My Love-Hate Relationship with the Balikbayan Box

I was 20 when I first felt embarrassed of the balikbayan box. My family and I had just arrived at LAX after a 14-hour flight from Manila. We were waiting for our bags at the luggage carousel when an American couple stood next to Papa and me, whispering to each other.

“I don’t get it,” I overheard the guy saying. “What’s with the boxes?” They stared at my kababayan (fellow Filipinos) grabbing corrugated boxes sealed in packaging tape and rope. Names and addresses were scribbled on all sides of the boxes. Many of them were disheveled and torn, some with the contents awkwardly exposed. The guy’s partner shook her head with a bewildered look. “I don’t understand either.”

The rest of my family was at the other end of the carousel, looking for our bags. The couple spotted theirs, two light duffels, which they picked up with ease. I watched as other Filipinos scrambled to grab their clunky, cargo-sized boxes and place them on the trolley. Some senior citizens fumbled with theirs until someone nearby was nice enough to help.

Immigration officers randomly stopped passengers on their way to the checkout counter. “Did you pack this yourself? Are you sure you didn’t bring any bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) or patis (salty fish sauce)?” Some people were led to a special area where their boxes were cut open and the contents—Nike shoes and all—were examined one by one. A gloved officer pulled out a bottle of what looked like bagoong. The guilty passenger scratched his head.

I felt mortified for the guy. This is what my grandmother, a retired U.S. immigration officer, has been telling us for years—that the reputation of Filipino travelers is getting tainted, thanks to those who sneak in Filipino goods and other undeclared items, on top of many other airport rules they break.

When we found our luggage and stacked them on our trolleys, my family of five walked to the “Nothing to Declare” counter. A pungent smell entered my nose. “Oh no,” I said. “Did Lola (Tagalog for grandmother) bring any patis?” I asked Papa.

It turned out someone else from our flight packed a bottle of patis in his/her balikbayan box, but the glass broke and it spilled onto Lola’s bag during transit. I was so relieved that the immigration officer didn’t smell anything funny as he let us exit without a glitch. Lola spent the rest of the night cursing the unknown passenger.

My childhood memories of balikbayan boxes were more pleasant. For my sister Karen and I, the box was a giant load of pasalubong (gifts) that came whenever my parents returned home from a trip abroad. Whenever they’d unload their luggage from the car, my eyes wandered to see if there’s a box wrapped in tape and rope. And there always was!

“What did you get me? Oh, I think that’s mine!” my sister and I said as we dug through the balikbayan box filled with chocolates, clothes, and toys that you can’t find in the Philippines. We proudly showed them off to our cousins: “Papa got this Gameboy from the States!”

Pasalubong is when Filipinos bring home “a little something” after a trip. It shows thoughtfulness, no matter how long or short you’ve been away. My family allots a few hours to a whole day just for pasalubong shopping. There’s always a long list of relatives and friends to shop for, and my parents buy extra gifts in case they forget someone.

“Do we really have to buy something for every single person?” I once asked Mama. “Yes, of course. They will expect it when we get back,” she explained.

As for the cargo box that stores all the pasalubong, it got its name from balikbayan, a Filipino who returns to the motherland after living abroad for many years. Balik = return. Bayan = country. The balikbayan box trend began in the ’80s when overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) regularly sent their families a box of care goods via shipping or air freight. Then when it’s time to come home, an extra box is part of their checked baggage.

Growing up with the iconic box as part of my travels, I learned to pack like a pro. Hard, sturdy items stay at the bottom. “Use your towels and clothes to pad the sides and top,” my parents taught me. My sister and I would even compete to see who could pack the best box—the one that fits the most items without going over the allowed check-in weight. Plus points go to the box that doesn’t tear upon arrival in Manila.

When I began traveling alone in my ’20s, I swore I’d be a smarter traveler by avoiding balikbayan boxes. I took pride in slipping in and out of airports with my light stroller bags while my kababayan with overweight boxes were processed longer at the check-in counter.

Then I started missing my family. I often said, “I wish my sister were here to try this,” whenever I ate at a café I knew she’d like. I wanted to share my experiences with loved ones, so I bought them a lot of pasalubong—“I Love NY” shirts from Manhattan, a box of Hawaiian Host from Waikiki, See’s Candies from California, Mickey Mouse key chains from Disneyland, a chopstick set from Thailand. The more touristy the pasalubong, the better.

I also couldn’t escape Filipino hospitality. No matter how light I travel, my luggage ends up with bottles of perfumes, t-shirts, and souvenirs that my Filipino friends give me whenever I visit their city. “Here, give this Victoria’s Secret fragrance set to your mom and sister when you go home!” “Here, give this box of Truvia to your dad. It’s for his diabetes!”

Last year I was in Santa Monica, about to ride a bus to San Francisco, when I realized my bag was 20 lbs. overweight. My L.A.-based friend Carlo helped me buy a small balikbayan box from the Filipino supermarket and we filled it with all the gifts I got from friends. I cushioned the contents with my excess clothes. We sealed it with tape and paid for the shipping fee.

Weeks after I returned to the Philippines, our doorbell rang. “Kate, your balikbayan box is here!” Mama yelled from downstairs. I excitedly ran out to sign the delivery slip, and spent the whole afternoon digging through the contents, half of which were for my family and friends.

*This article was produced as an assignment for Matador U, where I’m currently taking a travel journalism course.