The easiest way to spot a Filipino in an international airport is to look for the balikbayan box.

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 large corrugated box plastered with lots of packaging tape and has the owner’s complete name and address written all over the box for the world to see. That’s a balikbayan box.

I remember waiting for my bags at the luggage carousel of LAX when I overheard an American couple whisper to each other, “What’s with the box?” as they bewilderedly stared at my kababayan (fellow Filipinos) grabbing their heavy boxes and stacking them on their trolleys.

If you find yourself wondering as well, here’s my attempt to answer the questions you’ve been dying to ask about our dear balikbayan box.

1. What is a balikbayan box?
In the 80s, OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) would send care packages to their loved ones back in the Philippines. Because it was pricey to send little gifts one by one, they placed all their gifts (ex. toys, canned goods, chocolates, and clothes) in a large cargo box and sent them via shipping or air freight. Then when it’s time to come home after many years of working abroad, an extra box of more gifts is part of the checked baggage. It became known as balikbayan box in reference to the balikbayan, an OFW returning back to the motherland. The use of balikbayan boxes caught on, and even short-time travelers began using them.

2. What’s in it?
a. If the person is migrating to another country, it contains Filipino necessities that he can’t easily find in the country he’s moving to. Examples are bagoong (fermented shrimp paste), a tabo (bathroon dipper), and other 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 he’s visiting.
c. If the person is on his way back to the Philippines, it contains the pasalubong for loved ones, souvenirs he collected during the trip, and many other items he bought for himself.

3. What is pasalubong?
Pasalubong (gift) is the Filipino custom of bringing home “a little something” for relatives and friends after a trip, whether it’s just a weekend out of town or a month-long vacation abroad. The more touristy the pasalubong, the better: “I Love Las Vegas” magnets, eiffel tower key chains from Paris, Golden Gate Bridge sweaters from San Francisco. Some loved ones even give the traveler a list of things to get him, such as electronics and branded clothes that are much cheaper abroad, or goods that you can’t find in the Philippines.

4. Is it true that you buy pasalubong for everyone?
Yes. Some of my friends even buy pasalubong for every relative, officemate, and gym buddy. It can be frustrating. I travel several times a year, and sometimes I’m tired of buying pasalubong because it means I have to spend hours to a whole day of my three-day trip to shop for souvenirs for my long list of relatives and friends. One thing I learned growing up in a third-world country is that not everyone is privileged to travel internationally, so giving pasalubong is a way of sharing your blessings. A traveler who gives pasalubong is revered as a person who is kind and generous.

5. What if you have absolutely no time to shop for pasalubong?
It happens to me all the time. My technique is to purchase several boxes of chocolates in one go. I give one box per family or group instead of buying individual items per person. My parents would even buy extra pasalubong just in case they forget someone.

6. What?! People actually ask for pasalubong?
Yes. In many cultures it’s rude to demand presents, but Filipinos don’t mean any harm when they ask for pasalubong. It’s just their way of saying, “Hey, don’t forget about me when you’ve traveled the world!”

7. Don’t you have a duffel bag or regular luggage for those items?
We usually travel with one checked luggage that’s only half full (to make room for souvenirs, of course). After souvenir hoarding and manic shopping at outlet stores, we realize that our loot won’t even fit the first bag. Then it’s time to purchase a balikbayan box, which costs about US$10. It’s cheaper than buying a new piece of luggage that we won’t really need. We think that the box is just for a one-time use. Then we do it again on our next holiday.

8. Isn’t a huge box difficult to carry and transport?
Absolutely! I have a lot-hate relationship with balikbayan boxes. I prefer a regular luggage with a proper handle and wheels, but most Filipinos love the idea of bringing home a balikbayan box. I think it’s because it resembles a giant gift box. When I was a little girl, my sister and I excitedly waited for our parents to return from their US trip. As soon as we spotted the balikbayan box, we would rip it open and go through all the pasalubong. It’s like Christmas day!

9. Why does it look like crap?
It’s cheap, bulky, and packaged with lots of tape and rope. In transit, they get tossed around like a ball, so they end up looking like crap. I’ve even seen a balikbayan box that was so mangled you could see the contents—Nike Jordans, M&Ms and all—before the owner even picked it up.

10. I’m not Filipino. May I try using a balikbayan box for my flight back home?
Of course! I love seeing foreigners give the balikbayan box a go. Now remember, there’s an art to packing a durable balikbayan box. Hard, sturdy items stay at the bottom. Use your towels and clothes to pad the sides and top. Tape each side at least three times. Don’t even try smuggling bagoong or other foul-smelling bottled goods into the box. My grandmother is a retired US immigration officer and she has a lot of crazy stories of that kind. Not worth it!

Originally posted on: Feb. 8, 2011
Updated on: February 4, 2015