What’s With The Balikbayan Box?

Are you a non-Filipino who’s traveled with Filipino passengers to and from the Philippines? I’m sure you’ve spotted that extra large package that we call the balikbayan box—plastered with lots of packaging tape and has the owner’s complete address written all over the box for the world to see.

I know what you were thinking. You were dying to ask, “What’s with the box?”

Well, I’m Filipino and I’m here to give you the lowdown on the balikbayan box that has somehow defined my culture. Please note that my answers do not reflect the opinion of Filipino communities worldwide. I’m just speaking from experience. I’ve been traveling in and out of the Philippines since I was 3 years old and my family and friends have lugged our fair share of balikbayan boxes.

1. What is a balikbayan box?
It’s a corrugated box that can be sent via cargo shipping, but many balikbayans (overseas Filipino workers who are returning to the Philippines after working in another country for a long period of time) prefer to check in the box during their flight home. The balikbayan box isn’t just for balikbayans; many Filipino tourists use it for short vacations and holidays.

2. What’s in it?
One or more of the following:
a. If the person is migrating to another country, it contains Filipino necessities that he can’t live without–items that he can’t find in the country he’s moving to. Examples are bagoong (shrimp paste), a tabo (bathroon dipper), and Filipino food items.
b. If the person is just on vacation, the box most likely contains pasalubong (gifts) for his friends and relatives who live in the country they’re visiting.
c. If the person is on his way back to the Philippines, it contains the items he shopped for, especially after realizing that his first check-in luggage is already full.

3. What is pasalubong?
Did you ever hear your friend say, “Ooh, buy me a little something from your trip?” Filipinos are very much into that. Pasalubong are usually souvenirs (ex. Las Vegas magnets and Universal Studios shirts) and goods (beauty products, clothes, food, toys, electronics, and anything under the sun) that the traveler gives to his family and friends as soon as he returns from the trip. The recipients prefer a brand or item that you can’t normally find in the Philippines.

4. Seriously, do you really have to buy stuff for everyone?
Yes, pasalubong and gift giving is a huge thing in our culture. I understand where you’re coming from. I travel several times a year, and sometimes I’m tired of buying pasalubong because it means I have to spend one whole day of my three-day trip just shopping for souvenirs for my long list of relatives and friends. Although I think in a western and modern point of view, I try to understand the concept of pasalubong in the traditional Filipino’s mindset: In a third-world country, not everyone is privileged to travel around the world, so a traveler gives his friends and relatives something from the trip to show his thoughtfulness and generosity. Many conservative families also see it as a sign of good values and upbringing. A traveler who gives pasalubong is revered as a person who shares his blessings.

5. What if you have absolutely no time to shop for souvenirs and pasalubong?
It happens to me all the time. My practical technique is to purchase several boxes of chocolates or food in one go. I give one box per family or group. Some Filipino travelers do the same thing, but they end up buying dozens of boxes of chocolates. They hoard extra boxes just in case someone who isn’t on the list asks for pasalubong.

6. What?! People actually ask for pasalubong?
Yes. I know it’s rude to demand gifts, but some Filipinos don’t mean any harm when they ask for gifts. It’s just their way of saying, “Hey, don’t forget about me when you’ve traveled the world!” or something like that. I admit that I get annoyed when people expect pasalubong every single time I travel.

7. Don’t you have a regular duffel bag or luggage?
Yes. Filipinos usually travel with one piece of luggage that’s half full. When the shopaholics and hoarders realize that the stuff they bought won’t fit the luggage, they’ll just purchase a balikbayan box, which costs about US$10. Purchasing a new luggage costs way more, and they want to save money. And besides, most of them think that it’s just for one-time use. Then they do it again on their next holiday. Tsk tsk.

8. Isn’t a huge box difficult to carry and transport?
Absolutely! I hate balikbayan boxes. I prefer a regular luggage with a proper handle and wheels, but most Filipinos love the idea of bringing home a box. I think it’s because it resembles a giant gift box. You take it home to an excited family waiting for pasalubong, then you rip the box in front of everyone and distribute the gifts you bought. It’s like Christmas day!

9. Why does it look like crap?
It’s cheap, bulky, and packaged with lots of tape and rope. The airport security and baggage team would toss them around like a ball, so they end up looking like crap. I’ve even seen a balikbayan box that was so mangled that you could see the contents—Nike Jordans, M&Ms and all—before the owner could pick it up.

10. I’m not Filipino. May I try using a balikbayan box for my flight back home?
Of course, mate! I love seeing Europeans and Americans give the whole balikbayan box a go. Don’t forget to fill it with packs of dried mangoes and jars of bagoong (native shrimp paste) for the full Pinoy experience.

One Comment

  1. […] my parents or aunts come home with those familiar boxes as pasalubong ignited our spirits. A happy meal box signaled a fun meal full of tomato ketchup (I was the ketchup […]

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