Monday, January 5, 2015

Pasalubong, pabaon, utang na loob, and Marcel Mauss' notion of gift exchange

by Gideon Lasco, MD

I was in Russia with a group of Filipinos last month and on our last full day in Moscow, we devoted a big amount of time visiting the Izmailovsky Market, touted by tourist brochures as a ‘souvenir paradise’. As soon as we arrived, my friends lost no time in buying Matryoshka dolls of all sorts of styles and sizes. The ones who bought the most number are those who worked in big companies or government institutions. “Syempre pagdating mo hahanap ka nila ng kahit ano, maski keychain!” (“Of course when you get back, they’ll look for something from you, even just a keychain!”) Another companion, realizing that what she had just bought for her mother was just the price of a mineral water bottle in Moscow, said: “Nakakahiya naman, eto lang ang iuuwi ko!” (“This is so embarrassing, [if] this is all I’ll bring home!”) and she proceeded to buy a more expensive one.

We Filipinos have all sorts of gift-giving opportunities (or responsibilities). The one I described in the above illustration is the institution of pasalubong: a traveller is expected to bring back souvenirs for his family and friends. Through repetition and diffusion of ideas, the pasalubong becomes ‘ritualized’ and ‘standardized’ for particular places: for Davao, durian candy; for Baguio, a walis tambo (broom) or else peanut brittle, and for those coming abroad, chocolates, keychains, canned goods. Whenever my father goes on foreign trips, we as children were always entitled to ask for one pasalubong each.

Another institution is the pabaon, in which a visitor is given gifts in the places he visits. Whenever I visit my relatives in Negros Occidental, they would make sure that I have a box full of local delicacies to take home with me. Knowing their propensity for pabaon, I have to be careful in mentioning things that I wish to buy, or even things that I admired in their house, because they will be sure to buy it themselves - or give it to me.

Marcel Mauss in his classic The Gift says that gifts are “in theory voluntary but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation” (1990:1); attached to them are obligations both on the part of the giver and recipient, encouraging reciprocity, fostering solidarity and strengthening social ties. Gifts speak of the giver’s generosity, prestige, and wealth, and the recipient’s ability to match the giver’s good virtues.

Our gift-giving institutions can be used to support Mauss’ theory, and I can say this from an emic perspective. For the traveller who comes home, the pasalubong he brings back serves a way to attach value to particular people he missed during his time away from home. The pabaon and pasalubong becomes a vessels through which social relations can travel, and geographic and social distances are bridged.

When important favors are requested and given, another important concept comes up: that of utang na loob. Often translated as ‘debt of gratitude’, this value suggests that there are particular favours rendered that cannot be quantified or repaid in monetary terms. The only way to ‘repay’ it is to return the favour when an opportunity arises. A doctor who offers free medical consultation to a lawyer can expect free legal advice in the future. One cannot find a more Maussian example of gif exchange in the Philippines than the concept of utang na loob.

Gift-giving traditions, however, can be dysfunctional, too. I have relatives in the United States who said that the ‘enormous cost’ is hindering them from coming home to the Philippines. “But the airfares are not expensive anymore!” I countered, only to hear an interesting rebuttal: “It’s not the airfare that’s expensive, it’s having to buy pasalubongs for everyone!” Here, we see how an institution that is supposed to mediate social relations instead becomes a hindrance for them.

Then there are the gift exchanges during the Christmas season: they  are so institutionalized that it sometimes become routine and meaningless, as when picture frames and cheap wines accumulate during Christmas season. I am even hearing a new term, ‘regift’, which happens when a person who receives a gift passes it on to another person as his own gift. The spirit of gift-giving is gone; it is seen as an obligation, which people seek to fulfil as easily as cheaply as possible.

Then, of course, there is utang na loob, which enacts an allegiance on the part of the recipient to the giver, can get in the way of other allegiances, including professional ones; when utang na loob is invoked to override even national laws, it gets in the way of national progress. Dominating today are headlines about Janet Napoles, the businesswoman who is alleged to have institutionizeed corruption in the upper echelons of government. Anecdotes about a senator being given a 65,000-peso Mont Blanc pen as a ‘gift’ raise the question of ethical conduct, because of the expectation of reciprocity implicit in such an act. In fact, in other countries there are laws that criminalize politicians’ receiving of gifts – or failure to declare the like - to avoid exactly that. But how can one draw a line between the personal and professional? When students give gifts to their teachers; when employees give gifts to their employers; and when a private citizen gives pabaon to the assessor who just visited his own house to calculate property taxes, we see how institutions can be both functional and dysfunctional in our everyday lives.

Gifts, meanwhile, remain a powerful institution, a valuable currency and medium of social interactions in the Philippines.

September 2012


Mauss, M. (1990). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. WD Halls. New York and London: WW Norton.

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