Unpacking the Balikbayan Box: Transnational Pilipino Families in Global Perspective

A guest post by Kimberley Africa

Standing next to the balikbayan box my parents just sent in June 2013.
Standing next to the balikbayan box my parents just sent in June 2013.

Ever since I can remember, I have watched my mom and dad fill a huge box with clothes, towels, Spam, shoes, nonperishable foods, and a countless number of other things until they could fit no more. I remember looking into the box and wishing that the huge container of Nesquik were in my hands instead of being cradled by Tang and powdered iced tea. My parents explained that they sent the box to my cousins in the Philippines because they didn’t have all that we had. I always frowned at this, because we definitely did not have chocolate milk mix in the cupboards.

Space is precious. Once my parents made sure that there was no empty crevice left in the box, they would start the closing process. This is a ritual that I have watched so many times: my mom’s and dad’s hands work simultaneously to close the box. Sometimes they ask one of us kids to help. Their experience in packing boxes is clear in their quickness and accuracy. But, taping the top of the box is just the beginning. My dad then grabs a black permanent marker and writes his brother’s address on each side of the box, save the bottom. Then, he wraps the entire surface of the box in clear packing tape to ensure its security on its transoceanic voyage.

“Do they make you tape the entire box?” I once asked. “No, but this is how I can make sure your cousins get everything,” my dad replied.

Finally, he ties a yellow rope around the box, just like someone might tie ribbons around a present. When the box is ready in its taped and marked glory, my dad calls Charlie, a worker for the company that specializes in delivering these boxes, to pick it up for shipment. Boxes often sat in our living room for a few days, until one day, I would come home from school and in its place would be a new, empty box, ready to be filled once again. We would then wait a little over a month for a call from my uncle.

The Philippines are an archipelago located off the southeastern coast of China and north of Indonesia.
The Philippines are an archipelago located off the southeastern coast of China and north of Indonesia. The balikbayan boxes that my family sends leave the Port of Los Angeles and travel by cargo ship across the Pacific to the Philippines.

“Did you guys open it yet? Make sure you look at the names on the things!” says my dad, with my mom next to him, pushing her ear to the earpiece. “Make sure that they call my family to let them know too!” my mom reminds.

My parents stay on the phone for a while, asking in excited voices if my cousin liked the robot that they had put in the box, if my aunt had stopped by to pick up the lotion and shampoo, if they had gotten the shoe sizes correct, if so-and-so had stopped by yet, and if not, when they would.

I never knew what was being said or what was even happening on the other side of the conversation until the summer of 2011. It was my second trip to the Philippines and instead of sending a box on a cargo ship, we brought suitcases of pasalubong, or homecoming gifts, for our family. Unpacking the gifts was like Christmas morning: a lot of family, a ton of food, laughs, smiles, hugs, and unwrapping presents. I never knew until then just how much sending a box meant to my family in the Philippines.

The box we send is known as a “balikbayan box.” It is sent by a balikbayan, a Pilipino immigrant living outside the Philippines, back to family and friends in the islands. The significance of the name comes from the words that create it: balik means “to go back,” and bayan means “country,” connoting “home.”

The practice of sending a balikbayan box started in the 1980s when then Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos passed a law that allowed tax-free entry of goods from overseas Pilipinos. So, people began sending goods with friends and colleagues visited the islands. As the practice picked up and spread, companies formed to send boxes of goods by cargo ship. The weight of the box does not matter; as long as it fits, the company will ship it at a fixed price. The downside to this system is that it takes several weeks for the box to reach the family in the Philippines, and longer if the sender’s family lives in a rural area.

In our culture, sending a box back home to the Philippines is analogous to going home because sending gifts shows and reinforces the strong familial ties that bind us. However, the boxes represent much more than love for the family and the cultural significance of gift giving. It is a physical manifestation of the transnational identity of Pilipinos, evidence of the widespread presence of Pilipinos across the globe, and an inspiration to learn about the historical, political, cultural, and economic role of the Philippines on the global stage.

In The Forbidden Book, authors Abe Ignacio, Enrique de la Cruz, Jorge Emmanuel, and Helen Toribio recount the colonial and imperial history that has ensnared the Philippines. They detail how in May of 1898, the United States pushed itself into a six month war with Spain in order to free Cuba, not only because they identified with the struggles of the Cuban revolutionaries, but because Cuba’s freedom could provide an opportunity for a Spanish market expansion (cue capitalism). The Spanish-American War ended with the Treaty of Paris, which shifted the course of Philippine history. Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for $20 million. However, before the Spanish-American War, the Philippines declared its independence from Spain and was in the process of creating its own Constitution. Why did the US to annex a nation that had no intention of letting yet another country take away its sovereignty?

