The real contents of a balikbayan box

Shakira Sison
The real contents of a balikbayan box
An OFW mom sniffs the clothes and embraces them as she puts them in the box - as if she is sending off her hugs and kisses to her babies who sadly won't receive her touch

Triple-sealed and heavily taped on all surfaces, the large font of its destination is its only distinguishing mark. Its sender does not leave anything to chance during its transport over thousands of ocean miles. Its seams are reinforced several times, sometimes even covered in fabric or rope. The name and address on the label is made water-resistant by several layers of clear tape.

When it arrives, it looks the part – a package that has been juggled from home to office, from port to port, from car to van, container to ship, from forklift to truck, to a delivery vehicle finally dropping it off at the recipient’s home after months at sea. 

Upon opening, the balikbayan box releases an aroma so different from its final destination. It smells of newness, goodness, and anticipation. It smells of another life.

Amoy States!” I once said about the balikbayan boxes sent to our home when I was a child. Even I was not spared the joy of opening a box of presents from what seemed to be the very far, more advanced, more colorful other side.

Whether it comes from Europe, the US, the Middle East, or neighboring Asian countries, this heavy cardboard-bound package smells of a different world. No matter its contents, the balikbayan box becomes the only tangible connection between an overseas relative and those he or she leaves behind. 

Its arrival is much anticipated. Back in my home when I was growing up, the balikbayan box’s delivery date was the talk among the adults for weeks. Finally opening the box and exposing its contents was always met with oohs and ahhs.  

A package of love 

Many OFWs spend their waking hours working in less than ideal situations in order to provide for their families back home. The hardships they face are things many of us cannot even imagine if we’ve never been away in a foreign land. Most are deployed for years at a time, unable to save enough for even a visit to their families. Our women take care of other people’s children, our men build other people’s houses. Our workers grow businesses they couldn’t otherwise start in their homeland. 

Yet other than remittances, the one thing that is not missed is the balikbayan box. Every couple of months, one is filled and packed tightly with objects that are the worker’s family’s desires. Sure there is corned beef, candies, and imported clothes in the Philippines, but it’s always different if it’s padala (sent from abroad). It means it was chosen, saved up for, purchased, cherished and packed. It means wishes were communicated and dreams will be fulfilled. Receiving a gift from overseas always means one is in someone’s thoughts even if they’re not within sight.

An OFW mom carefully arranges breakables like gadgets and cellphones in the cushion of clothes. She lines up several pairs of pants estimating the sizes of the children she doesn’t have the luxury to watch as they grow. She sniffs the shirts and embraces them as she puts them in the box – as if she is sending off her hugs and kisses to her babies who sadly won’t receive her touch.

All foreign workers can do is to send these packages and hope they are put to good use. They can only imagine the smiles on their kids’ faces when they receive a much-awaited toy. They will not be there when their families want to hug them in gratitude. They don’t even have an answer as to when they are coming home, or for the other difficult questions they face as a foreign worker. All they are left with is to be happy that they will be bringing joy to their relatives’ days by way of a balikbayan box.

A violation

Is it any surprise then that we react negatively to someone inspecting, opening up, and pilfering our balikbayan boxes? To many of us, this feels a personal offense and a theft of our hard work. It is a disrespect of our efforts to provide for our loved ones. Knowing that the agency responsible for these offenses has the reputation of being among the most corrupt in the country doesn’t soothe our worries. Adding a tax on top of this for their revenue doubles this slight.

We feel violated when someone touches our parcels of thoughtfulness. We feel the blow when someone interferes with the way we’ve arranged and prepared our boxes to be opened up by our families. When someone dares to take something we’ve carefully chosen, selected, and worked hard for, we feel totally wronged. 

Because the balikbayan box is our only physical link to many of our familes, we feel an interruption in this delicate chain. We feel insulted and furious when part of the reason for our struggles is stolen from us. 

Of course, the Bureau of Customs is only doing its job and there are individuals who do abuse the balikbayan box system. But for the majority of overseas workers who rely on this parcel to send presents to their families, the real contents of the balikbayan box is heartache, and its only message to its recipients is love.

It breaks hearts when someone takes advantage of that. – 

Read related articles on the OFW life: 

What they don’t tell you about the OFW life

The weight of an OFW YES 

When OFWs come home 

The lost message in OFW money  

OFW survival guide 

In faces and voices, a search for home 

To you, future Amerikano 


Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.