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The Philippines

Homesick Filipinos overseas fuel billion-dollar gift box industry

Balikbayan boxes, named after the Tagalog word for a returning Filipino, help feed relatives who are struggling, console daughters separated from their mothers, and give far-flung overseas workers a tangible tether to their families

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 4:23pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 7:14pm

About three hours before Philippines Flight 302 leaves for Manila from LAX, the boxes begin to spill onto the curb in front of the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

Packed with gifts such as Kirkland chocolates, hand-me-down clothes and Spam for relatives overseas, the cardboard containers criss-cross the terminal in a daily game of luggage Tetris, driven by the Filipino tradition of packing, sending and travelling with balikbayan boxes.

The practice originates with a Philippines government-sponsored programme that offered special tourism incentives, including baggage allowances, to encourage overseas workers to return and spend their wages in the homeland.

Today balikbayan boxes, named after the Tagalog word for a returning Filipino, have become one of the most enduring symbols of the Filipino diaspora.

The boxes help feed relatives who are struggling, console daughters separated from their mothers, and give far-flung overseas workers a tangible tether to their families.

“There are many who spend their entire lives as carers, and the boxes are sometimes their only remnant of a home in the Filipino community,” said Anthony Ocampo, a professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona and the author of The Latinos of Asia: How Filipinos Break the Rules of Race.

For many overseas Filipinos, balikbayan boxes became the best way to bridge that distance.

Carmelita De La Cruz, 70, who worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong, scrimped and saved to put dresses, chocolates and toys in her children’s care packages.

The practice was formalised by an official government initiative to encourage returning Filipinos, or balikbayans, to spend their foreign wages at home in the Philippines.

Tourism officials offered reduced airfares on the then-government-owned Philippines Airlines, hotel discounts, tax breaks and, most important, generous baggage allowances.

Returning foreign workers, who earned far more than their relatives could back home, needed to bring so many gifts that they soon quit using luggage in favour of large cardboard boxes, which could be packed to the very limit of an airline’s weight allowance.

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The balikbayan promotion was supposed to last only six months, but the profitable initiative was extended repeatedly until it became permanent.

Now, about 10 million Filipinos work abroad. About 400,000 balikbayan boxes are sent every month, according to the Door-to-door Consolidated Association of the Philippines. That number drastically increases during the holiday season.

In 1987, the government officially waived taxes and duties on goods in balikbayan boxes. Around that time, in Los Angeles and other Filipino enclaves in the US, entrepreneurs like Rico Nunga, 60, began to offer door-to-door delivery of balikbayan boxes to the Philippines for between US$40 to US$80 -cheaper than it would cost to send a box across the street. Nunga, who founded one of the first door-to-door companies in 1985, said the box sizes were set large to maximise the space inside standard shipping containers.

Other box companies quickly spread to Filipino enclaves around the United States, where they’re now a common sight in places such as West Covina, Eagle Rock and Carson, especially near locations of the Filipino supermarket Seafood City.

The industry capitalised on what was already a powerful force among Filipinos, Ocampo said: homesickness.

“There are many immigrant Filipinos who spend their entire lives as carers. The boxes are sometimes their only connection to a home in the Filipino community,” he said.

For most of Jennifer Virgenes’ childhood, De La Cruz’s boxes proved that her mother was always thinking of her, Virgenes said.

And when De La Cruz retired after 40 years cleaning houses in Hong Kong, Virgenes brought her to America so that they could finally be together.

She had hoped that they could enjoy a quiet, comfortable retirement together. But almost immediately, De La Cruz took a job as a cashier at a Ralphs grocery store.

Her mother was bored, Virgenes said, and there was something else De La Cruz needed money for: sending balikbayan boxes to her family in the Philippines.

The contents of a balikbayan box are shaped by history, colonialism and Filipino ideas about family.

But much of it can actually be found at Costco.

American-made or American-sold products are highly coveted. Vending machine standbys such as M&M’s, Snickers, Twix and Reese’s convey status upon relatives in the Philippines because they’re American products, which are seen as higher-quality, special-occasion foods. Colgate toothpaste, Spam and corned meat are big.

Decades of US colonisation and influence made many Filipinos avid consumers of American culture and products, Ocampo said.

Before a box is sent, the sender usually speaks with relatives and friends about their tastes, preferences and needs. Relatives who have never met one another can form close relationships through phone calls, video chats and gift giving.

Ocampo himself grew up with boxes all over his house. When his grandmother took him out shopping for shoes, she would carry handmade cut-out stencils of his cousins’ feet so she could send them correct size of shoe.

His old clothes often went into boxes, then appeared on his cousins. When his grandmother passed away, his cousins took the loss hard, even though they had never spent much time with her.

“She was always calling them and sending stuff back to them,” Ocampo said.

If the sender’s family is poor or lives in a rural area, the box is more likely to contain rice and other staples.

If the sender is prideful, the box may be full of expensive products even if the sender’s bank account is nearing empty. The boxes embody the little white lies immigrants tell to console their relatives back home and affirm their decision to leave.

“Home could be in complete disarray. They could be living a not great life,” Ocampo said.

“But the box is going to be the box, and that’s all people are going to see.”

What’s in a typical balikbayan box?

Amy Guzman, who will be visiting her family in the Philippines, displays the contents of the two balikbayan boxes she will take to her family. Here’s what’s inside:

Colgate, Crest and Secret deodorant: American brands like Colgate and Crest seem like mundane inclusions, but they are especially desirable in the Philippines, where a history of US colonisation has shaped consumer tastes.

Clothes: Many balikbayan boxes contain new or used clothing for relatives in the Philippines, often contributed by relatives in the US and shoe brands like Nike and Adidas win fashion points with young people, because certain models released in the US aren’t available in the Philippines.

Purses, perfumes and cosmetics: Boxes also contain more traditional gifts from overseas Filipinos who want to share their relative wealth with their less fortunate family members back home. The peak of the balikbayan box season is always Christmas.

The boxes: Large door-to-door balikbayan box companies like Atlas, LBC, and Starkargo have professionalised the practice of sending balikbayan boxes via shipping container or airmail. Shipping a box costs anywhere from US$40 to US$80, and it’s often cheaper to send boxes to the Philippines through these services than it is to send it across the street using US carriers.

Backpack, towels and sheets: A balikbayan box is typically preceded by weeks of communication between overseas Filipinos and their relatives in the Philippines to try to learn about the needs and wants of each of their family members.

Chocolate: Chocolates, and many other kinds of confectionery, are one of the most common balikbayan box items. Common brands like Snickers and M&M’s are highly desirable, and more expensive confectionery brands like Ferrero Rocher are comparatively affordable in the US, and they can be bought cheaply, in bulk, at American stores like Costco.