17 September 2010

The Balikbayan Box

During my brief visit to the St. Mary’s College of California in 2000, except for the first night, I and my colleague lived at the Brothers’ Community which hosted us for the duration of our stay in the United States. Peculiar to St. Mary’s was that, although it was only one school, there were actually two communities of Brothers within the same campus. I will not get into the details since this is not really about the Brothers.

Every morning, Brothers from both communities went to breakfast at a common dining room across the narrow road from where the Brothers quarters were located. Catered food was brought in everyday without fail. Brothers came and went depending on whatever schedules they had for each day. My colleague and I had breakfast at the same dining room and we would chat amicably with whoever was present when we came in.

Lunch was also supposed to be at the same place; albeit, since we were visiting from the home country, we were always on the road seeing people here and there. If we were not invited to have supper outside, then we ate with our hosts at their own community dining room at the second floor above where the quarters were.

One such night, close to when we were about to depart for home, we lounged with a few Brothers who were kind enough to ask about what life might be where we came from. A few of the Brothers had been assigned to the Philippines, so they were comfortable with the topic and contributed a line here and there.

One asked with what airline we were flying, and we told him we were – naturally – flying with PAL. The Brothers’ eyes suddenly glistened with humor. “At San Francisco International,” one of them volunteered, “one could always tell which check-in counter was PAL’s.”

The other Brothers laughed. Since I, for one, looked baffled, he went on, “There is always a queue of balikbayan boxes in front of the counter!” He was not, however, being derogatory. In fact, all the Brothers at our little circle had nothing but fondness for this Filipino idiosyncrasy.

No other nationalities, or so the Brothers told us, went back to the home country trying to make sure there was at least a little something for every member of the family; or, just as frequently, even the extended family. To the Brothers, this was a characteristic that showed how closely-knit the Filipino family was, a trait that many Westerners – and certainly, the Americans – lost a long time ago.

The balikbayan box is not just the accumulation of one person’s presents for those waiting back home. In many cases, whole families live as expatriates abroad. When one or two are due to fly back home, every one of those who will be staying behind makes sure he or she contributes to the contents of the box before it is sealed with tape.

When there is still space inside the box, other expatriate Filipinos whose families back in the Philippines live close to the families of those who will be going home naturally try to be practical and ask if their presents can be carried as well in the same box.

The balikbayan box is almost an inevitability for any Filipino who goes abroad. If one travels abroad for leisure, there are those back home – not only family but also friends – who will be expecting things not readily available in the local market. Even a keychain will suffice. Everyone just needs to feel that one has not been forgotten.

For Filipino expatriates who go abroad to work, well… I suppose the very essence of working abroad in the first place is to be able to afford to buy things one can never hope to purchase with what one normally earns in the Philippines. The expatriate, naturally, looks forward to the day when he or she can bring these back home to families and friends waiting in the country.

For those who cannot afford to go back to the Philippines frequently – or for those whose work seldom presents them with opportunities to go home – they will always have friends through whom they can send home gifts to remind everyone that – while they are thousands of miles from these beautiful island home of ours – they are still very much part of the closely-knit families that many nationals – and certainly the Brothers we lived with – admire us for.

That sense of belonging is very much represented by the balikbayan box.

This story actually ends here, but for those who still have the stamina, I would like to add this Internet classic which has been going around for years now from one Filipino Inbox to another for the simple reason that it captures who we are as a people. It is both melancholy and hilarious. It is even self-deprecating and may even be offensive to the sensitive. For those who have yet to read this, here is the classic – and very much public property – story:

THE BALIKBAYAN BOX

“Registered nurse si Bebeng sa L.A. Kasama niya ang kanyang ina na nagpagamot doon. Namatay ang ina nito. Dahil sa kamahalan ng pamasahe pabalik sa Pilipinas, nagtipid si Bebeng. Pinauwi na lang niya ang kabaong ng kanyang ina na mag-isa.

“Pagdating ng kabaong, napansin ng mga kapamilya niya na nakadikit ang mukha ng ina sa salamin ng ataul. Nagkomento tuloy and isang anak, “Ay, naku! Tingnan mo ‘yan… Hindi sila marunong mag-ayos ng bangkay sa Amerika! Nakudrado tuloy ang mukha ng inay.”

“Upang ayusin ang itsura ng bangkay, binuksan ang kabaong. Aba! May sulat na-nakastaple sa dibdib ng ina. Kinuha nila ito at binasa. Ang nilalaman ng liham na mula kay Bebeng:

“Mahal kong tatay at mga kapatid:

“Pasensya na kayo at hindi ko nasamahan ang nanay sa pag-uwi riyan sa Pilipinas dahil napakamahal ng pamasahe. Ang gastos ko pa lang sa kanya ay mahigit $10,000 na. Ayoko nang isipin pa ang eksaktong halaga. Anyway, ipinadala ko kasama ni nanay ang mga sumusunod…

“Nasa likod ni nanay ang dalawampu’t apat na karne-norte at isang dosenang spam. Ang Adidas na suot ni nanay ay para kay tatay. Ang limang pares ng de-goma ay nasa loob ng dalawang asul na Jansport na backpack na inuunan ni nanay. Tig-iisa kayo.

