The Balikbayan Box as an emblem of the Filipino diaspora

by Janine Nunal

DTS-403

Prof. Ken MacDonald

 

The wonders inside a balikbayan box: Image source: Inquirer.net Retrieved from http://globalnation.inquirer.net.

My object is both colloquially and officially known as a “balikbayan box” or a box that a person who migrates from the Philippines to another foreign country sends to his or her homeland for friends and relatives. The box, similar to most diasporic objects, goes through a journey to fulfill its biographical story. A balikbayan, or a returnee or repatriate, is a term Filipinos use to call a person who has gone abroad as an immigrant, student or contract worker who comes back to the homeland either temporarily or permanently. Balik means to return, and bayan means nation. Even one who is non-Filipino born but of Filipino descent is considered a balikbayan upon returning to the Philippines. The homecoming of a balikbayan is a canonical event in Filipino society- one that is usually always accompanied by days of merriment and festivities amongst friends, families and the local hometown community. However, the box is still called a balikbayan box regardless of whether the owner is still in the foreign country when the box is sent or the owner is bringing the box along as he or she goes back to the motherland.

This paper will study the biography of the box from the country where it is sent from to where it is being sent. Specifically, this research will aim to answer: what changes in the social, economic and political landscape of the Philippines has produced the practice of balikbayan box giving? Furthermore, since the biography of the object is inextricably tied with its facilitator, what is the human agent’s perception of the box as a recipient or a sender?

Through the process of giving objects, the material manifestation of emotions are used to mediate the transference and acceptance of feelings. The fluidity that the balikbayan box provides between the non-tangible properties of emotions such as love becoming a tangible object in the form a box, is almost sort of a magical thing for every Filipino that is a part of the box-giving process. However, what makes it most remarkable is that it extends the connection between both ends, ties that are in danger of being severed as it is dragged from one place to another. In some ways, the box provides the elasticity of the connection between the sender and the receiver. It conjures bridges between two places that were once seemingly distant, a world apart so to say and keeps it intact.

The box’s cultural beginnings can be traced to the tradition that whenever someone in the Philippines goes away for a trip, whether it be domestic or international, the person brings something back such as souvenirs, called a pasalubong, for family, friends and neighbours back in the hometown. So it is not surprising that the concept of pasalubong extends to overseas Filipinos. It has become an unspoken rule for returnees to send or bring a hefty box of goods back to the Philippines. Moreover, since the length of the person’s stay abroad is longer, the scale of the pasalubong that one gives has to commensurate to his or her absence- hence one of the reasons why the sender gives numerous items ranging from coffee to running shoes. From pasalubong to balikbayan boxes, there is a transference of gift-giving culture from the homeland to the new country of residence.

Its context in the society is primarily as a token of remembrance, to show that the sender still remembers the people left in the homeland. This object acts as an agent to keep personal ties manifest. Once that iconic balikbayan box reaches the homeland, it becomes more than just a token or a pasalubong– it is turned into a social gesture of giving back. From being a social gesture, through the important transnational bridge it conjures between the homeland and new home, the balikbayan box takes on a cultural and diasporic significance.

To truly understand the balikbayan box, one must look at the processes of how it was produced, why it was produced and what makes it take on such prominent status and importance in Filipino society. In this paper, I will look at the rapid dispersal of the Filipino and the accompanied sending of balikbayan boxes.  As Patricia Evangelista (2004) said in her winning speech for the International Public Speaking held in London, “It’s not just an anomaly, it’s a trend; the Filipino diaspora,” referring to the 8 million Filipinos in the world scattered at the time. I will also look at a little bit of historical perspective in terms of the governmental policies in place starting from the 1965 authoritative Marcos administration to the more recent economic liberal governments. This paper also provides the views of 2 Torontonians who are active participants in the balikbayan box process. Overall, this object study attempts to unravel the box and its contents from a transnational perspective.

 

I. The configuration of the Philippines as a player in the world stage and the social, political, and economic molders of the balikbayan box

The Philippine Airlines. Image source: google.ca

The trans-migrant Filipino

The conservative categories in defining diasporas of today can be restrictive and not encompassing of the intricacies of the new facets of immigration that moves away from images of migrants as uprooted, forcefully assimilated into society and, the total abandonment of past cultures, peoples, and lives. The process of transnationalism describes the anchoring in and transcending of activities in one or more nation-states (Kwak, 2012). While transnationalism does not deny the pretext of global interconnectedness due to globalization, it emphasizes the events in the local setting, how it traverses through space and time in a global setting and the social relations and objects that mediate the connection from one point of the globe to another.

