Washing up liquid

On Monday night last week, I found myself and my parents fussing over curious new products at a grocery store.

A sign hanging from the ceiling on the aisle declared, “Introducing Waitrose, multi-awarded British brand.” Strategically located at an aisle’s end near the sign were the products being introduced. And they were funny because we couldn’t quite figure out what they were for. It was easy to assume they were liquid hand soaps: attractively colored liquids stored in clear, elegant plastic bottles, and simply labeled ‘Washing up liquid’. I would have assumed so if I hadn’t inspected the fine print at the back of the product, instructing users to avoid prolonged skin contact with the liquid.

My best guess is that it’s a general bathroom cleaning product, the kind that cleans tiles and toilets. That’s what the faint image of a bathroom brush on the label seems to suggest anyway. I don’t know about you, but ‘washing up liquid’ is a vague name, especially when you’re not going to put any instructions or indicator of intended use on the packaging. Washing up sounds like paghihilamos to me, washing one’s face, and suggests nothing about cleaning bathrooms. I do hope that no one would attempt to wash his or her face with a liquid that’s strong enough to clean toilets. British English is a bit over-idiomatic for a society that’s been exposed to American culture for far too long, and this product’s name is consequently confusing. Too bad for a colourful product formulated to reduce odours.

This encounter reminded me of the odd manners in which cultural differences can manifest themselves in everyday affairs. I’m not saying that such experiences of differences are inherently harmful; in fact they can add variety to our daily activities. But there is something with the circumstances of this specific experience: the grocery where I found the Waitrose products is part of a high-end supermarket chain, and the branch I visited is situated in a relatively upscale district of the city known for its upper-class subdivisions and schools. The introductory ad for the imported products distinctly characterizes them as “British”, appealing to the consumers’ sense that, perhaps, anything that’s British has inherent qualities that make them superior to competing products.

I’m cutting this short to respectfully leave the rest to your intelligent imagination. Think of it as if you’re figuring out colored liquids stored in deceptively-labeled plastic bottles.

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