At the checkout counter of the Chinese supermarket, there was a moment when we looked at each other, when you thought I had accidentally taken your box of kaša. In fact, it is curious that in a place like that, where people from all continents come, we were one behind the other buying buckwheat, the same brand, and the same box. So, once I got to my kitchen I turned it over in my hands, and thought of you. Because it was printed in an antiquated Cyrillic and, at the top, a church with yellow onion domes, and, above, a background of green flowering fields. Because along with the roasted grains it sold that good old world to migrants from the East, that world in the image of nostalgia that should have encompassed them all and, instead, has been reduced to heartbreak. Because the box was in Russian and you were Ukrainian, probably. At least it is easy for you to read the instructions, I told myself, and most of all it is easy for you to prepare your dinner in ten minutes. A pot, a plate, a piece of butter. Other thoughts, other priorities, other problems. To the distant family members, the war, work, daily fatigue, and, in the free hours, finding time to chat with the fellow country women and about other pleasant things. Then, I thought, who knows if you had been buying that brand for years and not, like me, for the first time. Nevertheless, after reading that buckwheat was produced in Ukraine, I put it away more gently.
I did not realise that you are also a market. Not too big because you save money, and on time too, but a niche worth covering. The German company that imports kaša in cooking bags, distributes it throughout Western Europe. There I see a sea of immigrant women dipping their bags into boiling water, women who do mostly care work, some legally, while some others illegally. Women who are indispensable in the Countries of arrival, they come and look after the elderly, the children, the sick, women who support the economy of the country of origin with their remittances. Global women, the title of a precious book defines you, because it teaches how much you have paid by slaving abroad - but those who pay also demand. You demand a better life for the children you have sent off to study, and you have shown your daughters in particular that they can do it. You have perhaps also brought back to your Country this desire for prosperity, freedom and democracy. Nevertheless, it is not easy, it is not painless. Be careful not to create major disruptions, do not question men’s role, and even though the money coming into the house is mainly yours, you make sure that no one forgets where you come from.
In the supermarket where we passed each other, they have sauces for the Filipinos, cassava for the Peruvians, Maghrebi spices, Romanian and Moldavian pickles, and packs of rice of every quality and size. After all, it is consumed from Asia to Africa to Latin America. The basmati rice can be found at a better price there than in the big chains, and also other products often bought by Italians; but in over twenty years I have rarely seen anyone there who did not have a foreign face.
Migrants are only visible when they represent something, whether that be an issue, an emergency, or a problem, but otherwise they stand to the side in public spaces. Women are less apt at representing the problem, which, portrayed as a violent threat, must be male, but when it really is, they are the first to suffer. Pakistani women sometimes stand in the square with their children, smiling cheerfully, in small groups, sometimes walking behind their husbands and only doing their shopping with them when they need to load it, some veiled up to their eyes. However, that excessive veiling feeds their hostility towards them, making them even more excluded, more invisible still. To some extent, you migrant women, representing if anything a reflex problem, are all of you, veiled or unveiled. When the war broke out, I heard a woman from the Italian ministry of culture say that she knew nothing about your country except what her Ukrainian caregiver had told her; but then she immediately gave her opinion on that horrendous tragedy. She did not even mention your compatriot’s name and I wondered why. I told myself that, for different reasons, the best of which was a sense of confidentiality, it was embarrassing to permit this foreign woman to leave her house. I had to make myself understand, it is not easy to get over old age, to accept a stranger into our home, or to need one at all. It is almost always women who take on a woman, who value her service, who cowers over everything they demand of the other in that place of things and affections, our home, the only realm where many of us feel sovereign, even today. The servant-mistress relationship is ambivalent by definition, but it is even more so with an immigrant woman. On the one hand, you want the stranger to be as familiar with your customs and traditions as possible, on the other, her being a foreigner fits the role of someone who cannot overlap with the actual family to whom she is in service. Moreover, you, with your children brought up by your parents, what do you do? When they are on another continent, you often do not get to see them for years. You may have degrees or other fine qualifications, but that you were a schoolteacher, surveyor, engineer here counts for nothing. Sometimes you are hardened by the hard work and life in a foreign country, or perhaps you were already like that, already through gritted teeth, before you left. Sometimes, however, you are “very good” and that adjective sums up everything you do. At thise times, it is truly amazing how much patience, cheerfulness, and attention you manage to find, how much ancient wisdom and honed experience of caring, how much weight you are able to bear by supporting even those you are paid by. You often bring to others love that you can only bring to your own via video calls and money transfers, and this would be priceless if it were not the only waste for which you do not feel obliged to account to anyone.
by HELENA JANECZEK