Balikbayan Box Musings: Experiences with the cardboard companion over the years

You know when you're heading to the Philippines when... I’m one week away from another visit to the Philippines and am finishing up routine preparations. These frequent jaunts over the past few years have helped me connect with the nation of our heritage. I've developed the typical travel habits of the returning overseas Pilipino, in particular that cardboard companion that is synonymous with someone returning to the Philippines. Yes, I’m focusing at that quintessential box filled with pasalubong for relatives. That same box that is filled with bittersweet emotions, including those stemming from: the nights my mom spends packing them up with corned beef, my sweat-drenched navigation between terminals in Manila with these boxes in tow, and the appreciation that I’ve seen from the faces of family who welcome and help me lug them into our jeepney.

I’m sure this rings true with many fellow Fil-Ams. I’ve grown up playing with those boxes as they slowly filled up. I’d feel like an adult whenever I was able to do things, like write our home address on the sides, push the luggage cart that carried them, or help dad lift them out of the baggage carousel. I considered it a crowning achievement when I traveled solo from Japan to the Philippines during my senior year of high school and brought my very first balikbayan box filled with goods from a Japanese 100 Yen shop, much to the amusement of my relatives.

Over the years, a question arose as I became the more efficient traveler that George Clooney fittingly described in Up in the Air: "why bother bringing the box?" As the trips came and went, I became more irritated at having to drag that box around. It was big, heavy, cumbersome, and ruined the traveling "rhythm" that I had mastered during other international trips.

It's always a blast to see your box opened up at the baggage claim in Manila and end up finding nothing stolen... but with a TSA luggage inspection slip added into it.

“Why should I bother to bring Spam and hand-me-downs when I could probably buy them when I arrive? I mean, I’d be helping the local economy more by doing so!” was the mentality that I acquired after several trips. I challenged others on the rationale of having to bring those boxes, the bane of existence for baggage screeners, ground handlers, and bystanders caught up in a bottleneck created by a queue of balikbayan box-laden passengers waiting to check-in.

“It’s not a trip to the Philippines without one!” was a common response I’d encounter.

But then I'd remember the past, when our family trips to the Philippines weren’t as frequent. Twenty years ago, my mom wanted to fill each box with as much as she could. Unlike today where she visits once or twice a year, she wanted to have the box stocked with goods that she herself enjoyed and wanted to share with her siblings. Looking back, it hit me: the balikbayan box brought the sort of connection that otherwise couldn’t be felt by sending a remittance via Western Union. It’s almost like that “physical gift vs. gift card” argument that I’d always hear whenever the holiday season would come. I would see it whenever I would shop alongside excited OFWs at a Carrefour in Dubai, who would stock up on stuff that weren't available or of the same quality in the Philippines, but nonetheless, they were things to that they wanted to share with loved ones at home.

More trips would pass and I would obtain frequent flyer benefits that were certainly worthy of a box-touting passenger. For a while, I did not tell my mom the fact that I could check in a maximum of three bags at 70 pounds each for free AND that these parcels were among the first out in the baggage claim! Alas, I spilled the beans, much to her delight. While I was glad to have lightened the load by ejecting the need to drag the box, a part of me felt like I could try to do something constructive with those benefits.

Through such reflection, my opinion on the balikbayan box has shifted. I started to look into various charitable causes in the Philippines and wanted to utilize the box and my baggage allowance for good. I asked my frequent flying buddies to donate their hotel toiletries so I could deliver them to a non-profit in Quezon City that takes care of underage victims of physical and sexual abuse. I had a friend from a sports store donate some soccer balls to a Gawad Kalinga soccer program. And — my most favorite of them all — I have spent countless hours digging around swap meets, used bookstores, and supply store sales for children’s books and discounted school supplies; I donate these items to several schools and literacy programs in the Philippines all of whom have expressed appreciation for the much-needed material.

It’s been two decades since the kindergarten version of me etched our home address in a balikbayan box. In this upcoming trip, we’re going to dedicate a library in honor of my late brother. And of course that library needs books, of which I’m bringing a bunch of them with me inside the latest of the many balikbayan boxes we’ve transported over the years. A part of me still feels a bit weird in bringing Spam (my mom still manages to sneak a can or two in). At the end of the day, however, I’m still going back to the Philippines with a symbol that remains as the centerpiece of the returning overseas Pilipino. For this, I am very honored to have balikbayan boxes as travel companions. 

Loading up with the treasures I've found in book sales. There should be a can of Vienna sausage under there somewhere...