Time and distance can’t stop a mom from “mothering” her child.
Sending a balikbayan box is a way for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) not only to connect with their loved ones but also to continue assuming their role in the household. In a traditional Filipino family, the father acts as the provider while the mother takes care of domestic needs with the help of daughters. But wives and sisters are forced to leave the comforts of home and face the uncertainties of living alone abroad to provide for the family.
Purchasing the “perceived needs” of the family, organizing them inside a box and wrapping it with different kinds of tape before shipping it home allow women, “despite their physical absence, to be hailed back into the domestic and intimate spaces of home” (Camposano, 2012, p. 99). The ritual enables them to “make a home away from home,” as migration anthropologist Clemente Camposano puts it in his 2012 study on “Balikbayan Boxes and the Performance of Intimacy.” Men rarely send balikbayan boxes, he noted.
Camposano said in an interview with GMA that the sending of balikbayan boxes could be considered as “long-distance mothering” as it shows “their power over their households by making consumption decisions” (Takumi, 2015).
Facebook posts of friends showed that the contents of the balikbayan boxes they have been receiving include household items like kitchen utensils, blender and iron and everyday needs such as food in the form of canned goods, soaps, and shampoo. In the country, it can be observed that mothers usually accompanied by their daughters go to grocery stores on weekends to buy shampoo, soap and food. Most mothers also watch out for bargains in the mall’s home section to acquire appliances like blender that would make their work in the kitchen easier and more fun. Following Camposano’s (2012) observation, mothers and sisters continue to perform these perceived duty and activity to give them a semblance of home. Despite the distance, the receivers or the family members they left behind, feel their “presence” through this act.
The large box filled with goods sent by migrant workers to those they have left behind in the country has become a symbol of Filipino diaspora or the mass migration of our fellow countrymen to the different parts of the globe in the hope of a better life. Philippines is one of the world’s top labor exporters. As of 2013, over 10 million Filipinos work overseas in 221 countries. Half of them are women, according to government statistics.
Dr. Grace Cruz, a commissioner of the Philippine Commission on Population (POPCOM), said the surging demand for “nurses and caregivers—most of whom are women” paved way for the “feminization of overseas labor” (Barcelona, 2007).
Apart from the hardships they experience in performing their jobs as nurses, caregivers or nannies, the mere distance and the sadness that goes along with it is enough to bring them to tears. Sending money remittances is a lot easier but migrant workers continue to ship these boxes to sustain relationship with loved ones (Fausto, 2006W). Thus, every balikbayan box is a product of “blood, sweat and tears.”
“Each box would take months to fill up and a month to reach us. But when it does, it’s like Christmas came early. It’s like she’s home, even if she’s thousands of miles away,” wrote a Facebook friend whose sister has been working abroad since 2000. =
Goods in a balikbayan box serve as “manifestations of love between persons as expressed through things” (Fausto, 2006). This is exemplified by Rappler’s graphic accompanying its article, “The real contents of a balikbayan box,” where a young girl runs toward a box with her mom’s shadow.
A Facebook friend shared it and wrote: “Exactly what I felt whenever I received balikbayan box from mommy.” Rappler contributor and Palanca-winning essayist Shakira Sison described the “triple-sealed and heavily taped” box as the “only tangible connection between an overseas relative and those he or she left behind.”
While new technology like Facebook, Skype and advanced gadgets has enabled parents to virtually watch their children grow, it is still through the changing contents of the box that cater to the evolving needs of the recipients that care is expressed. From sending her first cooking set and Barbie to supplying her with stocks of napkins, soaps and shampoos, her mother has shown her love that transcended distance and space. . Apart from needs, some of the items are special requests of loved ones. This is exemplified by the Facebook post: “That Nike running shoes your teen has been pestering you for his bday. That nice bag Lola wanted but you cannot part with because it was a gift from the husband so you bought a similar one for her. That nice pink Swatch watch for the daughter, who would then Viber you back: Thank you, Mama, and make Mama cry too.”
