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.