American: Every day in Manila, I am offended. I am appalled daily by the rotting fruits of inequality, greed, corruption, lawlessness, and out-of-control global capitalism. There are dozens of buildings being constructed in the area I’m living in. I worry for the construction workers, whose daily income is the price of my morning Starbucks, climbing and building way up high. On my way to Starbucks one morning, I pass a commotion at the building site two blocks from my condo. A construction accident. Men fell and two died. Of course, all of this exists in the U.S. in its own American way, but now that I’m living in this overcrowded city of 10 million, it’s harder to hide my gaze.
I’d much rather think about making yogurt. I search the expatriate women’s group and find threads, several months old, about yogurt. Women share their recipes and processes, the best places to get starter cultures and milk. Through these comments, I glimpse the lives of these women living far from home. I imagine the kitchens where they heat the milk and their families enjoying their yogurt. The writing about a food that I never considered worthy of such attention is unexpectedly compelling. Maybe when you can’t get your hands on what you always assume will be there for you, waiting on a shelf next to the milk, suddenly, you are desperate for it.
Until the date was set for my oophorectomy, I didn’t realize how much I wanted to get pregnant. As the weeks ticked closer and I attended pre-op appointments, I was in a fog of grief and disbelief: No one would ever call me mother. The surgery would remove my ovaries, which held the cells that had the potential to become the eggs that had the potential to become the children who I would have devoted my life to. The surgery would give birth to the post-menopausal version of me. I wondered who I would become once I crossed the street to walk amidst the invisible, irrelevant women in our society. At 40, would I suddenly become a crone, a virago, or a hag, words I learned while memorizing vocabulary for the standardized tests of my youth?
In Manila, people don’t know what to make of me. I appear to be Filipino, but the way I move and speak and stand blur easy identification. Strangers often ask me a series of questions to find out: What are you? Are you one of us?
Within moments of cramming myself into the front passenger seat of taxis in Manila, the windshield and windows obscured by laminated licenses and authorizations swinging from their hooks, drivers would ask if I have children.
Every single time, I consider lying to shut the exchange down, but lately, I’ve used the moment to gauge how I’m feeling. Only recently, this question had the power to set me off for days, weepy and despairing.
Six months after the surgery, I feel I’ve achieved something by not bursting into tears every time I’m asked. Without knowing a thing about me except that I am American, the drivers seem insulted by my answer: No, I don’t have children.
I know I’m under no obligation to explain myself, but guilt drives much of my behavior these days. I attempt honest answers: My husband and I don’t have enough money, which I realize immediately is a ludicrous thing for me to say as an American passenger of a Filipino taxi. What would motivate a man to drive a taxi under the most challenging traffic conditions on the planet? What else would get you through the stress and fatigue of a 24-hour shift in your tiny minnow of a cab in an ocean of sharks and whales, but the faces of the loved ones you were feeding with the fares?
And then I spin more details, trying to persuade the driver that it’s much more expensive in the States than he imagines. It’s because my husband and I work so much, because we don’t have time, because families in the US don’t have the same web of connections, because we’re still paying off our student loans, because it’s impossible for us to own a home in Boston, on and on. As they listen to my whining, at some point, the taxi driver will take his eyes off the line dance that the trucks, vans, jeepneys, SUVs, motorcycles, and pedestrians are performing on the road ahead so he can stare hard at me and respond with some version of “None of that has anything to do with having a child.”
And I take out my one last card. “I can’t have children because of cancer.” This doesn’t convey the nuances of my story, the genetic tests, the heightened risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, the agonizing decisions I had to make about my body, but it’s a reliable conversation stopper. We shift to talking about anything else, the heat, the traffic, or if I happen to know anyone who is hiring a driver in the States.
All you need to make homemade yogurt is a heat source, a pot, a jar, milk, a couple tablespoons of yogurt, and powdered milk (optional). The recipe can be contained in a simple sentence: Add a spoonful of yogurt to scalded milk and leave it alone in a warm place until it thickens. But that’s the short version of the recipe. I could go on and on about it.
You want sterile conditions to make yogurt. It’s best to leave it alone while it transforms, so my ritual is to make yogurt before bed. I boil water in a pot. In the sink, fill the jars with the boiling water. Refill the pot with milk and heat the milk slowly.
You want to make sure the milk has reached a temperature high enough to kill off bacteria, but later, has cooled off enough not to kill the yogurt cultures — Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus — so they can do their transformative work. You could use a food thermometer and heat the milk to 180 degrees Fahrenheit and let it cool until it is 115 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a food thermometer, watch the milk and take it off the heat after it forms a skin and bubbles where the milk touches the pot. Don’t over-boil it. Cool it until you can keep your pinky in the milk for 5 seconds without burning yourself.
