The Balikbayan Box

A small introductory excerpt from a longer piece I wrote called “Diaspora.” I’m particularly proud of my quick description of the balikbayan box. Maybe I’ll post the longer piece in the future.. maybe. For now, enjoy this short introduction.

Picture a large, brown box. Clear masking tape untidily seals the box’s flaps and  edges. Duct tape runs perpendicularly on top. One last layer of masking tape goes over everything. Triple-sealed, for good measure. A name and an address are penned on the front cover, made water-resistant by another layer of clear tape stretched above it. And finally, a stout blue rope used for lifting is tied around in right angles, the bow to this  bulging 24 x 18 x 24 inch gift. Nothing is left to chance as it makes its three month long  journey from plane to port to container to ship to forklift to car and, finally, to the home  of the addressee.

Its contents may include Van Houten or Lindt chocolate bars from Europe, new but slightly used Nikes, golden Oreos, makeup from Clinique, appliances that have seen better days, carefully bubble-wrapped gadgets and, sometimes, a stack of photos and memorabilia from months past.

These foreign goods are crammed tight inside the box. In between the spaces are implicit messages of love and care from sender to recipient, a faint cry from the burden of distance, and a strong longing for home.

This is the balikbayan box, sent from faraway places, finding its way back to the motherland. Balik meaning return. Bayan meaning country. These physical remittances are carefully parceled by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and sent to their relatives. Or by Filipino-Americans. Or Filipino immigrants. By almost permanent to very permanent foreign residents who have no other means to extend their well wishes to families they’ve left behind or hardly see.