Why it is the Filipino way to love balikbayan boxes

By Alvin R. Cabral

It’s that time of the year for most Filipinos, me included.

One overlooked trait Pinoys possess is dispatching gifts overseas to families, friends, loved ones.

There’s even a running joke about us: come home to the Philippines for a vacation and relatives and friends will multiply. You may not have not seen or spoken to them eons, but they’re all waiting to be showered with a little something from overseas.

Normally, I go for my annual leave during Christmas. A couple of months before my homecoming, I start filling up the famed ‘balikbayan boxes’.

Balikbayan means a Filipino returning to the Philippines after being out of the country for an extended period (balik means ‘return’, bayan means ‘country’; I don’t like the translation ‘repatriate boxes’). The term balikbayan boxes gained prominence in the 1980s when Filipinos, particularly in the US, sent goodies home to their families. It has since become a hallowed tradition for overseas Filipino workers (the famed OFWs), especially towards the end of the year, to send boxes in time for the season of giving. It’s like playing Santa Claus.

The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year that around 400,000 boxes are sent every month (according to the Door to Door Consolidated Association of the Philippines) — and that figure drastically shoots up when the ‘Ber’ months kick in — October, November… No wonder it’s a billion-dollar industry.

I normally send two big boxes home, 100cm tall. It’s fun to stack goodies in them. It’s also a process. There is a way to do it to maximise efficiency.

First step: determine what needs to be bought. Essential every day stuff is a given, plus anything that falls under the indulgence category. Throw in some clothes and kicks, and part one is done.

Part two entails asking recipients back home what else is needed, and who else they intend to gift things to. Third is the actual buying. A technique I know works: when you see something on sale, grab it and stow it away until boxing time arrives. If it’s food, make sure the expiration date is way into the future.

Next, the packing process — or, rather, the stacking process. I’ve been doing this for a decade and I know exactly what to do. The first few times, I would put stuff in, take it out and reposition till I maximised every square millimetre of space. I’ve become good at this as I don’t want to take a chance that shippers and handlers will be able to protect my stuff 100 per cent. Something is obviously working because I’ve never had to repeat this ordeal in recent memory. I think of it as a jigsaw puzzle crossed with a Rubik’s Cube.

Which brings us to the ‘rules’. Don’t mix food with toiletries because the former will smell/taste like the latter (logical). Don’t squish electronics with any liquids (obviously). Wrap bottles/gizmos in cloth/bubble wrap (ditto). Put chips/biscuits/anything else that could be deformed or crushed on the upper portion (again).

Discovering broken bottles or containers inside them can be avoided. Once, in a box I sent, a plastic container of fabric conditioner had cracked and leaked. Another year it was a smashed bottle of olive oil. Twice in 10 years isn’t too bad, I tell myself.

However, the cruelest, most painstaking incident happened just this year: our boxes took almost four months to make their way home. It was more of a result of an unfortunate circumstance: my go-to shipper ran into trouble and shut down. We found out that our boxes — plus the God-knows-how-many others — were stuck in storage purgatory in Manila, awaiting legal clearance.

Eventually, everything was sorted and the stuff made it home. But those were long months. We thought, what if the food got spoiled? What if some corrupt morons stole our stuff?

These boxes give a sense of fulfillment; seeing your family revel in the items you sent is gratifying. It can also be considered the culmination of a year’s work. Working away from your home country isn’t a joke, and these goodies are one of our ways, as Filipinos, to show how much we care about those we’ve left back home — the very same persons who are the reasons we went elsewhere to lead a better life for them from afar.

As one interviewee in the LA Times report put it: “this is the Filipino way”.


Alvin always misses out on Blixem and Dunder when asked to name Santa’s reindeers

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