This week I received my first Balikbayan box. The Balikbayan box, which literally translates to back to the home, became a popular trend under Ferdinand Marcos who arranged legislation and passage of Filipinos to work overseas and for boxes of personal goods coming to the Philippines by the ever-growing overseas Filipinos to be tax-free. The Balikbayan box is made of a wide variety of goods ranging from toiletries to food that is shipped back to overseas Filipinos’ homes for families and friends. ‘Balikbayans’ is a term used for overseas workers who ship these boxes to help their community at home through the contents of the boxes and through monetary remittances. Balikbayan boxes have come to represent a tradition of Filipino culture called Pasalubong, a tradition of giving to family and friends after travel both abroad and domestically.
In the history of this relatively young nation, Filipinos have proven to have one of the largest Diasporas in the world. Balikbayan boxes are something that allows Filipinos to still have their traditions and help their communities in spite of the distance between family and friends. These boxes re-negotiate the Filipino the world over, allowing the always-family first Filipinos to stay close.
Economics and culture talk aside; this was an eye-opening experience. For years I had dutifully helped my parents and other relatives pack boxes full of goods that I really could only refer to as “stuff.” I never understood the significance, nor did I understand why the recipients in this far off exotic place, the Philippines, even needed such a random collection of “stuff.” These were going to relatives I had never met or rarely seen. But after my extended stay here, seeing relatives, returning to the “ancestral homes,” I get it. These boxes are more than a 18″ X 16″X 18″ piece of cardboard. They are cultural agents made by a people who refuse to let circumstances tear apart their family and friends. Balikbayan boxes evoke the same spirit of the Filipinos following Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda of unwillingness to break community and familial ties against the odds. I feel part of that Filipino sense of community across the globe. My Balikbayan box allowed me to feel closer to my parents thousands of miles away but also to the relatives and friends with whom I will share the contents of the box. For me, this box represented a unity of an old world and a new world, a merger of the life I have lived with the lives of those who came before me.
“He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.”
-Jose Rizal, Filipino patriot, founding father, and artist
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Paul Fontelo '13