{a meditation on toilet paper}

In this time of confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety, we might end up reflecting on our own lives and how we carried out our business before this all happened. I will cut to the chase by sharing my own meditation, after a week of transitioning into a social distancing lifestyle (if I should start calling that, given the bleakness of time that will pass, as this pandemic persists)…

[Not sure if I should include a NSFW tag here, but I will mention bathroom business below the jump. The title should have given that away~]

I grew up in a household that was accustomed to stocking up on supplies because, in the words of my father who likes to prepare for any type of disaster, “you never know.” I had never questioned this line of thinking where we needed to have more paper goods, more cans of food, bigger quantities of a certain food item, and the persistent checking for expiration dates so that we will not end up wasting food, “make sure you eat that!” in parental tones that still echo in my mind, even when I go food shopping by my-adult-self.

The practice of stockpiling ended when my father passed away in December last year. For most of 2019, we did have to buy more essentials because of the demands in caregiving, where we were limited in leaving the house for long periods of time, as someone needed to be with my dad during his illness. But there was always the risk of going out for an hour to replenish supplies or run errands, unsure of how my dad would handle being alone by himself… (This is still a hard subject for me to even talk about, but I want to illustrate a point here that will be relevant. But for those who are wondering, we could not find any help that would have alleviated these issues my family faced, at the time, so please save any judgments you may have. One day I will be able to talk about this without feeling some sort of anxiety rising up in my chest… Anyway.)

As the year came to a close, and it became a two-person household, we slowly switched over to a “buy when supply is low” routine. Two rolls of toilet paper? One pack of baby wipes? No more tissue boxes? Let’s head to the closest store for some… maybe tomorrow, na lang. It’s already too late to go out.

Those sound like much simpler times, and that was just in the past two months before the outbreak reached the United States.

Last week was when my mother and I discussed the toilet paper. Our big pack of 18 rolls lasted us for… I don’t even remember when we bought the pack, but it had lasted us for a good length of time before we even thought of stockpiling beforehand. We were down to 5 rolls by the time we heard the news of several cases of COVID-19 in our county.

When my mom ran morning errands by herself last Thursday and Friday, she could not find any toilet paper at the usual stores we would go to for the supply! So I took it upon myself to go check out the places that most people would not think to look. Mom was already tired of looking, so she let me go out on my own.

I decided to check the “healthy/organic food markets”.

The first one I went to was in a shopping plaza where my mom and I would frequently go to, but for the other stores in the plaza. This market was next to a bookstore I would go to sometimes, if I did not feel like driving all the way to the one in the mall, further down the highway. I was always intrigued by what it looked like inside, every time I walked by from the bookstore. But this quest for toilet paper became the first time I stepped foot into that market.

Inside it was like a mini street market that one could imagine to exist somewhere in Europe. The cramped, narrow aisles that had a facade reminiscent of the streets of Italy–at least the picturesque facades in old films set in Italy. The market was considerably small, but it had its charm, from the displays to the brands of items they sold. I tried to find the aisle where one would find toilet paper, but did not try to inquire with any worker. It might have been due to a mix of shame and shyness, because I did not want anyone to know that I was desperately looking for rolls or that I was seeking help at all.

I ventured into one section that had a strict rule of purchasing items at the cashier within that section; nothing could be brought out from beyond the point of that section without paying for it first. I thought that maybe that included toilet paper and other goods that were being sold out in other places. (Turned out I was wrong. No paper goods were kept in that section, but I did end up buying a small bottle of hand soap (to be kept in my backpack, just in case public restrooms had no soap) and a small bottle of castille soap (mainly because it had an illustration of a wolf on the label that caught my eye).)

After purchasing those two items from within that section of the market, I browsed through the other aisles for the thing I was secretly looking for… and there it was! The aisle that sold household items, and it was the nearly empty shelves that caught my attention–that must be where the toilet paper was!

Luckily I found a few packs, three different brands, all made from bamboo and sugar cane (according to the labels). Each pack had 4 rolls, ranging from $3-5 per pack. There were also packaged single rolls for about $2 each. I ended up buying the most expensive brand that sold for $5 for each pack of 4 rolls (~$15 for 3 packs). I also bought one pack of another brand that sold for $4 a pack. (Total of 4 packs, or 16 rolls, for about $20 with change.) It was better than nothing. At least I left the other packs and rolls for others that will need them, and were probably more cost-friendly.

