A Romantic Pandemic: Ingredients and Hygiene Theater

In the early days of the COVID pandemic in February 2020, I relearned to how and when to wash my hands. Not that I never washed my hands before, but certainly not as thoroughly and as often as I should. And not while singing the “Alphabet song” in my head, which I did while washing them until I was well-practiced in intuitively sensing the 20-second recommended interval. There was no shortage of hand sanitizing advice available at the time, even as soap and hand sanitizer became impossible to find in stores and online due to hoarding. (I learned to make my own!). Something as mundane as handwashing and using hand-sanitizer became wrapped up in a whole number of hygiene rituals that I followed, not knowing what else I should be doing at the time. Social Media, as always, was having fun with it, with PSAs and Tiktok dances. But it didn’t take long for the savvy American punditry to weigh in and label it all “Hygiene Theater”, starting a debate on hygiene that continued on for the next 18 months and isn’t over yet. It did not take long for handwashing to weave its way into Boys’ Love, through the web series, Ingredients: a romantic sitcom about two roommates who fall in love while washing their hands.

Before the phrase “Hygiene Theater” was coined in July 2020, Quang Đăng blessed us with handwashing dance theater.

Ingredients is a web series that debuted April 20, 2020 on CentralFood TV’s YouTube channel and ran for 21 episodes. It tells the story of Mawin (Worakamon “Jeff” Satur), an aspiring musician, and Tops (Garnapaphon “Gameplay” Laolerkiat), a culinary arts student, who are living together during COVID. While the overall arc is about how they bond and fall in love, the series is generally episodic. Each week presents a new problem that is resolved by the end, usually by Tops preparing a meal.  For example, in episode 1, Mawin is upset that venues have cancelled his gigs. Tops responds by making him a snack of ganache and M&Ms.  In another episode, the young men find a stray cat, and Tops whips up some food for it to eat while they find its owner.

Worakamon “Jeff” Satur and Garnapaphon “Gameplay” Laolerkiat, the stars of Ingredients. Like their characters in the series, in real life, Jeff is an up-and-coming pop singer and Gameplay is a trained chef.

That so much emphasis is placed on solving problems with groceries is not an accident. Sponsor Central Food refers to the Tops Supermarket located in the Central Food Hall of Bangkok’s Central World Mall. It’s a store that I’ve become familiar with over the past two years as Jeff and Gameplay have taken viewers on several tours as part of the store’s “Unbag/Unstore” marketing campaign. Here they are, visiting the store on Halloween. It’s an upscale grocer that could be five blocks from my own house in the United States. Lots of imported western and Japanese food and well-stocked fresh produce and meats. Its where I’d go if I were an expatriate living in Bangkok and needed to find Cambozola cheese. Ingredients was a content marketing campaign to reinforce the corporate message of “Stay Strong and Healthy Together” and “Live a Healthy Life.”

Tops the Market used the series to promote the idea that the way through the pandemic is through healthy living, showing kindness, and caring for each other: Make a meal for a neighbor with a broken arm. Help a stray cat find its owner. Babysit for a relative who has been called away unexpectedly. Reconcile with your mother. Visit someone in the hospital. Coax your roommate into eating more vegetables. Give your friend some chocolate. These are all good deeds that I can hardly fault, especially the last one.

And they wash their hands in Ingredients…a lot. Tops the Market wants to own “cleanliness” as part of its value proposition and they aren’t subtle about it. In almost every episode, someone is shown washing their hands, modeling the good behavior for the time. Handwashing becomes a part of the narrative of caring and love. The context of the handwashing changes over time as the characters get to know and understand each other better. The video of handwashing excerpts that I’ve strung together highlights a few those changes over time.

Ingredients’ handwashing to love cycle. Link to series.

At the beginning of the series, Tops needs to remind Mawin to practice hand hygiene, which he does reluctantly. Tops is not afraid to scold Win about it. As the series progresses, Mawin starts doing it on his own. Finally, he comes to realize that that constant correction was just Tops’ way of looking out for him. The video might give the impression that Tops is more overbearing than he is in the series. He’s mild-mannered and seems to be unaware that he’s caring for Mawin’s health because he loves him. These two characters settle in and become a “couple” long before they realize that they are a couple. Handwashing is ritual they’ve come to share that they’ll miss if they were to part.

As an adult I realize that there is not grocery store that’s going to solve life’s problems and its easy to dismiss this series as corporate-sponsored drivel.  The world where we used COVID as a time to be kind and improve ourselves is ideal, but also a bit removed from the consequences of the pandemic. No one in this series has a job that I can identify, yet they live in a nice town house and can still shop and what’s probably a very expensive grocery store. A store that is notably never out of toilet paper or soap. That doesn’t mean that Ingredients is a bad series. In fact, I found it calming to check in with Mawin and Tops each week to see how they were getting along. The hand sanitizer seemed to flow freely, without someone piping in to claim that “hand sanitizer doesn’t work” or “its all just theater” or “out of stock.”

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