With approximately 1 million Filipinos leaving the Philippines to go abroad every year, the country’s sustained export of the most prized commodity that is the Filipino body, continues to resonate post-1986 from its institutionalization by the Marcos dictatorship. In this paper, I will adopt the definition of the contemporary Filipino diaspora as a trans-migrant, one who builds social fields between his or her country of settlement and place of origin (Schiller at al, 2006). Through transnationalism, one goes beyond the strict structuralist view of labour theory relations postulated by Marxists as the trans in national emphasizes the “local experiences that link to global capitalism” (Kwak, 2012). This comes with the challenging of the simplistic aspects of the relations between the indentured labourer and the exploitative corporate hegemon. The concept of the trans-migrant Filipino puts emphasis on the culture, norms and experiences of the migrant that facilitate the formation, re-shaping and assertion of a strong Filipino consciousness, yet an identity that is fluid and strategic in the geo-political space or spaces one occupies.

This concept of the trans in trans-migrant begets the blurring of the rigid framework of borders produced by nation-states as the increasing pattern of activities and networks of the migrant extend beyond the host nation and into the physical space of the homeland. This is not to say that this concept undermines the tangible power-relation struggle between the aggressive neoliberal practices of the global market and the exploited Filipino labourer. San Juan (2009) continues to deny the notion of the Filipino as a trans-migrant and argue that Filipinos in diaspora are “uprooted and dispersed from hearth and communal habitat”.  However, unlike San Juan (2009), I believe that the idea of a trans-migrant Filipino is not a euphemistic ideal that tries to exoticize the proletariat: it is a valid and working conceptualization of the migrant in relation with persisting ties to the homeland. As Schiller et al. (2006) postulates, the trans-migrant cuts across boundaries of the nation-states and are able to link the country of origin and settlement into a social field. This field that migrants develop include the maintenance of personal, familial, economic, social and political relations in the singular space that both the host-nation and homeland permeates (Schiller et al., 2006). Similar to Bourdieu’s (1990) definition of field, the trans-migrant social field “is a social arena from which there is continued bargain, struggle and maneuvering of resources.” Thus, an agency-centered analysis in the activities of the Filipino trans-migrant is necessary- one that does not preclude globalization as an invisible driver of changes in the social landscape of the field, but one that places importance on human and object agencies that is rooted in the migrant’s synthesis of cultures in multiple settings. Globalization also tends to neglect the local scale effects of the process, saying that using the terms globalization and global process without much regard for anything else, obscures our understanding of social relations and local identities (Kwak, 2012). Thus, the understanding of the trans-migrant Filipino is crucial in investigating the advent and ubiquity of the balikbayan box and how it mediates the relations between the sender and receiver and the home and host countries.

Use value? Exchange Value?: The balikbayan box’s physicality

The Balikbayan Box. Image source: google.ca

Marx’s definition of the use value of an object is tied to its function in fulfilling human-driven purposes and utility (Rodolsky, 1977). The use-value of a commodity, in this case the balikbayan box, takes on a materiality that satisfies the want of the user, whether as an individual or a society who patronize the object. A mere cube that has 4 equal sides, depth and width that constitutes a hollow center –the humble object I describe in this paper is a box made out of mere cardboard. It is about 30 inches in most standard measurements although it has no universal size. The cardboard is light to allow for transport and long trips but sturdy enough to withstand pressure of weight, environmental conditions and the force of hands and machinery that it encounters.

Like any box, it starts out as a flattened, one-dimensional object. With careful manipulation, it transforms and takes a three-dimensional phase. It is similar to any other boxes that are industrially made. Cardboard is an encompassing term used for any material that ranges from a variety of heavy paper such as corrugated fibreboard, paperboard and card stock. Much like the purpose of most boxes, it is a form of storage that is mostly used for shipping. The construction of the box is designed for it to be able to contain other objects. Its contents are regarded as objects within an object. However, what sets it apart from other boxes is its ownership, recipients and purpose.

The object’s exchange value, which is distinct from its use-value, is attached to the object as it is being commoditized and placed in a capitalist market for exchange purposes (Rodolsky, 1977). An object’s exchange value is being scaled to a universal equivalent which is another object that acts as the standard used to measure commodities involved in the exchange process to ensure commensurate worth of valuation for the objects involved (Rodolsky, 1977). The process that the box undergoes is commonly as a product of mass production. Like any other mass-produced object, the mode of manufacturing is mostly in factories at various locations at any point in the world. The costs of cardboard box manufacturing per piece hovers around $0.05 to $0.10, even cheaper to some extent, but is variable depending on the location and relative to the country’s economy. Its retail value could go up to a dollar depending on the quality of the cardboard. Overall, a cardboard box is a cheap commodity, but what sets the uniqueness of the balikbayan box are its staple contents, and not the physical, external properties of the box.

