The Balikbayan Box


According to Oxford Dictionaries, a balikbayan is “a Filipino visiting or returning to the Philippines after a period of living in another country.” Albeit its accuracy, this simple definition fails to describe the complexity and intricacy of the lives affected by this quintessential word in Filipino culture. Most families in the Philippines know of, or are directly related to, a balikbayan. Some balikbayans are OFWs—Overseas Filipino Workers—who go to another country to find work, while others are Filipino immigrants who have chosen to live in another country permanently but still come back to visit sporadically.

Regardless of the status of Filipinos living outside the Philippines, balikbayans are abundant. There is an estimated 10.2 million individuals of Filipino citizenship living abroad as OFWs and millions more who have decided to settle down in another country as permanent residents or citizens (1). Despite the distance and variance, the most important common denominator of all the Filipinos living abroad is their unwavering ties to the Philippines. Most OFWs send all of their income, outside of living expenses, to their family in the Philippines. This is because the conversion rate of the currency in developed countries to that of the peso—the Filipino currency—is so significant that it literally changes their families’ lives. For example, while the OFW is in another country working as a housemaid or a babysitter for fairly low wage, the money they send allows their children to attend colleges, purchase a car or house, or don luxury brand clothes, purses, and accessories.

This is an extremely difficult internal battle for the OFWs because while it does bring a sense of joy to create an easier life and give better opportunities for their children and family in the Philippines, they are also spending years and decades away. Some parents spend majority of their lives working overseas to finance their children growing up, and only return to their homeland once their children are adults. Then, those grown children also go abroad to earn a living for their children, and the now-grandparents are left to take care of these grandchildren who are now growing up without their own parents. It is a vicious cycle; but unfortunately, many people have few other options for financial stability. This sacrifice of self to make the lives of your loved ones better is one characteristic engrained in Filipino culture that I so highly look up to and respect.

A result of this constant migration to and from the Philippines is the Balikbayan Box—another quintessential term in Filipino culture that describes the act of sending boxes of treats to families in the Philippines. On average, it takes a few months to purchase the materials to fill the box to the brim, and another two months or so for the box to sail through the Pacific ocean on a cargo ship, and land on your family’s doorstep. Simply put, if you want to send a balikbayan box for Christmas, you better start shopping in July and send it out by October! Additionally, the financial cost of balikbayan boxes can be burdensome for people with lower incomes. Purchasing a box from a Filipino supplier averages about $5, though some Filipinos use old computer or furniture boxes to save money. Then, filling that 3’ x 3’ box with goodies can add up to over $100 depending on the items purchased. Finally, shipping the box to the other side of the world costs another $50–100, with higher prices during holidays and busy seasons. Despite the time, effort, and money it takes to get this box to their family in the Philippines, the delivery is by no means taken for granted.

Growing up with OFW parents, we received several balikbayan boxes a year. I remember the excitement and glee that filled the room when the large box arrived, wrapped in tightly packed masking tape and our address written in sharpie on all sides. My sister, brother, cousin and I waited anxiously as our aunt would grab the scissors and spend minutes cutting all the tape from the edges. The second she opened the flaps, we ran towards the box and began to scavenge for our goodies: coloring books, Barbies, superhero action figures, play-doh, crayons, and a toy plane that would roll on the wheels. [Our aunts and grandparents told us that our parents were on that plane on the way to America and we would wave “hello” to the little airplane windows]. They also sent albums with pictures of their lives in the US. For the adults, the box was stuffed with Hershey’s and Crunch chocolate bars, cans and cans of Spam, dish detergent, laundry detergent, body soap, new clothes or hand-me-downs, purses and shoes, and magazines. To document this elation, our aunt would video record the moment from when the box arrives to reactions of us opening them and scavenging for our toys. They would then send the videotapes with relatives travelling back to the US so that our parents can witness our reactions and the fruits of their labor. I’m sure these viewing sessions were met with lots of tears, a heart-shattering longing to be on the other side of the screen with their children, and a sincere promise to send another box soon.

These boxes were not only a way for our parents to show their love, but also a way for us to know and interact with them. Although we were constantly talking on the phone, receiving items that came directly from them and using products that they were also using allowed us to feel enmeshed in each other’s lives. Our parents were abroad in the times before video calling, video apps, or even the internet was around. The only way we could see each other’s faces was by sending photos and homemade videos through the balikbayan boxes.

