The Balikbayan Box

“So, a lot of Filipinos emigrate from the Philippines, and my family is one of them. I’m third generation—my grandparents immigrated here. I’m not sure how it is for every Filipino family in America, but for my grandparents, it was hard to get assimilated into this culture because of the language barrier and the accents. My grandfather had a hard time getting jobs and people would look down on him because of his accent, so when they came to America, they didn’t want to give their kids that experience. They wanted them to learn English and speak it well, but even though they value their Filipino heritage, my grandmother was very strict about ‘we’re in America now. We’re going to adopt this culture.’ Since we were benefiting from America and living in America, we should use that culture. And that’s where they stopped practicing many Filipino customs. She was very excited about the opportunities in America. But one thing we have always observed is the balikbayan box. In Filipino culture, it’s custom that if you move to America, you send a balikbayan box back to the Philippines. It’s basically a box of things from your new culture and things you can’t get in the Philippines. So, for a long time, that included things like chocolate. That’s more readily available now, but you would send a box full of things that were hard to come by in the Philippines. And also, when I visited my family in the Philippines, we brought a lot of stuff with us. It’s kind of a custom that when you visit your family in the Philippines, you bring a balikbayan box. Treats and different things for them. At the airport, it was funny, because a lot of the luggage was boxes that said “balikbayan box” on them. It’s just a way of bringing them things from better-developed countries like America. I think it just goes along with the whole culture of a close family in Filipino culture. Family is extremely important, so it’s an expected thing. It’s not necessarily a sign of respect. It’s just a thing you do for your family because family is so important.”


In other parts of our interview, my informant stressed how important the idea of respect is in Filipino culture, particularly respect for elders. Although she did not feel that that played a large role in the case of the balikbayan boxes, I believe the story of her grandparents’ immigration suggests otherwise. Her grandparents decided to try to make life in America easier for their children by ignoring many Filipino traditions. Although this is not something that was done maliciously or that would have been paraded in front of older relatives still in the Philippines, it still could be seen as a rejection of the culture and customs imparted to them by their older relatives for their entire lives. In this way, it is almost a rejection of their older relatives and the culture that is so important to them. Having the tradition of sending the balikbayan box allows Filipino emigrants to temper that rejection. They send a box full of only items from their new country and culture, but it is sent according to the traditions of their former country and culture for the enjoyment of the family they left behind. It becomes a gesture of respect, almost a promise to their relatives that, despite the large influence of the new culture the emigrants are becoming absorbed in, they will still remember Filipino traditions and practice those that affect older relatives still in the Philippines. Regularly presenting gifts to their family promises that their respect for their family, even in a different country with different traditions, is still intact.