 

Social and cultural elitism

How to be ‘conyo’. (English Translation: “Like, this is so annoying, the jeeps are taking so long, I’m so tired of waiting!”) Image source: google.ca

As the balikbayan box emerges in significant ethnographic studies under what Igor Kopytoff (1986) puts as a culturally informed economic biography of an object, in turn I want to look at how the culture of box-giving and its contents are the product of circulating elitist pattern of consumerism through buying expensive imports.

The contents of the box range from non-perishable food items to toiletries and electronics – name it, the diversity of the balikbayan box will provide it. Since the goods of the box are coming from foreign places, “brands” which are non-endogenous to the home country, what exists in the Philippines is the superficial perception that anything from abroad is better in terms quality. Despite the availability of the some of these items in the home country, it is usually marketed in such a high price that it is only feasible for a certain group of people. Furthermore, the fact that it came from abroad comes with it more prestige disregarding actual quality of the material in question.

The balikbayan box spurred lots of discussion in the international scene. In the eyes of an opposing audience, it is seen as an elaborate, garish and even to a certain degree, a pretentious form of material remittance (San Juan, 2009). The sending of conspicuous amounts of goods through the box is seen as a means to perpetuate materialistic lifestyles from the new home to the homeland. Some argue that the Philippines, being a former colony, also raise the issue of revisiting colonial relations through the balikbayan box and its contents.

To an extent, the above assertion is legitimate- this can be mostly explained through looking at a historical perspective of the Filipino as a colonial subject. Even before the phenomena of the modern globalization, the Filipino community has always prized, to a certain extent, glorified the “imported” – in terms of goods, people and ideas. According to Rimonte (1997), the notion of the inferiority of the Filipino or disdain towards one’s own heritage and identity can be explained by looking at the perspective and looking at the Filipino as the colonized- where the other is represented by the colonizer, whom the Filipino considers as superior and epitomizes everything one wants to become. The concept of hidalgismo or that of being a hidalgo, which is the Spanish term for the nobility, is translated into the post-modern era as acquiring the objects that would elevate one’s standing in society with expediency (Rimonte, 1997). Followed by the U.S. invasion during 1898-1946, the myth of the American dream was introduced and instantly cultivated in Filipino society. In a way that is testament for me as a former resident of the Philippines, I have not seen any other faster way to climb the social ladder than the mobility provided by imported objects.

W.E.B. Dubois (1903) in describes the notion of double-consciousness:  “it’s a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” In a way, the act of wanting to possess imported objects is the ‘double consciousness’ of the Filipino at work, the critical view of oneself through the lens of a patronizing other, and the attempt of trying to be ‘of value’ through adornment of oneself with objects that are imported. So, even with the exacerbation of the materialist culture in the Philippines in its integration in the neo-liberal world economy, one can argue that the entrenchment of self-evident cultural inferiority developed colonial mentality amongst Filipinos, one that began through history of suppression of identity.

 

The Global Filipino: the economic driver of the diaspora

 

As geographer and sociologist Saskia Sassen (1998) states, global cities are the “transnational geography of centrality.. consisting of multiple linkages and strategic concentrations of material infrastructure” describing the structural changes on the socio-economic structure of the city as a consequence of its integration to global affairs. One could extend this postulation not just in the global cities of the Philippines such as Manila, but to changes in the economic landscape of the country as well. In the capitalist-dominated society of the Philippines where social welfare is very minimal to non-existent, the country relies heavily on export and trade for its economy. This export business has pervaded the nation for centuries, and starting in the 70s mass dispersal of OFWs from all over the world, they brought with them the most valuable capital of all which is the human body.

As a response to the growing unrest due to high unemployment and economic stagnation in the country during the years of the authoritative regime of Marcos, the response of the government was to encourage the external migration process through its incorporation in government campaigns, policies and the ideology of self-betterment by virtue of emigration. What became engrained in the Filipino culture is the coveted dream of working or living abroad, the holy grail of which is getting that visa stamped onto one’s Philippines Passport.