Pour the milk into the jars. Stir a tablespoon of your starter, yogurt that has live, active cultures, into the warm milk. Cover the jars.
Thermophilic yogurt incubates at around 110 degrees, so you want to keep the temperature steady for the hours that the bacteria is active. I wrap a towel around the warm jar as if it was a baby fresh from the bath and tuck it into the microwave oven, the door ajar so that the light bulb stays on. I let it sleep until morning.
The first time I made yogurt, it turned out perfectly. I felt the anticipation and excitement of a childhood Christmas morning. I reached into my incubator, the microwave, and unwrapped the towel. I was nervous. The jar felt warm, but it didn’t slosh. I unscrewed the top and broke the white surface with my spoon. The milk had thickened into a creamy solid. At first, I was reluctant to put the warm substance into my mouth, but it was delicious. Smooth, mild, and unlike anything I’d ever tasted. It was such an unexpected marvel that I walked a spoonful over to my sleeping husband and woke him from a deep sleep so that he could taste the magic, too.
It is beginner’s luck that my initial attempt at yogurt is so successful. But this initial success is enough to motivate me to try for perfection again and again. I experiment with different processes, shorter and longer incubation periods, brands of milk and yogurt starter. I play around with making the yogurt thicker by adding powdered milk to the warm milk and by straining the yogurt in cheesecloth. The powdered milk in the Philippines is a revelation. This is not the chalk dust of my American childhood. On the other side of the baby formula aisle is “adult milk,” an exquisite yellowish powder that in my mouth, tastes and feels like clouds and sweetness and when you call out to your mother in the middle of the night and she comes to soothe you back to sleep.
There are many kinds of active, live cultures that make yogurt and these combinations impact the flavor and texture. Whenever I go food shopping, I head straight for the dairy case and scan for a yogurt that I haven’t tried before. I decide that a certain brand of carabao yogurt is the best. Filipino farmers depend on the carabao, or the Asian water buffalo, for help in growing rice and sugar, for transportation, for milk, and finally, for meat, hides, and horns. When we travel outside of Manila, I always look for the hefty carabao stepping through the flooded rice paddies. It is a beautiful brown beast amidst a landscape of palm fronds and grasses. The green is shocking to my eye and looks electric after being in the city of skyscrapers, condo buildings, and malls, a haze of gray dusting everything and everyone. At night, I wash this off my skin and blow it out my nose.
I reach for perfection, but sometimes the milk doesn’t transform into yogurt. The incubation temperature is too high or too low, or the starter isn’t alive. Once, pressed for time, I boil the milk too rapidly and this turns into a clumpy, off-putting mass that I hide in smoothies. But with enough practice, the process and the result are predictable. My obsession with variables and my chemistry experiments eventually harden into certainty. I can reproduce my favorite yogurt with the same three ingredients, an ultra-high-pasteurized whole milk, a full cream powdered milk, and carabao yogurt starter. No cheesecloth straining is necessary. I eat it with cubes of yellow mangoes and a teaspoon of coconut sugar sprinkled on top.
Most of the reward for writing is the creative act itself. Part of me wants to believe that the products of artmaking are beside the point. Showing up regularly to the desk and participating in the writing process is what really matters. Sure, publishing and having an audience is fun, but it doesn’t drive me as much as the engagement with words, ideas, and memories. When writing is going well, it’s enough to get me out of bed in the morning. I have to allow myself the time to take wrong turns and make mistakes in writing.
With writing, I often make the mistake of confusing my work with my self-worth. I fear coming across as stupid or cliché. I berate myself for wasting precious time by not working enough, or by working too much on a piece that goes nowhere. And if the piece does get finished and shared somehow, so what? I remember handing my immigrant father a book that contained one of the first essays I published. He asked how much I had been paid. “Fifty dollars. And this contributor’s copy. It’s an honor to be published. Hundreds of other writers were rejected,” I started to say, but then I trailed off, demoralized and ashamed. I was sure that my father, who worked seven days a week, would not understand how a person could work on creating something for dozens of hours over several months for such meager rewards. He probably thought I was foolish for working myself ragged at several part-time jobs in order to support my writing time. And what did I have to show for all this effort?
However, I am not at all discouraged from failing at making yogurt. The failure doesn’t stop me from trying. I contemplate what went wrong and feel excited to try again. I know that each failure will teach me how to succeed.
I’m embarrassed by how hard I’ve fallen in love with yogurt making, but it’s so satisfying to transform milk into yogurt. I have something to show from my creative act and I can share it with loved ones. And people love my yogurt. I shyly give them a container and downplay how good it is. “Try it if you feel like it, no pressure,” I say, fully aware that it will blow their mind. After eating it, they call or message me with lots of exclamation points and smiley emojis. They tell me that it is the best yogurt they have had in their life. They encourage me to scale up and sell it at the farmer’s market. For a moment, I dream about this possibility. Could I really do it? I fantasize about the design of my yogurt containers and the faces of happy customers.
