The Beloved Filipino Tradition That Started as a Government Policy
My mother and I spent an afternoon unfurling my lola’s apartment a few days after she died, back in 2017. In her closet, my grandmother had stored a big cardboard box with an address in Manila written on the side in thick marker. Inside the box were neatly arranged cans of food, bags of rice, drugstore makeup, and clothes she had bought on sale. Some of the items were labeled with our relatives’ names, and the package was left open in case anything else needed to be added as she went about her days.
Sending a filled-to-the-brim box to the Philippines each Christmas was a treasured routine my lola had settled into long before I was born. But instead of mailing it that year, she had been waiting until she could ceremoniously take it back home herself. Transporting it to the airport would have been physically impossible for such a small and aging woman, but I imagine that she viewed hand-delivering gifts to the children and grandchildren she hadn’t seen in years as evidence of her love. What I didn’t know then was that this beloved tradition of sending or bringing home oversize care packages, called balikbayan boxes, had started as an authoritarian regime’s effort to stem the Philippines’ economic crisis in the 1970s.
In Tagalog, balikbayan means “return to country.” Former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos coined the term to inspire nationalism in Filipino expats and encourage them to return with their earnings—initially requiring them to pay remittances to their family back home before softening the policy. Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), especially those living in the United States, were offered reduced-cost flights, land for purchase once they arrived home, and the ability to travel back with duty- and tax-free boxes. When Marcos’s rule ended, the Philippine government codified the balikbayan program into law. But over the years, what was initially meant to be a solution to the country’s financial instability has transformed into a cherished cultural practice across the Filipino diaspora.
Though Marcos may have seeded the program to strengthen expats’ ties to the country, he simultaneously denied the rights of those still living in the Philippines. In her book Migrants for Export, the UC Davis Asian American–studies professor Robyn Magalit Rodriguez writes, “The Marcos administration’s valorization of the balikbayan on the one hand and its policies demanding migrants’ remittances on the other, while seemingly contradictory, partly reflect the nature of the dictatorship.” Gradually, then, the boxes became a way for expats to help feed, clothe, and heal their loved ones who remained. They became a way for women, who make up the majority of OFWs, to continue fulfilling their familial duties regardless of where they were in the world. Today, some 400,000 balikbayan boxes are sent to the Philippines each month—with that number dramatically increasing during Christmastime—by the nearly 10 percent of Filipinos who live abroad. Balikbayans have become a lucrative industry: Some shipping companies across the U.S. are dedicated entirely to the transport of the boxes, which can weigh up to 130 pounds. On Amazon, you can even buy fabric covers to make sure that your balikbayan arrives intact.
Beyond their economic implications, balikbayans can also keep families feeling emotionally tethered to one another. “Often when I think of a balikbayan box, I think about when the family receiving it gathers to open it,” Clarissa Aljentera, a Filipino American writer from Fremont, California, told me via email. “And if you aren’t there, someone will put the item aside and make sure you receive a piece … of the U.S.” They’re a reminder to many that they aren’t alone and haven’t been forgotten. When government assistance falls short in supplying resources such as clothing and food to those in need, families can show love and support from abroad by serving as a safety net.
While completing his Ph.D., Anthony C. Ocampo, a Cal Poly Pomona sociology professor and the author of The Latinos of Asia, conducted an ethnographic research project on balikbayans. He rode along with a balikbayan-box company—first, picking up the boxes from homes in Los Angeles, then delivering them to families in Manila. “I’ve been to a number of Filipino [American] homes where the balikbayan box just takes up the entire living area or apartment,” Ocampo told me. “It’s essentially an assembly line: soon-to-be packed items on the ground, on the dining table, on the sofa. It felt like there was no separation between American life and Filipino life. One was an extension of another.” The often months-long process of collecting the right items to send is a caretaking practice all its own.
The contents of balikbayans are just as much a portrait of America and the Philippines as they are of individuals. Inventory lists tend to look similar throughout the diaspora: Irish Spring soap. Jif peanut butter. Dove deodorant. Spam. Ferrero Rochers. Nikes. McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. Folgers Coffee. Colgate toothpaste. Bath & Body Works lotion. Hanes underwear. The wealth gap between many Filipino Americans and their family back home is wide, but the mere fact that the box comes from America can engender a rosy interpretation of the immigrant experience that might not be the sender’s reality. “Balikbayan boxes … [are] also a kind of currency,” Cherry Lou Sy, a playwright from Baguio City who lives in Brooklyn, told me via email. “Those who receive balikbayan boxes are ‘rich’ because they have someone they can turn to and ask when things get tough.” Ocampo echoed this notion: “A lot of the stuff people send can easily be found in the Philippines, but there’s something about sending the box that conveys to loved ones back home that we remember you.”
I didn’t have the same meticulous ritual of sending balikbayans as my lola did—first- and second-generation Filipino Americans, especially those who have never been to the Philippines or aren’t close with their relatives there, tend not to. But adopting this routine by sending boxes each Christmas, starting with this one, feels like one way for me to keep loving my lola even after her death. I kept a big cardboard box in my own closet, regularly filling it with the same food and clothing and toys that she always did. I wrote the address in thick marker, taped up the box, and sent it off. While generational and cultural differences across the diaspora become more profound over time, traditions based in ongoing community care are worth preserving.