Letters to LA: Family, Travel, and the Year 2014

Written January 2015

After 21 years, I finally made it to California.

Let me say this up front – Los Angeles, in all its self-imposed glory, is not my style. It was never meant to be, despite family and friends assuming my future in the city that houses many filmmakers and writers. The various aspects of its cultural identity have never intuitively been relatable like the qualities of my favorite cities, and there’s too much damn sun. all. the. time. It hurts to take LA down from its mainstream pedestal because its sights and people and weather gave me only me the best treatment throughout my stay.
But I’m always up for a new place and all of the adventures that accompany it, so I made the trip for the holidays with my parents, sister, and grandmother to visit relatives – some I saw earlier this year, most that I never met, and distant in some (literal) ways.
It was my first Christmas breaking tradition by traveling away from my aunts, uncles, and cousins in Chicago, and for the first time I understood those commercial sentiments about family stress and the holidays – since my Chicago family had always been moderately sized and relatively civil. So Christmas Eve was spent in my newly adopted room, away from our thirty or so relatives; Christmas Day included mass at a mostly Filipino church, followed by an even more crowded party filled with games and the Hawiian version of “12 Days of Christmas”. It was fun, but exhausting, and I realized that my general introversion stems from both parents after my mom admitted to running away from her large family as a child in the Philippines.
Once Christmas festivities ended, my parents, sister, and grandma flew back home while I was allowed to remain in order to explore numerous aspects of the city they didn’t have time or interest for. I assumed this exploration would be undertaken alone, which I didn’t mind as I usually do adventure by myself. However, staying with family meant offers for tours and such, and in the end I had one partner in crime in my main adventures, passenger side of my last-minute, red rental car, a car seven years older but coincidentally identical to my car at home. With that I learned to navigate the 405, the 110, most of the in-betweens, and especially the parking struggles of Los Angeles residents.
As far as sights go, I covered all the tourist necessities on a double-decker bus tour; was most inspired from the Warner Bros. Studios tour despite my aversion to big-budget filmmaking; took advantage of California winter weather at Redondo Beach and Santa Monica Pier and had a Thoreau moment while watching the sunset on Venice Beach; counted the Getty Museum’s architecture, views, and collections as a favorite; walked through major shopping streets such as Abbot Kinney and Melrose without going through the painstaking labor of actual shopping; fulfilled my 500 Days of Summer fanaticism by visiting Angels Point, Bradbury Building, and Grand Central Market in Downtown LA; racked up 12,000-13,000 steps between LACMA, MOCA, and the Japanese American National Museum; experienced the Rose Parade in person; and of course, hit up personal foodie spots, including In-N-Out, Little Tokyo, Groundwork Coffee, Blue Bottle Coffee, Kogi truck (the original Korean BBQ taco), and Pink’s Hot Dogs, where I waited an hour in line for chili cheese guacamole hot dogs – nothing compared to Hot Doug’s in Chicago (will any food trip ever top 6 ½ hours in line and five gourmet curated sausages?) -- but worth the visit. My favorite things about Los Angeles are the ample street art and daily rainbow sunsets.
In the beginning I had to fight for my freedom to knock all these places off my list, but eventually my elders understood my love for “gallivanting”. Gallivanting. The word of the week, of this trip, of my life. According to a simple internet search, “to go around from one place to another in the pursuit of pleasure or entertainment.”
Through games, tours, and conversation, my relatives were a source of entertainment in the purest sense; until then, I had never been to so many large family gatherings in one week. Unfortunately, I’ll always be the traveler with the list, usually hoping for artistic inspiration as a result. But in the end, I remembered the main mantra of travel and of life, which is this: it is the people you are with that make the trip what it is. Family is a funny thing – the concept of blood relations included. When being introduced to my relatives for the first time, I felt slightly invasive, trying to make immediately warm connections with what were, to me, a group of strangers. But with time, they turned out to be an incredible family in their own right, hosting me in their homes in Carson and Pasadena (two great towns with their own adventures), making sure I was never hungry, asking about my life and family in Chicago, taking time out of their daily schedules to accompany me and my family around the Los Angeles area. Family is also a funny thing in the sense of being raised similarly – of course, main Filipino and American values likely coming into play – but how my aunts reminded me of my own mother in the best way and how my cousins – the cousins I always wanted as a kid but never had – could be so similar in personality and interests, I wondered: how much does coincidence have to do with it?
In the end, I also returned to the essence of travel as learned by years of Bourdain guidance: that food is at the core of any place and any people. Food was at the core of my trip to Los Angeles, with tables overflowing with lavish, home-cooked meals of Filipino, Hawaiian, and Persian origin, along with the constant sharing of secret recipes. After all the parties and food-related comments that most people with large immigrant families are used to, I turned to my cousins and asked, “Does your family ever stop telling you to eat?” The response was along the lines of, “Never, but they just want to see us happy. But when you start eating too much and it shows, they’ll start criticizing you. It’s a vicious lose-lose cycle.” That mealtime brings about culture and conversation is a continuing truth, and in the end, all the food I consumed within each home was infinitely better than any trendy food destination I could have conjured up.
2014, if not hellish, was a year of many major changes for the world, for my family, and for myself. 2014 was largely defined by the passing of my grandfather, after which I realized his legacy of family, friends, and food as being the most essential elements to life. In truth, this trip wouldn’t have been as likely if his relatives didn’t visit Chicago for his funeral earlier in the year. So to spend the end of the year with them and learn about their lives over home-cooked meals was not only a joy, but comforting at the very least, and one way to close the year. I suppose it’s not necessarily about closeness or bloodlines, but that connections are made and that in the end, there is another place in this world where I feel at home. My hope is that some day I could do the same for them or for anyone else.
PS. I’m still a damn good traveler.


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