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Balikbayan Boxes: The Filipino Tradition Expats Love to Adopt

Understanding the Balikbayan Box Tradition

When one thinks of the Philippines, images of white sandy beaches, colorful festivals, and delicious cuisine might come to mind. But there’s a less-known tradition deeply rooted in the Filipino culture that many expats have come to appreciate and adopt: the sending of Balikbayan boxes.

The term ‘Balikbayan’ is derived from two Filipino words: “balik” which means “to return” and “bayan” which stands for “town” or “country.” Historically, these boxes became a symbolic way for the Filipino diaspora to remain connected to their homeland. With over 2.2 million OFWs deployed worldwide, the Balikbayan box tradition has become an integral part of modern Filipino culture.

Literally translating to “return [to] country” box, the Balikbayan box is a package filled with a variety of items sent by Filipinos residing overseas to their families back in the Philippines. They serve as a bridge between the overseas Filipinos and their families, a way of lessening the blow of physical separation. The joy these boxes bring is unparalleled, with families often gathering to excitedly open and explore the contents together.

Originally, these boxes were a means for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to send gifts and provisions to their loved ones. It began during the 1980s when a significant number of Filipinos started working abroad. Recognizing the emotional value and economic potential, freight companies began offering specialized door-to-door cargo services to cater to this demand. You can learn more about the history and significance of Balikbayan boxes from websites like Positively Filipino.

Today, they have evolved into a beloved gesture that symbolizes love, connection, and the enduring bonds of family. They’re not just mere boxes but vessels of emotions, packed with memories, wishes, and a sense of belonging. For many recipients, the items in the box are secondary to the feelings and memories they evoke, serving as tangible reminders of family members living far away.

What Goes Inside a Balikbayan Box?

There’s no strict rule regarding the contents of a Balikbayan box. However, there are common items that many choose to include, especially things hard to find or more expensive in the Philippines. The joy of receiving a Balikbayan box is often likened to opening presents during Christmas, with each item handpicked and sent with love.

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  • Non-perishable food items such as chocolates, coffee, canned goods, and pasta. Brands that aren’t available in the Philippines, like certain specialty chocolates or gourmet food items, are especially treasured.
  • Clothing, especially if they’re from popular international brands. This includes everything from casual t-shirts to winter wear for family members planning to travel to colder countries.
  • Toys and books for younger family members. Many children eagerly await these boxes for new toys or English storybooks, often a luxury in local settings.
  • Electronics and gadgets which may be more advanced or affordable abroad. Items like smartphones, headphones, or even smart home devices are popular choices.
  • Personal care products, including lotions, perfumes, and cosmetics. Brands like Sephora or Bath & Body Works, not easily accessible in the Philippines, are often in demand.
  • Household items and small appliances like coffee makers, blenders, or unique kitchen gadgets can be a delightful surprise for families.

For expats adopting this tradition, it’s a chance to share a piece of their life abroad. Many include souvenirs, local delicacies, or even items requested by their friends or partners in the Philippines. Some expats use websites like The Spruce Eats to find unique culinary items to share or TripAdvisor to discover popular souvenirs from their host country.

Why expats Embrace the Tradition

expats, particularly those with Filipino partners or friends, often find the tradition of sending Balikbayan boxes a touching way to bridge the distance. The Philippines, with its estimated population of over 110 million, has millions living abroad. For these overseas Filipinos, and the expats intertwined with their community, Balikbayan boxes serve as a tangible bond, connecting two worlds.

  • Strengthen Bonds: Sending a box tailored to the recipient’s tastes and needs creates a personal connection. Every item tells a story, sparking conversations and helping expats feel closer despite the miles. It’s a tradition that fosters a deeper understanding of the Filipino culture and strengthens ties with loved ones or friends in the Philippines.
  • Share Experiences: expats can share slices of their overseas life, introducing loved ones to new flavors, styles, and technologies. It’s a way for recipients to vicariously travel and experience foreign cultures and products, even from afar.
  • Support Families: With the price disparity between countries, expats can provide quality items that might be pricier or harder to find in the Philippines. This isn’t just about physical goods but supporting aspirations, like sending a camera to a budding photographer relative or specialty books to a student.

By embracing the Balikbayan box tradition, expats don’t just send packages; they send parcels of love, memories, and shared experiences, solidifying their bond with the Filipino community.

Practical Tips for Sending a Balikbayan Box

If you’re an expat keen on embracing this heartfelt tradition, here are some practical tips to ensure your Balikbayan box reaches its destination safely:

  • Choose a Reputable Courier: Forex World and LBC Express are two of the most trusted couriers that cater to Balikbayan shipments. Ensure you select a known service with trackable shipping options and read customer reviews for added assurance.
  • Pack Smart: Use durable boxes that can withstand rough handling. Fill empty spaces with bubble wrap or newspapers to keep items from moving and potentially breaking. Place heavier items at the bottom and lighter items at the top. Consider double-boxing fragile items and mark the box as “Fragile” if it contains breakables.
  • Understand Customs Regulations: Visit the Philippine Bureau of Customs website to familiarize yourself with prohibited items and potential taxes or duties. Note that some items may incur additional fees or may not be allowed to be shipped at all. Keeping receipts of purchased items might be helpful in case customs officials need proof of purchase value.
  • Label Clearly: Always label your box with both the sender’s and the recipient’s details. Make sure to include contact numbers for both parties. Consider placing a duplicate label inside the box in case the exterior gets damaged. It’s also a good idea to list the contents of the box on the outside, which can expedite customs checks.
  • Consider Insurance: Depending on the value of the items you’re shipping, it might be wise to purchase insurance for your Balikbayan box. This provides additional peace of mind in case of loss or damage during transit.
  • Track and Communicate: Once shipped, regularly track your package and communicate any updates to the recipient. This ensures both parties are aware of any delays or issues and can take timely action if necessary.

The Balikbayan box tradition is a testament to the Filipinos’ deep sense of family and community. For expats, it offers a unique opportunity to engage in a meaningful practice that resonates with values of love, generosity, and connection. Whether you’re sending a box filled with gourmet food, trendy clothing, or simple tokens of affection, the act of sharing and caring remains at the heart of this beloved Filipino custom.

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