With my limited knowledge of the lexicon and nonexistent knowledge of verb conjugations, I know the word balik means “to come back” and bayan means “home”. Balikbayan, as far as I know, is only used in reference to the large boxes we send to our relatives in the Philippines for Christmas, or otherwise bring ourselves when we visit. (It also refers to anyone who returns to the Philippines after living abroad; in fact, I think this is the original use of the word.) In any case, an open balikbayan box in the middle of the living room, open and waiting to be filled, is a familiar, recurring sight to me.
We never pack heavy things, but always manage to reach whatever weight limit is imposed by the airline’s package regulations. And the things we pack are always the most mundane items you could think of — Dove soaps bought in bulk, packaged snacks, t-shirts from Wal-Mart and my own closet, boxes and boxes of Hersheys and M&Ms.
Yes, that’s the question, isn’t it — what goes into a balikbayan box?
Old clothes maybe, blouses that I thought were pretty but never wore and would eventually just throw into a Goodwill pile only for my mom to pull them out and say, “What, you don’t like this? This is pretty! No? It’s still good. We can send it to the Philippines.” My aunt, who lives in Toronto, once sent to my lola’s house in Mandaue City a balikbayan box full of things I’d never seen before: it had Tim Tams in it, which was such an exotic artifact to me.
My mother is always sending textbooks. Every few years, the high school where she teaches algebra and trig replaces the textbooks because they get worn down, or a new edition comes out. When it’s time to throw the old ones out, she says, “Wait — give them to me,” and I know exactly where they go: in a large white box, onto a truck, then a plane, then another truck, into her home province, and to a classroom, the one where they say she used to bring me as a child and I would doodle on the chalkboard talking nonsense to myself, distracting her students while she lectured in the sweltering, tropical heat.
And of course, when the typhoon hit, there were boxes to be sent. Perishable foods. Toilet paper. Shampoos. But this time to complete strangers.
This entire cultural practice must have started as a gift-giving routine in the 1970s, quickly growing into the “billion-dollar industry of homesickness” (as the LA Times called it) that it is today. In the context of history, this is a very short amount of time — but then again, Filipino-American history is very short. It’s a very specific history, one that begins with the great colonization at the turn of the century but is shaped hugely by the migration movements of the century’s second half, after independence — after 1965, to be more precise. This means, quite remarkably, that the history of the balikbayan box is young enough to place its origins within living memory.
My family must have sent dozens of balikbayan boxes since coming to the US, and it is a notorious inconvenience. They take weeks to fill, marked by multiple trips to Costco, and we are constantly heaving them onto a scale on the floor to make sure it doesn’t surpass the weight limit. Next, the box goes into the car and we’re lugging it around the airport along with our large suitcases (which sometimes contain things that wouldn’t fit in the box). It’s telling, I think, that one of the largest migrant/immigrant populations in the world is so stubbornly committed to maintaining ties to the home they left behind.
When I think about it, there is no image as profound and rife with meaning as the sight of this plain, oversized box practically mummified by yards of packing tape; there is hardly any item in the world that so concisely symbolizes our migrations across space and time, like imaginary, bidirectional lines stretched out from one point to millions of points across the globe. From Toronto to Mandaue; from Stockton to Manila. From Denver; from Kuala Lumpur; from Sydney; from Riyadh; from Abu Dhabi… The balikbayan box is an item so embedded in my and my family’s cultural consciousness that we hardly stop to think about what that box tells us. We hardly need to — the message is clear. Do not forget that you come from somewhere. Do not forget why you are here. Do not forget what and whom you have left behind.
To our family across the ocean, it tells them, quite simply: We remember you.