It isn’t until my niece asks me why I am always talking about yogurt that I realize how important it has become to me. An obsession, but also a distraction. A way to avoid talking about what happened to me one morning before brunch in an historical home in Malate. The taxi dropped me off on the corner beside a blue wheelbarrow, which was full of garbage and covered with a piece of cardboard. As the taxi drove away, I noticed empty the street was on a Sunday morning and then I turned my head to the wheelbarrow and spotted the bare legs of child sticking out from under the cardboard. My knees loosened and I grasped my friend’s arm because I was going down. Even though I hadn’t smelled decomposition, I was sure that child was rotting in the heat. But no, it was not as bad as all that. The child’s mother was asleep just behind the wheelbarrow, on her own piece of cardboard, with two other small children and a baby beside her. I felt ashamed of every complaint I had uttered in the country, and every privilege I possessed and would continue to enjoy. How could children be dead asleep on a sidewalk at high noon? What had they done the night before?
On another videochat session with my niece, I talk about yogurt because I am still shaken by the girls I had met at the orphanage in Marikina. Girls who looked like my nieces. When they sat down to draw with the paper and crayons I gave them, all of them drew pictures of fathers, mothers, and children holding hands — a family. A girl I spoke with was left for dead as an infant and found under a bush with the ants already doing their work. I met another shy, slight girl who everyone thought was 13, but turned out to be 17 once her paperwork caught up with her. As a little girl, she survived for five years among the headstones, eating the beautifully laid out oranges and pastries that mourners left as sustenance for their dead. She slipped between the iron bars of crypts when it was typhoon season, and sometimes she slept in the cool dirt of a newly dug grave when it was hot. The orphanage tried to find her a family to join, but now, she was only a few months away from being a legal adult.
I could not describe to my niece the expression on the girl’s face as the orphanage director introduced her to me, retelling her story. Her face fell the way my knees did when I was standing beside the wheelbarrow.
“Never mind,” the director said. He patted the girl on the head. “You will always have a home with us.” He turned to me. “She is training to be a caretaker for the younger children here.” Perhaps it would have been better if her paperwork stayed lost, but life is unpredictable and full of children who cannot catch a break.
I talk about yogurt because I do not want my niece to know what it means to be unlucky and unprotected. My niece, almost twelve, is about the same size as the girl who lived in the cemetery, and the countless other girls I see night and day, at traffic lights, under bridges, on sidewalks, and amidst the informal settlements. I see girls who are more fortunate than those on the streets, serving employers as nannies and housekeepers. At least they are inside a house. If those girls were in school, they would be only a few grades higher than my niece.
I don’t want to tell my niece about the white men strolling through the malls with their Filipina girlfriends, decades apart in age. These men are suddenly peso wealthy and far from home in Australia, Europe, and the U.S., where they would be overlooked. They strut in their sweaty tank tops full of self-importance, at their elbow, a young Filipina teetering in heels. In order to dissipate my rage, I lie to myself that these men will buy the women’s parents a house and pay tuition bills for their siblings, even their distant cousins, to become nurses and engineers.
But my niece doesn’t need me to shield her from the unfairness of life. She knows this already. At two, she had cancer and gave up an eye. She knows that life isn’t fair on a level that I don’t. Already, she has had friends die of the same cancer that she survived. She has friends that will be in treatment for the rest of their lives, and however long those lives are, no one can predict.
She pays attention. She knows the names — Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and, from the town we grew up in, DJ Henry. She hears new names that seem to come up every week. She has connected what happened to those men to the possibilities of what could happen to the men of color in her life. But of course, she doesn’t think of them as “men of color.” These are the men in her life who matter, her father, brother, grandfathers, cousins, and uncles.
I wish I could offer a better society for her to live in. I try to be a good role model, but I fall short daily. I can’t decide if it’s good for her to see me laboring over writing when my hourly wage for a piece of writing does not break a dollar. I think writers should be paid much, much more, but at this point, not many of us are. Equating the value of my writing labor with how much I am compensated will only silence me. There are not enough voices out there from women who look like me and have my circumstances. I know this sounds pretentious and self-important, but I write for the next generation, in particular for my nieces and nephews, in the hopes that some of what I do will open up space, hopefully wider than one book spine, for them in our culture. Many writers, in particular writers of color, have done this for me and I am grateful to them for saving my life.
There are so many ways, personal and global, that life can break your heart. I don’t want to burden my niece with what makes me sad about being “home” in the Philippines. I talk to my niece about yogurt because I want her to believe in wonder and magic, how something invisible and alive can transform liquid into solid.