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Staple, answered prayer, quirky


MANILA, Philippines–Long before the term OFW for overseas Filipino worker became a household word, my siblings and I understood the need for relatives to fly to foreign shores to seek a better life. Saying goodbye to a parent, grandparent, an aunt or an uncle was always a chest-tightening experience.

But the longing pangs would be eased somewhat around the holiday season when we got to enjoy one of the highlights of the OFW culture—the balikbayan box.

Whether the box came via door-to-door service or personally delivered by a returning relative, I remember how we’d instantly turn into Pavlov’s dog, drooling uncontrollably at the tearing sound of packing tape being stripped off and that distinct “imported” scent that would burst out once the flaps were opened. Our anticipation was heightened once it was time to dig in.


We’ve had an ample share of memorable balikbayan box moments. After all, apart from our mom who always tried to provide a few luxuries for her kids, we had assorted relatives who were more than willing to spoil the children of the family.

3 kinds of contents

The contents of these balikbayan boxes could easily be divided into three: the staple, the answered prayer and, occasionally, the quirky.

The “staple” refers to items that never go missing inside balikbayan boxes: Wella shampoo, white Fruit of the Loom shirts, chocolates, Lever soaps, Champion socks, Spam.

“Don’t forget the Hanes underwear,” my sister reminded, as we fondly recalled those balikbayan box moments with our relatives.

“Oversized Hanes underwear,” my brother Brian stressed. “And Centrum.”

Before FaceTime and Skype bridged distances between relatives on different continents, a balikbayan box also had a familiar staple: Cassette tapes on which relatives abroad recorded messages for families back home in lieu of letters.

The “answered prayer” refers to our favorite treasures packed into the box, treats that we begged for during those long-distance phone calls when we had the luxury of time to go through our wish list.


“Matchbox cars and RC (remote controlled) cars,” said Brian, who would parlay his fondness for cars into a career as motoring editor of Cebu Daily News. “Air Jordan shoes, Shaq shoes, Camcorders and Nike shirts.”

Added Peaches: “When I was young, Barbie dolls… And the latest Trapper Keeper!” (Bonus points for those who still remember what a Trapper Keeper is).”

Coveted shoes

I got my share of coveted shoes as well—from the popular Air Maxes to the now-forgotten LA Gear high-cut sneakers that I could never convince my classmates to wear.

One of the things I would never forget was a mini-component that my mother had sent for Christmas. It had a built-in CD player which, at the risk of carbon-dating myself, I would describe as a rare feature in stereos at that time.

She’d send a couple of CDs along too and, in an era when we still recorded songs off radio stations on C-90 cassettes, those shiny discs bestowed one with neighborhood street cred.

I also got a portable CD player which I would plug into on jeepney rides to school, never mind that it skipped every time the jeepney hit a bump on the road—which was often.


The “quirky” refers to stuff you fish out of the box that make you go “huh?”

I remember one Christmas when there was this packet of hotel soaps and shampoos addressed specifically to me.

Added my sister: “Paper towels.”

“Lots of paper towels,” my brother interjected, “which were actually cheaper here.”

“Ziploc bags,” Brian butted in.

“…with nothing in them. And they came in different sizes,” added Peaches.

Good entertainment

“I think they were supposed to be for our leftovers,” Brian said.

The quirky made for good entertainment while we were emptying the balikbayan box.

And what about the strangest items we had ever fished out of the box?

“Garlic,” Peaches said. “Lots of garlic. There was a time garlic was cheaper in the US so they decided to bring some home.”

Whatever the contents were, the thought of a package arriving always amped our excitement level during the holiday season.

I remember how we once received notice from the postal office saying a package had arrived from my mother. I was given a slip of paper with a code that I needed to hand to whoever was present at the post office so I could claim it.

Excited, I didn’t wait for older relatives to get home from work and instead asked a neighbor-cousin to come along and help me carry the package home.

When I got to the post office, the package turned out to be a scratch-and-sniff Christmas card. To this day, my mother and I have never figured out why the damn card wasn’t just delivered to the house. I swear the frustration was enough to make one go postal!

Touching gesture

But my cousin and I laughed it off during the walk back home, passing the card between us and taking turns sniffing the mint-flavored candy-cane drawings.

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