After the end of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the trend of Filipino dispersal to at least 146 countries continued and with resonance. The consequent administrations of Aquino, Ramos, Estrada and Arroyo became more active in the globalization process adopting neoliberal policies throughout the country. With the aid of the United State’s contested neo-colonialism, the Philippines became a site for manufacturing goods in the centre of the global south and exporting human power on a constant basis to countries who need labourers to do most of its precarious work. In Evangelista’s (2004) speech describing the Filipino diaspora, “a borderless world provides opportunities..”, an opportunity that is not present in the home country. She continues, “.. yet as we take, we give back.. ”, which is true in more ways than one, especially when the diaspora sends an estimated thousands of balikbayan boxes every month back to the Philippines and billions of dollars worth of remittances.

 

Political affairs  

The origins of a balikbayan box can be traced to the boom of overseas Filipino workers during the former president Ferdinand Marcos’ regime in the country. Most of the migrants who left Philippines then were skilled labourers with work visas in countries such as the US, Canada, UK, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi (Hawes, 1977). These OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) are mostly on fixed contracts that can extend their stay abroad to multiple years. However, these migrant workers had left families back in the homeland so they continue to send remittances. The president had exempted from taxes any shipping from OFW’s to the mother country. Filipinos abroad usually would send individual things through courier but this soon became costly for the sender due to the amount of goods that had to be sent. So, it evolved to carefully squeezing as many things in a box that would carry it all at once, so shipping fees would be dramatically reduced.

The Marcos administration during the one of his state of the nation addresses (SONA) encouraged the assertion of nationalism especially for those Filipinos who were physically absent in the nation. He explicitly urged in his speech for OFWs and other permanent migrants abroad to come home once a year. Economic policy changes regarding courier services were implemented. Marcos allowed for each migrant, to avail of the imposition of two duty-free boxes that can be sent to the country per year (Hawes, 1977). As a result, many Filipinos abroad availed of this opportunity to send goods which are exempt from taxes spurring the growth of the courier service industry that eventually became ubiquitous during the 21st century in nodes where the Filipino diasporas are concentrated. The consequent President Aquino reiterated the importance of the contribution of migrants to their home country’s economy by allowing the balikbayans to purchase US $1, 000 worth of gifts for families and friends exempt from taxes (Rimonte, 1997). The success of the balikbayan box industry was due to the overwhelming response of the migrants who patronized the box and who continued to use it as a mode to send material remittances.

In a way, what the Philippine government was doing was the institutionalization of the politics involving the idealization of a better life in terms of material abundance and wealth that could be acquired by working abroad. Deemed as the “bagong bayani” or new heroes by the former president Aquino, the balikbayans and their billions of dollars worth of remittances, both monetary and material, keep the Philippine economy afloat. This ambiguous term, being a bagong bayani, both epitomize the prestige of being an expatriate and the associated ease of lifestyle that dollar earnings bring while creating mixed feelings amongst the balikbayans themselves. The OFW Angelo de la Cruz, after his kidnapping in Iraq during July 2004, was quoted saying, “They kept saying I was a hero.. a symbol of the Philippines. To this day, I have no idea what I have become” (San Juan p. xvi, 2009).

 

II. The box as a mediator between these actors: the sender and receiver; and the new country and the homeland

Borrowing the words of Kopytoff (p. 64, 1986), my framework in the select questions I asked the senders of the balikbayan box was “what, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities of the box.. and how are these possibilities realized?” I slightly modified the question by asking from a personal point, their motives of sending the box and if the box realizes its potential to suffice the motive.

The setting of the interview was held in a living area, to make it as casual as possible in order to foster an ambience of comfort and a level of trust. It followed the format of a group interview to encourage discussion amongst the two interviewees and I. The interviewees were both Torontonians. One of them was a former recipient, now a sender of the box. The other was never a recipient and now a sender.  The bias in this method is that the interviewees can have the ability to influence the answer of the other. However, the interviewees have unique situations and stories so the discussion-format makes it easier to identify similar themes.

One of the interviewees, Visminda de los Reyes, have been sending boxes for 15 years and the other, Analiza Nerosa, at least have sent 5 boxes. The two of them agree that the personal motive is to establish connections with the loved ones left behind. For both, it is an expression of love and care through the ability of providing materially for the family and what Visminda believes is “quality stuff” that is hard to purchase or not available at all in the Philippines (de los Reyes, 2012). The more veteran box-sender Visminda, added “we want to give them a taste of what it’s like to live here by giving them the same goods that we sometimes take for granted”.  Later on, as I pressed on further about other self-motives, Analiza said it also alleviates her feelings of guilt for leaving her family. She also says it is a way for her to show ‘utang na loob’ to the people who helped her migrate to Canada (Nerosa, 2012). The concept of repaying one’s ‘utang na loob’ or indebted gratitude is one of the oldest practices that pervade Filipino society. Once one becomes of better socio-economic status, it is customary to always make an effort to give back in one form or another. The giving of boxes to families, close friends and people who helped through one’s process of immigration is a way of showing utang na loob.

