Tempest over the balikbayan box | Inquirer Opinion
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Tempest over the balikbayan box

I have never personally received a balikbayan box from abroad addressed to me, nor have I sent one home from abroad to myself (to, say, avoid airline excess baggage fees). But I have surely received items that came from someone’s balikbayan box, like not-so-easy-to-find food items that I want (flax seeds, for example). I also receive bath and beauty stuff, health supplements, American-made fruit cake—thank you—which can be bought here.

A university professor who chose to remain in the Philippines and whose entire family migrated to the US, usually refers to food items in her newly arrived balikbayan box as “food aid” and we all laugh about it and enjoy the manna. In this disaster-prone country, anything useful or edible sent from overseas is considered a gesture of affection and caring.


Books for me in a balikbayan box? Never. The gift of books is usually hand-carried.

A tempest brewed over the plan of new Customs Chief Alberto Lina to subject balikbayan boxes to inspection, and its taxable contents to taxation. Cited reasons are the use of balikbayan boxes for contraband and prohibited items like drugs, luxury goods in commercial quantities, firearms and ammunition. Legit concerns, surely, but many cry out: Must the majority suffer for the sins of the few? Why not run after the big-time smugglers instead of poking into balikbayan boxes?


The furor has yet to die down and the way people have raised a howl and spoofed the plan, one would think they are against something that can spell the rise and fall of the country’s economy, or the violation of a cultural symbol.

But cargo balikbayan boxes are not mere cardboard boxes. They contain, not only an assortment of items—from disposable diapers and towels to signature bags and watches, name it—for those back home. There is so much more packed into them than their material contents; much more poured into them than their senders—many of them homesick overseas Filipino workers (OFWs)—can put into words.

But not to overlook the fact that balikbayan boxes are also symbolic of some Filipinos’ penchant for lavish spending relative to their humble earning capacities abroad, their way of compensating for their absence and, for their next of kin back home, the craving for things foreign and even to show off. Surely there is a downside to overdoing things.

Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and those interested in Filipinos who toil abroad—the so-called modern-day heroes who help boost the economy, the accidental missionaries and evangelizers in their adopted countries—have studied the new lifestyles that are the outcome of this diaspora. More than 10 million OFWs, not immigrants who uprooted themselves permanently from the homeland, could be a whole country in itself.

Think of the balikbayan boxes they have been sending to their families back home over the years. A number of OFWs have, in fact, set up their own freight forwarding companies that serve the needs of their compatriots. They understand the needs, financial capacities and yearning for home of those who are now going through what they once went through as struggling OFWs.

The first balikbayan boxes came from the US in the 1980s when many Filipinos who settled there regularly sent boxes of goods to their relatives in the Philippines. Fil-Am forwarders noticed and offered door-to-door delivery of these boxes that were charged import duties upon arrival in the Philippines. But sometime during the presidency of Cory Aquino, the duties were waived in recognition of the OFWs’ contribution to the Philippine economy.

The balikbayan box has since evolved into three regular sizes. The cost of delivery is computed according to the origin and destination. Weight is not a consideration. The box has become ubiquitous and easily available in Filipino stores abroad.


Here are some prohibited items that may not go into the box: currencies, checks, traveler’s checks and money orders; jewelry; firearms, ammunition and explosives; prohibited drugs and substances; pornographic materials, gambling cards and toy guns; pirated products (CDs, DVD). The Department of Trade and Industry suggests that those sending by sea should deal only with Philippine Shippers Bureau-accredited sea cargo consolidators and freight forwarders that have Philippine counterparts. One can learn about sending balikbayan boxes from the Internet.

There is a story in every box. Who is the sender, who is the recipient? I don’t mean their names as written on the box. But who indeed are they, what are they like, where, how are they? What went into every box? Why? For whom?

I read an article about an OFW who was preparing a balikbayan box, putting in goods inside it and making her thoughts and feelings known. Filling the box was, for her, an act of love. She couldn’t be there for her kids, she might as well shop for them. She thought about their every need, their every whim. Maybe she needed to do this for herself, more than her family needed to receive what she was sending. Would it have been better if she sent money instead? Who is to say?

But there should be a limit to all the sentimentality and to thoughtlessly sending crap (iodized salt, instant noodles, about-to-expire food items, sanitary napkins, microwave ovens) that are available in Philippine stores. Also, how to curb the criminal use of these boxes.

In this country that thrives on padala (no exact English translation) or something sent or received, a balikbayan box is more than cargo. It is a story.


Overseas absentee voters can register via the site that my Canada-based friend, Mila Alvarez-Magno, developed: http://irehistro.info.


Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com.

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TAGS: Alberto Lina, Balikbayan box, Customs, ofws
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