The first reason was that the Philippines provided a strategic location for an American presence in Asia. A US presence in the Philippines would project significance, politically and economically. The second reason was that they felt like it was their God-given duty to take the Pilipino people, their “brown little brothers”, under their wing and help them with what they called “benevolent assimilation” into the white, Western lifestyle and social structure.

December 4, 1899. Dead Pilipino freedom fighters lay at the feet of US soldiers. Image published originally at philippineamericanwar.webs.com.
December 4, 1899. Dead Pilipino freedom fighters lay at the feet of US soldiers. Image published originally at philippineamericanwar.webs.com.

War broke out when the Pilipinos learned the US would not recognize its nation and this so-called “benevolence” was nowhere in sight during the Philippine-American War. The war lasted for over ten years with several thousand American deaths and anywhere from 200,000 to one million Pilipino deaths. After Pilipino defeat and surrender, the American presence instilled in the local culture individualistic and capitalistic values which shaped the development of the modern Philippines. Economically, the Philippines was dragged into a world market in which they could not compete as a developing country against already developed countries, which laid the foundation for the Philippines to become a labor-exporting country. This development would further undermine Pilipino traditions and values.

The United States did not grant the Philippines independence until July 4, 1946. Independence was celebrated, but the Philippines was left with many challenges in trying to build an economy that was not dependent on other countries and territories. The election of Ferdinand Marcos in 1965 did not help their case. His administration was filled with oppression, human rights violations, and severe economic depression. During his presidency, thousands of people immigrated to other countries to try to find jobs or to escape the political repression. This has been pinpointed as the beginning of the Pilipino diaspora. Marcos remained in office until 1986, but the damage that he instilled further prevented the Philippines from creating a strong, independent economy. More and more people began to leave the Philippines to work or permanently live in other countries. Many left for work as nurses, doctors, musicians, and domestic laborers abroad, away from their families.

Percent of Pilipinos living in poverty in 2012, per the National Statistical Coordination Board of the Philippines. Image published on wikipedia.
Percent of Pilipinos living in poverty in 2012, per the National Statistical Coordination Board of the Philippines. Image published on wikipedia.

Many people in the Philippines live in extreme poverty and the country has been unable to meet the basic developmental goal of eradicating poverty. The Philippine economy, however, appears rich due to the remittances from overseas workers. According to the International Office of Migration (IOM), 10.46 million Pilipinos are scattered in 217 countries and territories, the largest portion residing in the US. The economy of the Philippines is now remittance-based, which requires it to be a labor-exporting country. Because of this the Philippines is unable to develop a strong independent economy. This system was ensured by policies established by the Marcos administration, and is perpetuated by the neoliberal policies adopted by the current Philippine government that cater to neoliberal policies of free trade.

Thus, many Pilipinos immigrate to find better opportunities for themselves, their children, and their family for time periods that range from a few months to years in order to send back money and goods. People leave the Philippines not just for the pull of great opportunities, but also because of the push of having no other option to make money and care for their family. Thus, the balikbayan box is not just a box that overseas Pilipinos send home. It is a symbol of the desire to take care of family members who are afforded only limited opportunities to prosper in a “developing” country that is not actually developing because of a history of colonization and neocolonial economic imperialism that continues to plague it today.

As a project for my Sociology of Globalization course last semester taught by Dr. Nicki Lisa Cole at Pomona College, I created a multi-sensory, multimedia art piece that explores the layers of meaning contained within a balikbayan box. This project provides a commentary on the social, economic, cultural, and political effects of globalization on the Philippine people, particularly on the emigration of people from the Philippines.

The interactive balikbayan box I created for my class research project, on show at our Global LA exhibit at Pomona College in May 2013.
The interactive balikbayan box I created for my class research project, on show at our Global LA exhibit at Pomona College in May 2013.

The project included a visual representation of the box and the following short film. The film depicts Pilipino-Americans students who attend Pomona College and the University of California, Irvine, as they discuss their experiences with a balikbayan box and what the box means to them and their families, both here and in the Philippines.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank those who allowed me to interview them and everyone who helped me with this project. This project transformed from just an assignment for a class to an opportunity for me to explore my identity and connect to my roots.

Bio Pic

Kimberley Africa is a math major with an interest in sociology, about to begin her junior year at Pomona College in Claremont, CA. She is interested in social justice work and hopes to pursue a career that involves issues of educational access. A second generation Pilipino-American who grew up in Los Angeles County, she enjoys watching movies and television, eating, and playing volleyball. Click here to email Kimberley.

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