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Of balikbayan boxes, culture and memories

Jeffrey Cabuay, France

Drawing by Zivi Alagao, 9*

I could never forget when Christmas time arrived. We received these giant boxes all covered up by brownish packaging tape with the name of my mom written on it. I could not remember if it stayed there for days until she was prepared to open it but she never opened it without the children around them. What I remember so vividly was the smell the boxes were giving off when they were being opened. I did not know what it was but it was something I would not normally smell in the Philippines. It smelled something from nature. It smelled fresh. It smelled like apples, I thought.

Whatever it was, it transported me to a place where nobody but me could be in. The boxes came from my Tita Susan living in Los Angeles. I was imagining that maybe that is how the US smelled like. I was in my fantasy, my beautiful imaginary world. It was not the things inside that were more important to me but the feelings, experiences, and enjoyment of opening those boxes and seeing and hearing the people around me. To this day, these were the moments that I cherish and remember.

These giant boxes are called the “Balikbayan Box.” The term Balikbayan stems from the Filipino words “Balik” meaning “to return” and “Bayan” meaning “home” referring to Filipinos working abroad who come back home. The balikbayan box came about in the 1980’s when a new service offered the Filipinos a way to send souvenirs or “pasalubong” to their families in the Philippines in bigger-sized boxes instead of smaller mail parcels which usually cost more. These souvenirs took longer to arrive as they are freighted by sea and people did not mind the long wait.

10 M: number of Filipinos working or living abroad
400 K: number of balikbayan boxes sent to the Philippines per month according to the Door-to-Door Consolidated Association of the Philippines

Every time I get the opportunity to meet the Filipino community, I make it a point to bring my children with me. They not only hear me speak Filipino but see me interacting in the culture of my origins. I can remember bringing my son, Raphael, to the home of Mr. And Mrs. Fricke. Nora is Filipina, married to a German, Juergen. We were greeted with typical Filipino hospitality, which included drinks and food. To my son’s delight, he was able to taste, for the first time, Skyflakes condensada flavored crackers. The sweet milk-flavored cracker is not something that one usually finds here in France. Proudly, I told my son that what he was eating is a Filipino product and something that I ate when I was younger. I also got to discover that Nora was providing a balikbayan box service to Filipinos wanting to send pasalubong to the Philippines.

During our bike back home, my son asked me, “Papa, why are Filipinos so generous? They are so welcoming and always share their food with us for us to eat and give us some more for us to bring home.” My eyes sparkled and my heart was joyful. At that very instant, I realized that my son never stepped foot in the Philippines and that the only experience that he has about the Philippines is me, my mom and the Filipino community here. So, I would say that I am still lucky to be able to socialize with the Filipinos even when I’m very far away from the Philippines. Best of all, I could share this experience with my children who grew up in a foreign land.

170: number of countries where Filipinos work
3: number of sizes available for the balikbayan box

What I find curious and interesting is that as people live abroad for a long time, they still carry with them all or parts of the culture of their origin. Living far away from our loved ones for years on end may be difficult for most people. It is in sending goodies that Filipinos living abroad connect with their families. It is a sign of thoughtfulness and selflessness which says “I did not forget you and you are always in my thoughts”. Although these things could not replace the person’s presence, the box becomes the result of one’s hard work and sacrifices for their kin. Emotion plays a big part in completing the balikbayan box. The sender would imagine the smiles and reactions as their families “receive” the items meant for them.

The ordinariness of these grocery-bought goods is by design... These goods ‘map’ migrants back into the household economy by reproducing their labor and participation in their absence. Anthropologist Clement Camposano

That is what my son was trying to say that Filipinos are so generous. It is the innate generosity imbibed in the deepest part of our culture. It is not just the balikbayan box but it is the generosity that we share with each person that we cross paths with, be it a fellow Filipino or a fellow human being with a different culture. It is our being Filipino in a foreign land that we can let people know and contribute value to what it means to be “Filipino”.

Tina Fallarme, occupying the position of EMEA Partner Operations at Facebook (now called Meta), made Ireland her new home a few months ago. She wonderfully described her version of the balikbayan box in a Facebook post.

* My drawing is about the things I like to do at Christmas evening, morning and even the afternoon! We have a Christmas wreath, an advent calendar, and of course a tree, and the two parols. For lunch we have fried bananas and giniling (minced meat) on the table. Outside you can see two of my friends playing with the colorful snowman. Behind the Christmas tree says MALIGAYANG PASKO which is Merry Christmas in Filipino. I am sitting on the floor drinking milk tea with my turtle, Turtly.

Zivi Alagao, 9 years old Manila


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