As the interviewees and I got more comfortable, they were more willing to let on some of the more personal feelings they had about the box. One peculiar scenario that Visminda shared was when she had bought a shirt, that is supposed to be of a prestigious brand, and sent it to her sister back home. To her surprise, her sister was reluctant to wear the shirt. When asked, the sister said in Tagalog, “kasi made in the Philippines ‘to eh,” meaning, she would not wear it because the tag said it was made in the Philippines (de los Reyes, 2012). Analiza, on the other hand, experienced a scenario where she was compelled to put her own cell-phone in the box. The reason was her daughter did not want the phone she had previously given and insisted that the latest model of the Iphone, which Analiza had, should be given to her instead (Nerosa, 2012).

Analiza, a former recipient of the box, now a sender, reflects on the struggles that come with the responsibility of being a sender. When she was in the Philippines, being a receiver gave her social leverage amongst her friends, and in her community. She looks back at the attitudes of the people around her and felt that she was envied and regarded as superior (Nerosa, 2012). This fact, she shamefully admits, made her feel like she was a better person than the rest of the people who, she felt, looked up to her in an awe-struck fashion, drooling after her latest Nike running shoes, shirt that read “I Love NY”, and Jansport backpack (Nerosa, 2012). Now, she feels the pressure of being able to constantly send out boxes, because she had put on the same amount of pressure to her aunt from Hong Kong who used to send her boxes on a regular basis. In a way, she used to interpret the occasional absence of the box in a year’s span, as her aunt’s tacit abandonment. “It is the same feeling that one has forgotten you,” she says (Nerosa, 2012). The thought that maybe the migrant is not financially able to afford to send out a box rarely occurs- what pervades is the myth that everyone abroad has a lot of disposable income and therefore must have the ability to send boxes. More recently, Analiza began to critically look at the balikbayan box. She feels that it is a process that transforms individuals not just materially and socially but most importantly, ideologically (Nerosa, 2012). The idea that the betterment of personhood is equated to the acquisition of foreign, non-endogenous ‘things’ is reminiscent of the ideal during the time of colonialism where any association, materially, behaviorally, and culturally, with the mother-country is an effective way of surpassing the systemic racial barriers in the colony’s socio-economic ladder.

Visminda, on the other hand, have troubles negotiating the dependency on the boxes that she had created amongst her family members back in the homeland for she has been sending boxes for more than a decade. However, unlike Analiza, she was never a recipient of the box growing up and thus feels that because she had grown up with the taunting of belonging in the class of “have-nots”, it is her duty to provide imported goods for her family (de los Reyes, 2012). She believes that the social standing and acceptance of her family relies on her being able to send out Revlon shampoos, the luncheon meat SPAM, her old cell phones and Reebok shoes (de los Reyes, 2012). Thus, she admits to feeling guilty for fostering a dependency on the boxes and cultivating a culture of importation, which her family expects from her at least 2 times a year.

Both the interviewees raised important thematic issues regarding the balikbayan box- that this powerful object is able to help with negotiation of one’s personal feelings and mediation of familial and platonic ties especially its sustenance. The box is sometimes implied in the cultivation of a culture that is ‘conyo’, a derogatory term for those who are superficially trying to climb up the social ladder by consuming imported goods and a striking feature of purposely speaking in both Tagalog and English, which results to Taglish (Mendoza, 2002). The box is a reassertion of one’s disdain of his or her own culture, which is already pervasive in the linguistic aspect of the country. The use of English amongst elite circles and government activities despite the obvious level of proficiency in the local language or dialect, does not facilitate better conversation and understanding within parties (Mendoza, 2002). The insistence of the use of English as the medium of communication during senate and congressional proceedings, tv broadcasts, court trials and corporate functions have a connotation of airing a degree of superficiality and reiterating Rimonte’s (1997) argument, it shows a disdain for local culture.

Aside from the heavy commoditization of the box and its contents, what one should pay important attention to is the cultural importance of the object. According to Kopytoff (p.64, 1986), commodities that take on an important cultural value, goes through a process of being ascribed that makes it of value, respective of the ethnic setting where it was borne or being used in, as a “certain kind of thing.” The box takes the growing culture of materialism to a new level and adds with it a connotation of self-betterment through consumption of “the other”.