For immigrants living abroad who’ve left their young children, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and parents behind, the balikbayan box makes up for the important events missed such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and weddings. It is truly the only means they have to be there physically, enable memories to still be shared, and make the thousands of miles of separation feel a little closer. The financial situation and hardships in the Philippines will not be resolved anytime soon; and therefore, thousands of Filipinos will continue to make the decision everyday to leave their loved ones to find better opportunities abroad. For as long as the balikbayan exists in Filipino culture, the balikbayan box is here to stay.


Meeting My Father

 The grand reunion! April 1995 at Dulles International Airport

The grand reunion! April 1995 at Dulles International Airport

It was my first time on a plane. I was on my way to America with my mom, brother, and sister after a disorienting 24-hour voyage from Manila, Philippines. Along the way, one child almost got lost, two children threw up at every landing and take-off, our last flight got cancelled, and several cardboard boxes carrying our stuff had ripped apart. Tired but antsy in the Dulles International Airport waiting room, we saw a man in the distance. A man that we recognized from photographs and videos we’d seen over the years, but had never met in person. I knew how he looked, how he sounded, maybe what his interests were, and that he loved us, but have never felt his touch. As he got closer, I started running towards him as fast as I could. Finally, I was going to meet Papa.

My twin sister and I were born in April 1990. The February prior to our birth, my mom received her visa to come to America—she was six months pregnant and also had a two-year-old son in tow. On the brink of adding two babies to a family of three, my parents had to make an incomprehensible decision of whether to bring us with them to this new non-tagalog speaking, non-rice eating foreign land, or entrust our care to family members while they built a foundation in America. After much deliberation and advice from relatives in similar situations, they painstakingly decided that my mom would travel first and get a job, my dad would follow once she was settled, and they would come back and get us the following year.

To their dismay, the American immigration system had a different plan in mind. When they applied for the petition to bring the three of us to America, they were told that the immigration quota had been filled and they would have to wait for the next batch to be approved. Dumbfounded at the thought of delaying their reunion with their children, my parents filed various applications, special case petitions, and called the US Philippine Embassy over and over again trying to find a loophole to get us to America sooner. One year turned into two years, two years turned into three, and three became five. My mom was able to visit once for three weeks when I was two years old—we were so excited to “finally have a mom”—but unfortunately our dad was never able to visit due to budget and status constraints.

Luckily, we were blessed with our paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncle who compassionately and selflessly raised us in our parents’ stead. My aunt Susan was only 27 years old when she quit her job to raise the three of us, while my other aunt Annette and uncle Larry treated us like second, third, and fourth children alongside their son. They along with my grandparents assured us that our parents loved us tremendously and did what they had to do so that we’d have a bright future. My siblings and I never felt a lack of love or resentment towards our parents.

During those years we communicated very openly with our mom and dad via phone calls, birthday cards, letters, videotapes, and balikbayan boxes—huge cardboard boxes filled with goodies such as cans of Spam and corned beef, boxes of Swiss Miss cocoa mix, Dove soap bars, Crunch chocolate bars, Play Doh, Crayola crayon sets, Barbie dolls, action figures, Game Boy consoles and games, and coloring books. They regularly sent picture albums of their lives in America while we in turn sent albums and videotapes of our birthday parties, first days school, Christmases, and vacations. We felt their love with every new package we received; however, we were never able to feel their hugs and kisses, or even speak with them in real time (video conferencing didn’t exist in the 90s). To this day, I cannot fathom the immense sacrifice our parents, aunts, uncle, and grandparents made for these three little kids.

After five grueling years, our immigration papers finally went through in 1995. My mom flew back just in time for my sister and I to have one last birthday in the Philippines, a memorable occasion at Goldilocks restaurant. After another short three-week vacation, my mom brought her children to the airport to start our new lives—on my uncle Larry’s birthday. Needless to say, that was the saddest birthday he’d ever had. Before we boarded the plane, we achingly said goodbye to the only family we had known for our entire lives. It was an unbelievably emotional time, and I am only now beginning to understand the bittersweet uncertainty we all felt as we hugged and kissed each other one last time.*

Although it was an excruciating 24-hour voyage through three countries, several delays, cancelled flights, and an hour-long shuttle bus ride between airports, all the effort became worthwhile when we finally saw our dad waiting for us right as we got off the shuttle bus. Although I’d never seen in him in real life, I knew who this man was. I still have a vivid memory of running to him because I was so excited touch, smell, and feel his embrace.  My dad’s not an emotional person, but I knew he was beyond ecstatic because it was finally here: the dream of seeing his family together.