With a small feeling of accomplishment, I drove to the next “healthy/organic food marker” that I knew of, in a different town. It was a stand-alone market, in between a bank and another shopping plaza with a major pharmacy store (no doubt out of stock with toilet paper and hand sanitizer) and a gym (which for some reason was still open, during a pandemic). The parking lot was cramped, mainly because of the layout, but I managed as best as I could handle it. All in the name of toilet paper.

I may have been to this other store twice in my life. It did not have much of an impression on me that would make me want to come back for a certain item sold only in that store. All I can remember about this market was that it was where I bought my first box of incense (nag champa) and two porcelain incense holders in the shapes of leaves (one pink, one brown), at the beginning of my New Age spirituality phase in 2016. But that was the only memory I had about this place.

To my luck and sad realization, I found and bought the very last pack of 4 rolls on the empty shelf, sold for $3. (Grand total: 20 rolls for ~$23 + tax.) I bought a few other grocery items, so I could at least pretend to have come in for other items on my “shopping list” besides toilet paper. In most likelihood, I would not come back to this store out of necessity; only in desperation of a thing that I could normally get somewhere else for a more reasonable price. Also, the parking layout is terrible.

I have seen online posts from Filipino-centered social media accounts about tabo.

To try to describe what tabo is to non-Filipinos is difficult for me because I never thought of having to explain it to anyone who has never used one or does not know the process… It is basically a pail with a handle on the side, used for washing yourself. It can be for bathing or for cleansing at the toilet, in place of toilet paper. And yes, you could say that it is a “foreign concept” because it is derived from the Philippines, taught to those of us by our families that grew up using tabo.

How do you use it? You can fill up the tabo with water from the faucet, or if possible (and maybe even economically efficient), in a much larger bucket filled with clean water. Then cleanse yourself with the water from the tabo. (See, this is actually difficult for me to explain because it’s sort of awkward to talk about how to wash yourself… But I hope you get the idea. I am sure someone else has better explanations on the Internet.)

Anyway, these Filipino-centered social media accounts joke about how we, as Filipinos, would not have a problem with toilet paper because we have our own method of cleaning ourselves that would not require using paper goods. To those who may not have grown up with tabo might be bewildered by this! I understand. And you might even be more bewildered by what I will tell you:

I, a Filipino American who was born and raised here in the U.S., have actually rarely used tabo. I am a toilet paper/baby wipe/postpartum cleansing bottle user. (Thanks to Mom, R.N. for the supply of postpartum cleansing bottles throughout the years.)

In this strange meditation on toilet paper, I wondered about the metric of Filipinoness of whether or not I use tabo to clean myself. I thought about how this should be the time I learn how to use the tabo, in the case of not being able to buy any more toilet paper in the near future. But I also thought of why I never tried to use tabo prior to these events.

Maybe I had associated tabo with being a small child that needed to be bathed or cleaned by an adult (my parents), who would use the tabo but never taught me how to use it for myself. The only exceptions of when I used the tabo for myself was when I traveled to the Philippines, where most of the bathrooms in our lodgings had the tabo and large bucket in the shower. Out of necessity and of adapting to the culture, I used tabo for bathing and cleansing myself in the bathroom. (For those who are curious: yes, toilet paper exists in the Philippines; please dispel your disbeliefs.) But here in the States, I switched over to the “American” way of bathroom business that requires wet wipes and toilet paper. (To my unsolicited knowledge, I learned that some people may not be thoroughly cleaning themselves… Sayang!)

Needless to say, tabo and toilet paper go hand-in-hand (maybe not so literally). The important thing we need to remember, in this strange time, is our need to practice good hygiene. Hoarding all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer will not compensate for poor hygienic practices. Wash your hands with warm soap and water. Using warm water for bathing and cleansing with the tabo is highly recommended (it also feels nice). And hopefully that toilet paper supply is being used effectively and not just by itself, when cleaning oneself, regardless of how environmentally friendly or ethically made it is. We all need to ensure that we are cleaning ourselves for the public good.


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