Revisiting colonial mentality, fostering a lifestyle that is unsustainable in a struggling economy, and the middle class’s sustenance are some of the consequences of the box. Visminda’s claim that what she sends out are ‘quality stuff’ is echoed in the colonial mentality that San Juan (2009) argues is still prevalent in today’s times. Furthermore, the constant giving of items that are considered expensive back in the homeland, factoring in conversion of dollar to peso, fosters a dependence on stuff that are otherwise very difficult to obtain given the average household income of the country. As Visminda said during the interview, growing up without owning “imports” was the case for most of the people who do not have relations outside of the country or those who cannot afford to purchase such expensive items. In turn, the families of the immigrants, through monetary and material remittances comprise the middle-class of the country. Even though some middle-class families are leaving for immigration abroad, the middle-class of the country is still sustained as there recipients of remittances remain abundant.

The feeling of longing while away from the home country seems to be alleviated by the sending of boxes which are seen as expressions of love and care. Like Visminda said, she wants her loved ones to feel the ease of life she is living abroad compared to the situations of living back home by giving them “a taste of what it’s like to live here” (de los Reyes, 2012). Other feelings of guilt is a major driver for sending the boxes. In both cases, Analiza and Visminda have accounts of giving in to certain demands just so they could compensate for their absence in the home setting and the lives of their loved ones. Analiza even had to give up her own phone, a personal sacrifice, to her daughter because the one she had sent was regarded as obsolete.

In Visminda’s peculiar case of the rejection of acceptance of the gift because the tag had read “made in the Philippines”, this had serious implications for the setting of standard of what kind of gifts one should give. One can not just give anything anymore, the contents of the box has to be filtered out and carefully selected for it to become fully accepted and used. This also raises even more important issues, the fact that the shirt was made in one’s own home-country automatically makes it off less quality. The item belonged to an American company or brand, which obviously had a manufacturing site in developing countries such as Philippines. In this scenario, you get a circular and a hypocritical theme appearing; a Filipino living in the homeland asking for gifts that are from American clothing companies, gets the gift, yet rejects it because it was made in the Philippines.

 

Wrapping the balikbayan box

“A borderless world presents a bigger opportunity, yet one that is not so much abandonment but an extension of identity” (Evangelista, 2004).

The social, economic and political conditions that produced the strong tradition of sending boxes are still maintained until today, if not they are even more pressing compared to the settings that produced the advent of the box. The current state of economy of the Philippines still necessitates millions who leave for abroad whether as an immigrant or as an outsourced labourer. New schemes to bypass the long immigration process seem to be a preoccupation for some. Immigration agencies that help Filipinos file for immigration that are ubiquitous in the main cities of the country are becoming big businesses. The mail-order bride industry is booming and other schemes such as going abroad on a student visa and with the intention of working part-time are just a fraction of ways that show the determination of the Filipino to leave the homeland. The political regime is still intact, adopting even more neo-liberal policies in the hopes of attracting business investors in the country and so is the social culture of the country, which keeps putting more prestige on the box, its contents, and its recipients.

In conclusion, the balikbayan boxes are powerful objects that hold extreme value in Philippine society and in the transnational field of correspondence between the trans-migrant Filipino and the one who lives in the homeland. Latour (2005) argues forth in the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) how objects, as actors, produce durability of ties and the inequalities of social landscape instead of an invisible force in the self-sufficing social ties that historically has disregarded material importance in social activity. In the context of the Filipino diaspora, it is the balikbayan box, an object that produces the durability of ties between the members of the Filipino community who are outside and away from the homeland. In terms of the inequalities of the social landscape, the box does produce the divide between the haves and have-nots. The box, despite the different social, political and economic configurations in which it operates, at its very core, is the manifestation of the love of the diasporic Filipino towards their loved ones. Among the Filipinos working as seafarers around the world, nurses and doctors, domestics and caregivers, entertainers, construction workers and as the humble employee in your neighbourhood Tim Hortons, as Evangelista (2004) puts, “even as we take, we give back.” As Filipinos take away skills honed in the home country and bring it with them, they give back as much as they can. Furthermore, the box is an extension of the Filipino identity, one that goes beyond the borders of the Philippine archipelago, and into the transnational communities formed within places of settlement.

Appendix:

Links for the Filipino at heart, interested in the balikbayan box business.

http://thelmaalberts.hubpages.com/hub/How-To-Pack-And-Send-A-Balikbayan-Box-To-The-Philippines

A blog about exploring the intricacies and skill dedicated to packing and send a balikbayan box to the Philippines.

