Lessons from a householdHow a 30-year-old, trying to make herself a career in Paris, embraced what she had long refused to acquaint herself with: cooking.
There are some bizarre things that would make sense in an upside-down world.
Only up until three years ago, neither me nor anyone who knows me could have imagined me in a kitchen, cooking up a storm, single-handedly chopping, grinding and cooking 20 portions of a Newari khaja set in a restaurant in Stalingrad, a shady neighbourhood in Paris—the kind whose photos you won't be seeing on an Instagrammer's feed with the hashtag #parisisalwaysagoodidea. This is not unlike other immigrant stories. After all, don't millions of international students find themselves in similar positions when they move abroad?
Although as a mid-career woman in her 30s pursuing a job in Paris's relentlessly competitive fashion industry, it could be seen as something of a rock-bottom situation. In the post-Covid economy though, it is definitely not the worst-case scenario. And as someone who loves stories, I do appreciate a good ol' plot-twist.
On landing this brief cooking gig, my first reaction was panic. Since I came to Paris almost three years ago, my first step out of my homeland and my cushy nest in Kathmandu, I had learned to be a responsible adult and cook fairly well for myself. But a restaurant was a high-speed, high-pressure environment involving quick thinking, fast reflexes and, well, cooking for more than two people. Also, despite being a bona-fide Newa:ni, I had never actually put together an entire set all by myself before.
All my life, I had studiously avoided learning how to cook properly, which is why I consider the present situation as God's special joke on me. As a girl from a society where a woman's role in the kitchen was deeply embedded, this was exceedingly rare, but as a Kathmandu kid, I suppose it was not that uncommon either. But my stubborn refusal to acquaint myself too intimately with cooking, cleaning, laundry or any domestic chores had more to do with the fact that as a girl, it was simply expected of me.
I grew up in a conservative Newar joint family with aunts, uncles and the whole brood. The men worked while the women ran the household. As the youngest of all the girls, I saw my older girl cousins routinely help their moms with household chores after school and homework, assisting with everything from laundry to kitchen work. My family was the size of a mini hostel, and in our household of 16 people, the work just never seemed to end.
Somewhere along my formative years, I registered that these never-ending, seemingly boring tasks were somehow uniquely allotted to the females in my family, so I dedicated my life to running away from said tasks. Long before I knew big English words like 'feminism' and 'gender roles', the snotty-nosed brat that I was observed this to be a deal that I did not want to be part of.
But like every other Nepali girl, I was also told to get used to it, mostly by nosy but well-meaning aunties, that this would be my inevitable fate when I would eventually get married into a nice Newar family and be a respectable daughter-in-law. Their complete confidence in my future worried me, therefore I decided to alter some of the variables leading up to the said fate. A nerdy kid and an introverted, bookish teenager, I was never outgoing or adventurous enough for wild bad girl pursuits, neither was I brave enough to stay past my allotted curfew time. Thus shunning anything labeled “domestic chores” became my secret act of rebellion, not realising what a sloppy adult I would make in the process.
But I also happen to a pure-bred member of the Newar clan, who proudly embraced their centuries-old lineage of elaborate feasts celebrating their gods, goddesses and rites of passage. No kid or adult could escape being dragged into helping out in the dizzying array of bhweys some half a dozen times a year, albeit kicking and screaming.
Hosting anything from 20 to 100 people, these feasts were remarkable feats of organisational excellence and project management. On a difficulty scale, a small nakhtya gathering would be at a Beginner-level, and hosting a guthi bhwey, with two-four days of food-coma inducing feasting, would be Expert-level stuff. Weddings would be Pro-level marathons that one would normally hire professionals for. My mom and aunts, all housewives with no experience in the hospitality or catering businesses, planned everything with military precision weeks in advance. They planned varied multi-course menus, with options for vegetarians. They booked the kitchen help ahead of time to avoid scheduling conflicts and barked orders at the dads and uncles to send them shopping with detailed grocery lists. They dedicated sections of the house for the prepping and cooking activities and arranged for extra stoves and bigger utensils for the massive quantities that would be cooking in there, and they also scheduled a clean-up crew to deal with the aftermath the next day, which would include a mountainous landscape of dirty dishes.
The kitchen help were assigned items to cook based on their areas of expertise. The younger kids would be put to task on something monotonous requiring a low level of skill, like peeling potatoes or hard-boiled eggs. The older ones would typically be trusted with something slightly more advanced, like chopping carrots or occasionally stirring the pot. The boys would be made to run errands (for a boys' place is not in the kitchen. Also, they get in the way with their clumsiness, according to one of my aunts.)
Sitting cross-legged among my pile of egg peels (I was among the lesser-skilled minions), I would sulkily watch the flurry of activities and be resentful about slaving away in the kitchen so that the Newars could celebrate with a sickening amount of food and people. I would also be resentful of the fact that the men in the family were drinking and talking about important-sounding topics like land, property and politics, while I was stuck in the kitchen listening to a conversation about chickens and eggs.
Those important-sounding topics wouldn't have saved me today. All those years in the kitchen, listening to scarily organised housewives, I realised I have picked up on valuable life skills applicable to any part of life, at home or at work. These were my earliest examples of teamwork, of collaborating with different temperaments under a high-pressure environment, of skill-based delegation of work, and of multi-tasking. Though a designer by profession, I have a strange fondness of spreadsheets and love how project management tasks tickle my brain.
I seem to have successfully escaped my fate for being a good domestically-inclined-yet-career-oriented buhari with 1.5 kids. But in my past few years abroad, I have, instead, embraced domestic chores as a necessary part of personal independence—one that everybody should take on, regardless of their gender. Personally responsible adults are simply easier to be around, whether they are your roommates, romantic partners or work colleagues. I am now a broke, unemployed woman in her 30's, but I am also celebrating my success as a personally-responsible adult who can manage her finances, cook a mean dinner for friends and keep my flat relatively tidy. Happiness has become all about the little wins, like managing to talk to a plumber in my limited french, or finding a brand of garbage bags that do not leak.
As I move automatically between marinating haku-chwelas to the wo:s sizzling on the pan, the homey smells of mustard seed oil comforting me in this strange land, I realise that I need not have panicked at all. Cooking 20 portions? This was like ... beginner-level stuff.