The contents of a balikbayan box are gifts from the migrant worker to the loved ones left behind. In Marcel Mauss’ classic essay The Gift, objects and services create an interdependent relationship between the sender and receiver (Hermann, 2001). Following the Maussian tradition, the Nike shoes for the teen, the pink watch for the daughter and the bag for Lola are “inalienable” gifts which serve as a binding force. Reciprocity exists as the receivers get the items they want while the sender is able to gain a sense of belongingness through appreciation and gratitude.
Migrant workers ship about 7.2 million balikbayan boxes a year, according to an Inquirer report. For decades, the money sent home by OFWs has been the country’s main economic engine. “Balikbayan,” which refers to a migrant who comes back to the Philippines, was coined by the Marcos regime to encourage Filipinos living abroad to visit the country. Wanting to revitalize the economy and boost tourism, the government at that time increased tax incentives and reduced airfares for these returnees (Fausto, 2006). A Facebook account named “Pres. Ferdinand Emmanuel Marcos” posted OFW balikbayan box privileges or what it referred to as the “Marcos gift” can be traced back to the dictator’s government when Section 105 of the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines was amended to allow OFWs to send duty- and tax-free goods. Emigration was encouraged during his term to stimulate the economy that was going down at that time.
According to a GMA News article, the OFW phenomenon began shortly after Martial Law was declared. Marcos issued Presidential Decree 442 or the 1974 Labor Code which formally adopted a recruitment and placement program “to ensure the careful selection of Filipino workers for the overseas labor market to protect the good name of the Philippines abroad.” It was a “band aid” solution to a weakening economy that was later institutionalized by creating policies favorable to OFWs and recognizing them as the “modern day heroes” at the expense of having a mother, a father and children in one home.
United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef)-New York’s deputy director for programs Vanessa Tobin said children are the most affected when one or two parents are away. Although they gain material goods, kids “do not recognize this as a form of care.” Therefore, they are less “socially adjusted” (Rufo, 2008).
The absence of parents cause a “displacement, disruptions and changes in care-giving arrangement,” which is more felt when the mother is away (ibid).
In times of crisis, what sustains an individual is ontological security, which sociologist Anthony Giddens defines as “confidence in continuity of one’s self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding environment and persons in the environment (cited in Latini,2011:24).
Ontological security is developed when a mother establishes “a regular routine of eating, sleeping and playing” with the child (ibid). Without a mother to create a “routine” with a child, the social costs are bigger than the economic benefits.
The balikbayan box is what Camposanocalls “diasporic intimacy.” It fills the emptiness felt both by the OFW and the family left behind by serving as a tangible link. This is illustrated by an ABS-CBNNews.com graphic for the article, “More than a box: What a “balikbayan box” means for OFWs” OFW Marvin de Guzman was quoted in the article as saying: “Balikbayan boxes are like love letters, and letters should not be opened nor read by anybody not even the BOC unless there’s a crime involve. I say it’s the same because filling up a balikbayan box you personally select what gift you want to send… just like in a letter you carefully choose every word you want to say. Why would you tax those gifts, things that are products of each OFW’s labor of love?”
The clamor against the opening of boxes and imposing taxes was strong because the Bureau of Customs has relegated the balikbayan box and its contents as mere “commodities.” For Marx, commodities are manufactured products for market exchange in a capitalist system, which is marked by “alienable” production and “impersonal” exchange (Hermann, 2011). However, packing a balibayan box is a laborious process and choosing the content is affectively charged that the items are no longer just commodities but Maussian gifts. A video showed how the BOC disregarded the whole ritual, resulting to the anger of the speaker.