 

http://www.balikbayanbox-shipping.com/

An actual company that ships balikbayan boxes to the Philippines. This company offers services all throughout the United States.

 

http://www.balikbayan-box.co.uk/

Balik-bayan box shipping company in the UK.

 

http://ylbnoel.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/top-10-items-found-in-balikbayan-boxes/

Blog about the top ten most popular things inside a balikbayan box.

 

References:

Bourdieu, P. (1990) “Structures, habitus, practices” pp 52-79 in The logic of practice ed. P. Bourdieu. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

 

de los Reyes, Visminda. (2012). Personal interview. 5 April 2012.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bantam Classic.

 

Evangelista, Patricia (2004) “A Borderless World” in the International Public Speaking Competition. London, UK. Retrieved from http://www.filipinasoul.com/2006/09/a-borderless-world.

 

Hawes, Gary. (1986) United States support for the Marcos Administration and the Pressures that made for change. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 8 (1), pp. 18-36.

 

Kopytoff, I. (1986) “The Cultural Biography of Things- commoditization as processpp. 64-91 in The Social Life of Things- Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, ed. A. Appadurai. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from http://diasporiclivesofobjects2012.wordpress.com/readings/.

 

Kwak, Min-Jung. (2012) “Urban Transnationalism/Bringing Geography Back In” (“lecture”, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, 30 March 2012).

 

Latour, Bruno. (2005) Reassembling the social: An Introduction to the Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.Retreived from http://diasporiclivesofobjects2012.wordpress.com/readings/

 

Mendoza, S. Lily. (2002) Between the Homeland and the Diaspora: The Politics of Theorizing Filipino and Filipino American Identities. New York, NY: Routledge.

 

Nerosa, Analiza. (2012) Personal interview. 5 April 2012.

 

Rimonte, Nilda. (1997) “Colonialism’s Legacy: The Inferiorizing of the Filipino” in Filipino Americans: Transformation and Identity, ed. Maria P P Root. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

 

Rodolsky, Roman. (1977) The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’ London: Pluto Press, 1977.

 

San Juan Jr., E. (2009) Toward Filipino Self-Determination: Beyond Transnational Globalization. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

 

Sassen, Saskia. (1991) The global city: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: The Princeton University Press.

 

Schiller,  (2006) Transnationalism: A New Analytical Framework for Understanding Migration. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 645 (1), pp. 1-24.

 

 

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How were the historical, economic and political factors of the country able to shape the balikbayan box into an important object that characterizes Filipino diasporas? More importantly, how does the box mediate relations between these actors; the sender and receiver; and the new country and the homeland?

As the balikbayan box emerges in significant ethnographic studies under what Igor Kopytoff puts as a “culturally informed economic biography of an object”, in turn I want to look at how the box facilitates the creation of a new culture that surrounds the balikbayan box and its contents.  What is the implication of this new culture on the changes in the social, economic and political landscape of the homeland?

 

How has your object or objects like it figured in cultural processes? How is it used? When is it used? How does its use vary with different audiences? What different meanings does it convey in different contexts, in different spaces, and/or for different audiences?

Culturally, the balikbayan box has become an emblem of the Filipino diaspora. Its cultural beginnings can be traced to the tradition that whenever someone in the Philippines goes away for a trip, whether it be domestic or international, the person brings something back such as souvenirs, called a pasalubong, for family, friends and neighbours back in the hometown. So it is not surprising that the concept of pasalubong extends to overseas Filipinos. It has become an unspoken rule for returnees to send or bring a hefty box of goods back to the Philippines. Moreover, since the length of the person’s stay abroad is longer, the scale of the pasalubong that one gives has to commensurate to his or her absence- hence one of the reasons why the sender gives numerous items ranging from coffee to running shoes. From pasalubong to balikbayan boxes, there is a transference of gift-giving culture from the homeland to the new country of residence.

Its context in the society is primarily as a token of remembrance, to show that the sender still remembers the people left in the homeland. This object acts an agent to keep personal ties manifest. Once that iconic balikbayan box reaches the homeland, it becomes more than just a token or a pasalubong– it is turned into a social gesture of giving back. From being a social gesture, through the important transnational bridge it conjures between the homeland and new home, the balikbayan box takes on a cultural and diasporic significance.

Once the box is opened and its contents reach the homeland, the goods are consumed by the recipients. Food items such as canned goods like spam, chocolate bars, candies and vitamin supplements are shared with families and friends. More personal items such as shoes or shirts are given to the specific recipients. The use varies with different audiences in the recipeints’ rate of consumption. Some proportion the goods to last them a while in order to savor them. On the other hand, some consume it instantly. Thus, propelling the sender to send more boxes frequently.

