How Filipino Families Send Care Packages - The Balikbayan Box
Most Filipino families know what a balikbayan box is. Essentially a care package, it symbolizes many things to a lot of families touched by the Filipino diaspora.
For the sender, typically the breadwinner who has left their family in the Philippines to find better opportunities abroad, the balikbayan box is a collection of items carefully saved up over the course of several months and then shipped out to their loved ones back home. For the recipient, it is a pile of presents on top of several months’ worth of household supplies, pantry staples, and other essentials.
The Filipino word balikbayan comes from balik, which means “to return,” and bayan, which refers to one’s homeland. A balikbayan is a person who is returning home. When they are unable to come home, they send a box filled with gifts — symbolizing perhaps an apology, a promise, or simply, a deep love unbroken by distance.
Elsewhere and Home
I have family in different parts of the globe, and anyone who can send a package during the holidays always will. Opening one of these boxes is always a family occasion, with everyone gathered around the package, excited to discover its contents.
It’s usually covered in layers of packaging tape and sometimes further secured with a nylon rope or plastic straps. My favorite part comes right after cutting through everything and finally pulling the box flaps open — the scent of elsewhere, close to fresh laundry, wafts through the air as we start unpacking the box.
My parents, who live in the Middle East, still send boxes for my brothers and me - even today. These boxes remind us of another place we once called home. Besides some items that are cheaper in Riyadh, they send us old favorites from our childhood there: jars of locally made cream cheese, bags of pistachios, bottles of spices. Sometimes, they send us knick-knacks from our early years after decluttering their home. Often, they send us new clothes that our mom had already laundered so we could wear them right away.
The box doesn’t care how old you are. It is an expression of love, a symbol of returning and meeting again. A link between elsewhere and home, or a link between two homes.
A Genuine Act of Love
To me, what makes this tradition a genuine act of love is how the sender patiently and thoughtfully collects those items throughout the year as their budget allows, and then carefully packs the items so they reach their destination intact. It takes planning and commitment.
It is a care package that shows care by including the basics and the staples so that the household that receives it can worry less about the groceries for a few weeks or months. It is an act of service from afar.
While the balikbayan box is a significant part of Filipino culture, anyone can do something similar for their loved ones who are far away. Especially during a time when some families are forced to be apart during the holidays, sending over a care package can speak volumes and help bridge the distance.