The Correct Way to Wash Dishes

Saving Souls from Satan in Sanhattan

My mom and dad’s maid in Santiago was indigenous. Her name was Amable—Spanish for friendly. Her journey across town—from the poor end of Santiago to the ritzy Las Condes (which literally means “The Dukes”), where my parents lived—took well over an hour via public transit and she made it five days a week, worked eight hour shifts a day. She had children of her own around my same age. She cooked up the fiercest pastel de choclo I have ever tasted. While I grew up eating institutional slop off a tray in a residential cafeteria, my parents had their own private chef.

My mom told Amable what to do and how to do it. There was so much Amable didn’t know, my mom said, and God had placed her there so she could be taught. My mom considered it virtuous to help those who had been born less fortunate than she. For instance, my mom told me, Amable didn’t even know how to wash dishes, can you believe that? No, she ran the water. She did not put a plug in the sink, like we civilized British people do. She ran the water constantly, not even understanding that that was the wrong way to do it.

The “call” my dad claimed to have heard, directly from God, was very specific in its instructions: to reach the unsaved of Las Condes—one of the whitest and most affluent neighbourhoods in all of South America (Chileans refer to Santiago as “Sanhattan” a portmanteau of Santiago and Manhattan, in recognition of its towering skyscrapers and disproportionate wealth). My mom, who was often left to try and explain my dad’s policies, had decided to say that reaching the rich was the best way of reaching the poor. The poor, she explained to me, look to their social betters as role models. Once the rich become Christian then, it follows according to natural law, that the lesser social classes will soon begin seeking out Christianity in order to emulate their noble bosses. I think it is fair to say that sociological rigour—any sense of anthropological sensitivity—is not often found in the toolkit of your standard issue evangelical missionary.

A few years after my mom died, and a few years before he himself died, my father again announced that he had heard “God’s call.” This time he left his second wife on Vancouver Island and moved to Churchill, Manitoba. Let me check the math on this shit on google maps, just a sec: yes, just a short six-day train-ride away. You can neither drive nor fly in. He lived there for two years—alone. I believe this was the only time he ever lived alone in his entire life. He liked to do extreme things and then, when pressed, say it was Jesus made him do it.

To my dad’s credit, everyone he encountered during these two years was First Nations. My dad had more personal interactions with First Nations communities during this period than most Canadians ever will in a lifetime. On the other hand, nothing in Churchill budged him an inch. His major takeaway from two years of seal hunting for God in one of the most remote communities in the world, was that you should never get your teeth fixed by an “Indian Dentist.” When I told him that saying such things was not only unquestionably racist but offensive as well, he shook his head and snickered. He asked me who’d just been sliding around on Ski-Doos, hunting seals with honest-to-God Inuit—me or him? He was just repeating what was commonly known First Nations’ fact: first nation’s people cannot become efficient dentists. Only bleeding-heart white people were naïve enough not to know how it really was.

It is true that my mom and dad travelled all over the world with good intentions. It is also true that when people say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions that they are talking about people like my parents. By meddling repeatedly in the lives of people, and the culture of places, they believed to be less than their own, they left behind a legacy far less salubrious than they ever acknowledged to themselves. “White is right” wasn’t quite my mom’s cri de couer but it might as well have been, and just as a general rule, when you believe you have a God-given obligation to travel to another country, and tell the locals the correct way to clean your dishes, something somewhere has gone wrong.