The balikbayan box spurred lots of discussion in the international scene. In the eyes of an opposing audience, it is seen as elaborate, garish and even to an extreme, pretentious. The sending of conspicuous amounts of goods through the box is seen as a means to perpetuate materialistic lifestyles from the new home to the homeland. Some argue that the Philippines, being a former colony, also raises the issue of revisiting colonial relations through the balikbayan box and its contents.

Who owned your object and/or similar objects? How has its ownership changed over time? What have its owners used this object for?  What has been its historical route of travel? How does interacting with the object shape your impression of it? How does its current use(s) relate to its uses in the past? Provide a list of information sources relevant to your object (people, academic work, archive materials, websites, etc).

The owner of the balikbayan box are those Filipinos abroad, that is outside of the Philippines, who wish to send to their loved ones a material form of remittance apart from money. A balikbayan or repatriate starts as the owner of the box being the sender. As it crosses borders to the receiver, its ownership changes from the sender to the receiver.

The contents of the box are commodities bought abroad that are given as gifts to be used for domestic consumption. The route it undergoes is a long process- hopping from one cargo ship to the next, to crossing borders as it navigates through continents until destination is reached.

Growing up, I was a recipient of the box. Now, my experience has changed from the other side as I become one of the senders. My impression of the box has changed dramatically. I began to look at the reason of the balikbayan box, the desired purpose and how it affects the lives of the recipients and the community around them. Also, I thought about the reality that material manifestation of remittances connotes a strong emotional attachment between the sender and recipient.

The origins of a balikbayan box can be traced to the boom of overseas Filipino workers during President Ferdinand Marcos’ regime in the country. Most of the migrants who left Philippines then were skilled labourers with work visas in countries such as the US, Canada, UK, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These workers left families at home. The president had exempted from taxes any shipping from OFW’s (Overseas Filipino Workers) to the mother country. Filipinos abroad usually would send individual things through courier but this soon became costly for the sender especially if there are lots of people to send to. So, it evolved to carefully squeezing as much things in a box that would carry it all at once, so shipping fees would be dramatically reduced.

 

Websites:

 

http://www.balikbayanbox-shipping.com/

An actual company that ships balikbayan boxes to the Philippines. This company offers services all throughout the United States.

 

http://www.balikbayan-box.co.uk/

Balik-bayan box shipping company in the UK.

 

http://ylbnoel.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/top-10-items-found-in-balikbayan-boxes/

Blog about the top ten most popular things inside a balikbayan box.

The object I am choosing is a box. To most, it might seem mundane and straightforward. A mere cube that has 4 equal sides, depth and width that constitutes a hollow center. My object is a box made out of cardboard. It is about 30 inches in measurement, although there is no standard size. The cardboard is light to allow for transport and long trips but sturdy to withstand pressure of weight, environmental conditions and the force of hands and machinery that it encounters.

Like any box, it starts out as a flattened, one-dimensional object. With careful manipulation, it transforms and takes a three-dimensional phase. It is similar to any other boxes that are industrially made. Cardboard is an encompassing term used for any material that ranges from a variety of heavy paper such as corrugated fibreboard, paperboard and card stock. Much like the purpose of most boxes, it is a form of storage that is mostly used for shipping. The construction of the box is designed for it to be able to contain other objects. Its contents are regarded as objects within an object. I will be focusing my research on the box as well as the importance of its contents. However, what sets it apart from other boxes is its ownership, recipients and purpose.

The box, similar to most diasporic object, goes through a journey to fulfill its biographical story. My object is colloquially known as a “balikbayan box” or a box that a person who migrates from the Philippines to another foreign country sends to his or her homeland for friends and relatives. A balikbayan, or a returnee, is a term used to call a person who has gone abroad as an immigrant, student or contract worker who comes back to the homeland either temporarily or permanently. Even one who is non-Filipino born but of Filipino descent is considered a balikbayan upon returning to the Philippines. However, the box is still called a balikbayan box regardless of whether the owner is still in the foreign country when the box is sent or the owner is bringing the box along with as he or she goes back to the motherland.

The box is commonly a product of mass production. Like any other mass produced object, the mode of manufacturing is mostly in factories at various locations at any point of in the world. The costs of cardboard box manufacturing per piece hovers around $0.05 to $0.10 but is variable depending on the location and relative to the country’s economy. Its retail value could go up to a dollar depending on the quality of the cardboard. Overall, a cardboard box can be considered cheap.

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