The Box That Brings Christmas to the Philippines

Photo by Andrew Henderson / The National

By Jason Reblando/citylab.com – If you are Filipino, or have been to a Filipino household, you are probably familiar with one of the most recognizable symbols of the Filipino diaspora: the balikbayan box.

I grew up with these giant cardboard boxes. About the size of a microfridge, a box would take up an inordinate amount of space in my parents’ living room or garage for months at a time. My parents would slowly fill it with perfumes, children’s clothing, Spam, tins of butter cookies, and other non-perishable items. The unsightly box would eventually be bound for relatives in the Philippines, but for the most part it sat open for months, waiting to be packed and shipped.

The balikbayan shipping industry is predicated upon the roughly 10 percent of the population of the Philippines who live and work abroad as permanent migrants or as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), contract workers who leave their families for years—sometimes decades—at a time to support their families back home. The boxes might simply be thought of as care packages, but to consider the nuances of this culturally specific shipping service is to reveal emotional and financial back stories we often take for granted. Also, they differ from care packages in an important way: whereas traditional care packages send loved ones reminders of home, balikbayan boxes are poignant reminders that the senders are perpetually away from home.

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