We left the airport exhausted, jetlagged, and hungry—but so excited to finally be holding our dad’s hands. When we arrived at our new home, we were met with more strangers who would eventually become our second mothers, fathers, and siblings in America. We were about to embark on a journey that we then couldn’t have ever comprehended: growing up in a bicultural household—simultaneously learning how to be Filipino and American—and all the pros and cons that came with that lifestyle.  It’s a journey neither our mom nor dad, nor us kids have taken for granted. To all be together in this country was well worth all their sacrifices.


*We are still incredibly close to our family back in Philippines and visit each other every few years. We call them during every birthday, holiday, and sporadically just to say hi. They attended the college graduations of me, my brother, and my sister, and we attended the graduation of our cousin, Valro, who we are also still very close with, and his sister Myla, born after we moved to America. The time we shared during those first few years left an invisible connection that bonded us for life.

**A condensed version of this story was originally posted by NextDayBetter as part of their Father's Day Campaign.

Why We Love the Beatles

The first Beatles song I remember hearing is I Want to Hold Your Hand.


It was during the annual Urgel Family Crab Feast, one of many family get togethers we had on beautiful, long summer days during my childhood. We gathered at the same place we always do: my aunt’s house in Herndon. This was the house where Christmas and Thanksgiving was celebrated for nearly 20 years; where my parents and aunt and uncle had their weddings; the house everyone called home. During the Feast, we ate on a long picnic table out on the patio, snuggly sitting elbow-to-elbow with each other and still not having enough room for everyone to sit together all at once. Scattered on the table and patio floor were boxes of large, succulent, juicy snow crabs purchased earlier that day from the DC Wharf original outdoor fish market. Accompanying the crabs were piles of discarded shells, plates of rice, and bowls of vinegar and garlic sawsawan (dipping sauce).


As we ate, enjoyed the sun, gossiped, and laughed, the battery-operated boombox blared Beatles song after Beatles song from the dozens of albums my uncles owned. I Want to Hold Your Hand, Help!, Twist and Shout, Please Please Me, All My Loving, Ob La Di and the band’s other upbeat songs and ballads filled the atmosphere with mellifluous harmony. As the adults sang along at the tops of their lungs, I sat at the kid’s table cracking shells and picking the meat with my tiny hands. We ate the crabs, rice, and sawsawan with our hands—kamayan style. The only utensils were tools for cracking the shells. There were also no napkins needed because the disposable plastic table covers and laid out newspapers encouraged us to make a huge mess.

The eating lingered as a slew of other activities began to take shape: titas played mahjong, cousins played board games and video games, and titos drank beer and smoked cigarettes out on the yard. And, as always, the karaoke machine was the star of the show. Love ballads, disco, funk, Filipino OPMs, and—of course—even more Beatles songs were sung. It was the very best way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon. And because of these beautiful gatherings, to this day I still correlate gobs of crabs with I Want to Hold Your Hand.


This is why we love the Beatles: memories. The Urgel Family Crab Feast is one memory out of dozens associated with The Beatles and family get-togethers. Memories of the good ol’ days, of innocence and celebration. Over the years and to keep with the times, we’ve converted our uncles’ collections of Beatles albums from CDs to iTunes to Spotify playlists. Today, when I listen to their songs, I find myself relating to lyrics much more deeply than when I was a kid merely singing along for fun. For example, in Help! The Beatles talk about how as they get older, they realize they need more help from others:

When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody's help in any way
But now these days are gone and I'm not so self assured
Now I find I've changed my mind, I've opened up the doors

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down
And I do appreciate you being 'round
Help me get my feet back on the ground
Won't you please, please help me?

Similar to John, Paul, George, and Ringo, I definitely have more doubt these days than I did when I was a young and careless child or teen, and now often turn to others—especially my family—for help when navigating the world of finances, house loans, career obstacles, relationships, marriage, and children. Even though the Beatles stopped making music together more than 50 years ago (!!!!!!), their music will forever be timeless.

I thank my parents, aunts, and uncles not only for introducing us to their amazing taste in music, but also for teaching us how to embrace art and emotional expression, and how the power of music allows you to release worries and just be happy to sing and dance to your favorite songs.

In the year 2068, The Beatles will be 100 years old!!!! My cousins and I will be in our 70s, 80s, and 90s! We will have grandkids and great-grandkids! But I guarantee you we will still be listening to The Beatles on our super high-tech, floatable, voice recognition, or whatever-the-heck-the-future-will-come-up-with technology and thinking about our parents, the memories of childhood, and how this music has helped pave our lives. The Beatles has always been their favorite musicians, has easily become ours, and will hopefully be our children’s as well in the future.