Transcript: Tinitingnan daw nila yan isa-isa, yung labas at yung loob. Tinitingnan nila ang tatak kung may mamahalin at sini-search pa nila ang Internet kung magkano ang halaga kasi dollar ang nakalagay sa tag ng items at isi-search pa nila ang value niyan sa peso para sa babayarang tax. Talagang mga ano sila oh. Ang dami nilang nag-iinspect sa loob, kala mo. Hay naku, mamatay na kayo, mga gahaman kayo. Hindi na lang kay magtrabaho, nangungurakot pa kayo nang nangungurakot. Tinitingnan talaga isa-isa, binubuksan talaga oh binuksan. Tingnan mo nga, o diba? Pati wallet tiningnan kung may pera at yung kasuluksulukan. O, may ebidensya na.
Lack of sensitivity and respect for the balikbayan box tradition resulted to hatred toward President Benigno Simeon Aquino, Customs commissioner Albert Lina and Liberal Party presidential bet local government secretary Mar Roxas. Black propaganda (Graphic 5) and memes circulated on Facebook. Netizens also created new meaning to the box—political casket Filipinos worldwide signed in an online petition urging Sen. Miriam Santiago to stop BOC’s proposal to inspect and impose taxes on balikbayan boxes. In response, Santiago filed a petition seeking an investigation on the agency’s plan. Following the clamor, Mr. Aquino ordered BOC to immediately stop the manual random inspection.
The OFW phenomenon that took a leap during the Marcos era has changed the domestic frame in the country. The concept of “traditional Filipino family” with the father as provider and mother as caregiver in one physical home with their children is no longer true for most households. Mothers and daughters are forced to leave home to provide for the family. Through the balikbayan box ritual, women are able to continue performing their role of taking care of domestic needs. The purchasing of items, packing of goods and wrapping the box allow them to feel a sense of home.
Through the sending and receiving of box, interdependence is established. Thus, Facebook was swamped with negative reactions because the BOC intervention would have broken the flow of connection between OFWs and their sons, daughters, parents, siblings, relatives, friends and lovers who look forward to unwrapping the gift first. The touch, the smell, the “feel” and the carefully handpicked items would have been lost if the opening of boxes and alleged “pilfering” of a “corrupt” government agency was not prevented by no less than the president following the people’s outrage.
Camposano, Clement. (2012). Balikbayan Boxes and the Performance of Intimacy by Filipino Migrant Women in Hong Kong. Vol. 21 (1), p. 83-104. Retrieved Sept. 11 in http://www.smc.org.ph/administrator/uploads/apmj_pdf/APMJ2012N1ART4.pdf
Fausto, Johanna. (2006). Inside the Balikbayan Box. Retrieved Sept. 11: http://www.columbia.edu/~sf2220/Thing/web-content/Pages/johanna2.html
Fausto, Johanna. (2006). Balikbayan. Retrieved Sept. 11: Retrieved Sept. 11: http://www.columbia.edu/~sf2220/Thing/web-content/Pages/balikbayanbox.html
Hermann, Gretchen (2001). Gift or Commodity: What Changes Hands in the U.S. garage sale? P. 72-97 in Consumption: The History and Regional Development of Consumption. Ed. Daniel Miller.
Medina, Andrei, Palumbarit, Veronica (Sept. 21, 2012). How Martial Law helped create the OFW phenomenon. Retreived September 11: http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/275011/news/pinoyabroad/how-martial-law-helped-create-the-ofw-phenomenon
Takumi, Rie (2015). Sending balikbayan boxes a way of long-distance parenting for some OFWs –expert – Retrieved Dec. 12, 2015 from http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/536943/news/pinoyabroad/sending-balikbayan-boxes-a-way-of-long-distance-parenting-for-some-ofws-expert#sthash.SbAxQeOT.dpuf
Rufo, A. (2008). Six million Filipino children left behind by OFW parents. Retreived Dec. 12, 2015 from http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/pinoy-migration/09/25/08/six-million-filipino-children-left-behind-ofw-parents
Latini, T. (2011). The Church and the Crisis of Community: A Practical Theology of Small-Group . USA. Wm. B. Eerdsmans Publishing, Inc.