A vacation in my hometown and a realization of who I am, who I want to be

‘I had no idea ‘pasalubong’ was a thing. I felt so embarrassed.’ Photo: kjpangantihon.com

By Karen Joy Pangantihon

It felt like I traveled through three flights over 22 hours in the air, in the course of over 40 hours just to hug my mom and dad.

As soon I got off the last plane on the way to Cabadbaran, my mother’s hometown, in Agusan del Norte province I knew I couldn’t do this trip often, especially if it wasn’t going to be first class. I arrived sick, stiff, smelly, and fatter it seemed. I was in a car with my father driving from Butuan to Cabad. It was nice. Being in the car with my father driving was the meat of my childhood. As temperamental as he is, my faith in feeling safety under his care has not faltered. I missed that feeling.

As soon as I arrived in Las Pilipinas there’s one thing that aggressively hit me. It’s called “Pasalubong” which I understand to be a tradition and form of respect that involved bringing small gifts,  be it makeup, money, food, clothes, anything, for people in your family. And I mean whole family, including extended, and that rare person you met once when you were little and have no recollection of ever knowing them. I had no idea this was a thing. I felt embarrassed and so unprepared. I was angry that my parents didn’t tell me about this, being that this was one of my first times visiting them in the Philippines since they’ve moved from the States. I was responsible for being a considerate human being and respecting the culture and my family, but I wasn’t prepped.

There was a conversation after a party with my cousin Apple. My cousin who is the oldest of my generation of the Alaan clan, has always been like an older sister to myself and my other sister, Ate Mavis. She lived with my family and I in Miami for a bit in the ‘90s when she came from The Philippines. After all these years she’s been somewhat like a bridge between me and my parents because she spoke the language of both worlds and was acclimated with both cultures.

At a Rotary Club of Cabadbaran induction with parents Demosthenes and Alicia Pangantihon. Her father is club president.

Believe it or not, there are still barriers that make me feel so far away from my parents culturally, and the older I get the more I am realizing what they are. We were on the couch in the sala after everyone was asleep and all of a sudden she drew me into this very deep, intense conversation. She basically gave me a harsh reality check and reminded me that everyone is getting older. Suddenly I was releasing a flood of emotions and tears to clean off all the sweat and dirt off my face.

“Do you have money to fly back to the Philippines on a moment’s notice if anything happens?” “Do you have money for a funeral?” “What’s going to happen to this house and who is going to take care of it years from now when your parents are no longer here?” “Do you know if your parents want to be cremated or buried?” I sat there and just cried, listened. Relieved and anxious.

On top of that, my other cousin, who identifies as a Christian Libertarian, and I had a very long heart-to-heart another night. Our heart-to-heart included the state of the country, the world, an escape plan, a plan of action, civil war, nuclear war, the idea that if we do not have children we have no legacy to carry on, my argument that at this point my offering to the world would be those that come from my creative endeavors, and why all these things lead to who we choose as a partner in life. In fact, I found myself having to defend not only my weight,  my size 6, but also my lifestyle which in my eyes seems to be something to be proud of.

The author with Lola Pauling in her home on Alaan Street. She passed away in January 2021, a little more than year after her visit to Cabadbaran.

I’m a young, independent woman living in New York City that works extremely hard to survive on my own while pursuing a career as a multi-disciplinary creative artist and performer.

I am pursuing to have romantic relationships that reflect partnership, respect, and love. God forbid I wait to marry for love, and really believe I can take care of myself.

How dare others make me feel like I’m not living correctly? Mind you, if I put my two cents in about how I feel the way others’ lead their lives being problematic, I’m being aggressive or insensitive. Anyway, being in the Philippines with all its beauty, reality checks, and deep conversations made me think about my lifestyle and the life I was leading.

It was my intention to spend as much quality time with parents and family because when you fear that you may count the times you have left to see your parents, you see the value in the time you have with them. I’ve witnessed breathtaking views, but some of the most precious memories of this trip was the stuff unworthy of your average basic Instagram traveler —  learning to make a mango desert with my mom and Auntie Listine, taking a nap with my parents in Cebu, hearing my father deliver his speech as president of the Rotary Club, and my mother and cousins helping me tape an audition to send to L.A.

I’ve come back from Las Pilipinas realizing how tiresome it is to explain how my “vacation” was. I can’t casually talk about it because it wasn’t a vacation really, it was the death of so many ways of thinking, being, and existing. Realizing the evolution of the roles we play in family means you’re ready to usher in the change you need to become an adult. I wasn’t just a cousin, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, an Apo, or Ate, anymore, I was given more responsibility, and I’m okay with that, because that’s who I want to be.

Karen Joy Pangantihon is an Equity actress, singer, dancer, born and raised in Miami, but is currently based in New York City. She is a co-founder, and co-host of the podcast “Cinema Therapy” and has published a collection of poetry “Bright Young Woman.” This essay originally appeared on her blog http://kjpangantihon.com/ and is being republished by The FilAm with permission.

NaFFAA continues to update its list of newly elected, re-elected Filipino American officials in 2020. Email info@naffaa.org for information.


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