Wednesday, 12 July 2017

What the Philippines can teach us about giving

Pasalubong is more than simply a souvenir or gift, with layers of meaning and ritual behind the word.
As the daughter of a mother who worked overseas, I always looked forward to receiving pasalubong from Mama when we were kids. It came every few months in the form of balikbayan (return [to] country) boxes filled with chocolates, canned goods, toiletries, cosmetics, clothes, shoes and anything else that couldn't be bought or found in the Philippines. These handpicked items were carefully packed by my mother, sent in the hopes of filling the void left by a parent abroad. The Filipino word pasalubong has its roots in the word salubong, which means meet or welcome. When prefixed by pa, the act of salubong turns into an object relating to it – to meet, to welcome. Pasalubong, therefore, is a souvenir – a gift given to someone.
The precise beginnings of the pasalubong ritual are difficult to identify. Dr Nestor Castro, anthropology professor at the University of the Philippines, believes pasalubong is a pre-Hispanic practice, given that the term is indigenous to the Filipino language and that early Philippine communities engaged in long-distance trade.Fellow anthropology professor at the University of the Philippines, Dr Michael Tan, agrees, writing, "I suspect it referred to a time when travel was difficult, making the return more emotion-laden. The more distant and the more difficult the place one went to, as in the case of many of our overseas Filipinos, the more important it was to bring back something." But pasalubong is more than simply a souvenir or gift, with layers of meaning and ritual lying behind the word.
"Pasalubong is based on the principle of reciprocity – favour doing or gift giving," explained Dr Mary Racelis, research scientist at the Institute of Philippine Culture and professorial lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University. She explained that bringing back pasalubong for those left behind fulfils certain cultural concerns: reinforcing a friendship, honouring the recipient, sharing one's good fortune of being able to travel outside the community and promoting the idea that you were thinking of the recipient while you were away." And pasalubong is not limited to items brought home by foreign workers. It can be as simple as a box of doughnuts from parents after work, or regional delicacies from places you've travelled to. Pasalubong can be typical of the place where one is coming from, or items that the recipient couldn't normally afford. Whenever I travel, I always think about the pasalubong I can bring back home. I look for items that are inextricably linked to places I've been – peanut kisses from the central Philippines Bohol province; ube hopia (moon cake-like pastries filled with purple yam) from Puerto Princesa in Palawan; durian candies from the southern Philippines' Davao region; a batik sarong from Bali; Petronas Twin Towers shirts from Malaysia; Tim Tam biscuits from Australia; Choco-ade cookies from New Zealand.
I've also received pasalubong from family, friends and colleagues post-travel: espasol (rice cake cooked in coconut milk) from Laguna, a province south of Manila; sapin-sapin (multi-coloured sticky rice cake) from Malabon, a city north of Manila; bagnet (deep-fried crispy pork belly) from the northern Philippines' Ilocos region; dates from Saudi Arabia; a rosary from Jerusalem; and key chains and fridge magnets from almost every city and country possible. But pasalubong extends beyond Filipinos, with many foreigners adopting the custom when they hear about it. I've had co-workers from other countries bring pasalubong such as nougat and macarons from France and chocolates from Australia. As a gesture of goodwill, we make sure they take home Filipino trinkets like a small wooden carabao (Philippine water buffalo), capiz shell coasters or a tiny replica of a jeepney (a Philippine public transport vehicle that evolved from the American Jeep). When visiting their offices abroad, we come bearing dried mangoes, a favourite Filipino pasalubong.
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