“Ang iba’t-ibang klase ng tsokolate at candy ay nasa puwetan ni nanay. Para sa mga bata ito. Bahala na kayong magparte-parte. Sana’y hindi natunaw. Ang pokemon stuffed toy na yapos-yapos ni nanay ay para sa bunso ni ate. Gift ko sa first birthday ng bata. Ang itim na Esprit bag ay para kay Nene.

“Ate, nasa loob ng bag ang pictures ni inay. Japanese version ng pokemon trading cards at stickers. Suot ni nanay ang tatlong Ralph Lauren, apat na Gap at dalawang Old Navy t-shirts. Ang isa ay para kay Kuya at tig-iisa ang mga pamangkin ko. Maisusuot ninyo ang mga iyan sa fiesta.

“Suot din ni inay ang anim na panty hose at tatlong warmer para sa mga dalaga kong pamangkin. Isuot nyo sa party. May isang dosenang NBA caps sa may paanan ni nanay. Para sa inyo, itay, kuya,dikong, Tiyo Romy.

“Bigyan nyo na rin ng tig-isa ‘yung mga pamangkin ko at ‘yung isa ay kay Pareng Tulume.
Ang tigdadalawang pares ng Nike wristband at kneecaps na suot-suot din ni nanay ay para sa mga anak mo, dikong, na nagbabasketball. Tigdadalawang ream ng Marlboro lights at Winston red ang nasa pagitan ng mga hita ni nanay.

“Apat na jar ng Skippy Peanut Butter, dalawang dishwashing liquid, isang Kiwi glass cleaner at tig-aanim na Colgate at Aqua Fresh ang nakasiksik sa kilikili ni nanay. Hati-hati na kayo, huwag mag-aagawan…

“Isang dosenang Wonder bra na gustong-gusto ni Tiya Iska, suot-suot din ni nanay. Alam kong inaasam-asam nyo ‘yan, tiya. anim na lipstick lang ang kasya sa bra. Ang Rolex na bilin-bilin mo tatay, suot-suot ni nanay. Nakatakip sa Nike na wristband. Kunin mo agad, Itay.

“May isinisik akong zip-loc sa bunganga ni Inay na naglalaman ng 759 dollars. Hindi na ako nakatakbo sa ATM. Puede na siguro sa libing iyon.

“Iyong tong na makokolekta, i-time deposit niyo Kuya para pag namatay si Tatay may pambili na ng ataul. Ang hikaw, singsing at kuwintas (na may nakakabit pang anim na nail cutters) na gustong-gusto mo, ditse, ay suot suot din ni nanay. Kunin mo na rin agad, ditse. Ibigay mo ang isang nailcutter Jay bakla sa kanto.

“Tanggalin niyo ang bulak sa ilong ng inay, may isiniksik ako 3 diyamante bawat butas. Ibangon niyo lang si inay at tiyak na malalaglag na ang mga iyon. Konting alog lang siguro ng ulo.

“Isang Ray-Ban ladies sunglass na pa-birthday ko kay Ninang Berta, hindi ko na pinasuot kay nanay. Isiniksik ko na lang sa may bandang ulunan ni nanay. Nasa pink na plastik na maliit. Mga Chanel at Champion na medyas, suot suot din ni nanay. Tig-iisa kayo, mga pamangkin ko.

Mga pampers, panty liners, cotton buds, cotton balls, table napkins at mga Scotch Brite na may foam ay natatakpan ng mga puting bath towels… Yon bale ang pinangkutson ko sa kabaong ni nanay. Marami-rami rin iyon. Parte-parte rin kayo. Marami pa akong ipinagsisiksik kung saan-saang parte gaya ng cafe, coffee creamer, ilang vienna sausage na de lata, barbie dolls, toothbrush, paper cups, plastic spoons and forks, paper at styrofoam plates, perfume, cologne, ballpens, stationeries, envelopes, bar soaps, match box toys, used t-shirts, hand towels, CD. VHS tapes, padlock, tools gaya ng screw driver, plais, long nose, atbp. na hindi ko na na itemize dahil nagmamadali ako at graveyard shift ako ngayon.

“Marami pa sana akong ipaglalalagay kaya lang, baka mag-excess at si nanay pa ang maiwan. Basta parte-parte kayo, tatay, kuya, ate, dikong, ditse. Para sa inyo lahat ito. Bahala na kayo kay nanay. Pamimisahan ko na lang siya rito. Balitaan ninyo na lang ako pagkatapos ng libing. Alam ni ate ang email ko. Paki-double check ang lista kung walang nawala sa mga ipinadala ko.

“Nagmamahal,

Bebeng

“P.S. Pakibihisan ninyo agad si Nanay!

“Sa takip pala ng kabaong sa may paanan, tis-tisin niyo ang tahi ng pulang sinulid at may isinisik akong mga nail polish at nipper para kay Mareng Ana sa ibayo. May mga tuwalyang puti. Iyong markang Days Inn para kay kuya, Holiday Inn kay ditse, Econolodge kay ate, La Quinta kay dikong, yung Mandalay Bay para kay itay. Mag-iipon na lang uli ako pag punta namin sa Las Vegas.”

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