Filipinas in the Global Care Industry
Nursing the World
OFW Special

Out of the (balikbayan) box

[photos by Luis Liwanag]

EACH TIME I open a balikbayan box, the first thing that always strikes me is a fragrance whose source I still have to figure out up to now. Is it the Ivory soap or the Finesse shampoo? Maybe it’s the Jergens lotion? Could it be the whiff of clean American air that somehow gets trapped in that huge box? Or is it a blend of all of the above? I really don’t know. All know is that for some strange reason, the scent sticks to everything made in America — the T-shirts, the jeans, the towels, and even the sneakers — that the sender carefully labels, packs, and ships back home. The smell would surely have seeped into the Goober Grape peanut butter if not for the thick glass bottle it comes in. Actually, the Hershey’s Kisses sometimes do taste odd.

I have been a recipient of ‘Stateside” goods since my childhood in the 1960s when my aunt, a nurse who had joined the wave of migrants to the United States a decade earlier, was sending stuff home to the Philippines. Back then, there was no such thing as a balikbayan box yet, and door-to-door cargo had still to reach these shores. But I had no interest in finding out just how the items got to our home, so long as the toys and other knick-knacks didn’t lose their way coming from my aunt’s house and into my eager little hands. I’ve since been told my aunt sent many other things, from bed sheets to towels to Hills Bros coffee, usually through returning fellow Filipinos. At one point, my grandmother even started making smooth fluffy pancakes that could not have possibly risen out of her favorite old kawali but had to be the result of being cooked in the amazing new Teflon pan sent over from San Diego, California.

Like many others who came ahead of her and after, my aunt sought out well-paying nursing jobs in the United States, starting around New Jersey in the East Coast before marrying a fellow Filipino and ending up on the opposite side of the continent. In the early years, when she sent parcels or brought her young family home to Manila, she talked about the questions her baffled children asked that provided clues to what she and other Filipinos were sending home: “Don’t they have sausage in the Philippines? Do Filipinos brush their teeth? Don’t they have toothpaste there?”

But the packages were never really about their contents. The gifts, whatever they were, were a way of reassuring folks back home that relationships remained intact despite the distance, that they had not been forgotten and were wished well. At the time, probably no one foresaw that in just two decades, that practice would spawn a multibillion-peso industry.

By the 1970S and 80S, other members of our clan had migrated to America, among them a sister-in-law who left Manila to be a nurse in Florida, on the crest of another wave of migrations. By then, things had changed. There was more frequency and regularitY to the arrival of packages that came mostly hand-carried by friends and co-workers of those abroad. As more nurses left, more were also returning for annual vacations, moving then President Ferdinand Marcos to coin a special term for them, balikbayan, even giving them their own special queue at the immigration counters.

It was these balikbayan nurses who came home with the inevitable pasalubong (homecoming gifts) squeezed inside bags bursting at the seams. While many of the gifts were for their own expectant relatives, a good number were also for those of their Filipino friends in the States. They didn’t have to deliver the gifts personally; instead, the intended recipients would show up and claim them. My family, for instance, would get a phone call, which would soon have us headed for the Metro Manila address of a balikbayan-friend of a US-based relative. Once we got there, all we had to do was to present ID cards as proof we were who we were supposed to be so that our pasalubong would be given to us. When it was our relative’s turn to come home for a vacation, she would be sought out as well by the beneficiaries of her friends’ own generosity.

AT THE START, we would look for addresses that often turned out to be small apartments in seedy, crowded neighborhoods in Malibay, Pasay, or Sampaloc. But soon, many balikbayan families were invading suburbia and holing up in middle-class villages with names like Susana Heights or Don Antonio Heights, aptly signaling their climb up the socio-economic ladder and away from the maddening masa.

These days, however, I need not leave the house in search of some balikbayan‘s new abode to claim the gifts or pasalubong from relatives in America. Neither to do I have to wait for the yearly or once-in-two-years’ homecoming of family members lugging the two balikbayan boxes per person that Philippine Airlines allows. All I have to do is hang around the house on the day the delivery man is supposed to show up at our doorstep, ask for ID, and dump in our living room a huge 20 x 20 x 20 balikbayan box, the one that took all of three weeks to cross the Pacific Ocean from California to Manila.

Cargo forwarding is the way Filipinos go global these days, thanks to the unabated exodus of Filipinos to America and other parts of the world — which can no longer be called waves but rather tsunamis of migration — and their need to send pasalubong home to family. There are dozens of cargo forwarders in the United States alone catering to the three million or so Filipinos there. For years now, these companies have specialized in the door-to-door delivery that allows Filipinos to send bits and pieces of the United States back home in a box, in between actual homecomings. Since shipping charges are estimated by size and not by weight, senders can fill every available space with goods of all shapes and sizes, light or heavy, as long as these do not include firearms and explosives, perishables, drugs, or jewelry. Money in a balikbayan box is also a no-no, since there are safer and speedier ways of sending cash across the seas.

Not everyone with kin in the United States gets a visit from the door-to-door delivery van, of course. The clientele of the cargo business in America actually fits a certain profile. Forwarders and local handlers say that the Filipino who sends home balikbayan boxes is usually either of two types. One is the elderly, usually retirees or parents of immigrants with other (grown-up) children left in the Philippines. This type has the time to comb the malls or stake out Wal-Mart and Costco for items like chocolates, toiletries, canned goods, and clothes on sale — and then wrap the items up, tack names of intended recipients on them individually, and “consolidate” the goods in a balikbayan box.

The other type is the newly arrived worker, such as the recently hired nurse who is just starting out in the States. Long-time California resident Dan Concepion describes this type of balikbayan-box sender as “still attached” to the homeland, and more likely to succumb to that Filipino trait of indiscriminate gift giving. “Pag-alis ang dala pangako, pagdating ang dala pasalubong (They leave promising all sorts of things, and once they arrive here they have to send those back as gifts),” says Concepcion.

BEFORE HE put up his own cargo-forwarding company in 1993, Concepcion was into property management in the US, running his family’s apartment buildings in California. But he said he noticed something amiss among existing freight forwarders: there were no fixed departure and arrival dates of shipments, and senders could not commit to relatives back home, who waited forever for the delivery vans to show up.

“I studied the industry and I introduced new features. I introduced certainty,” explains Concepcion, whose company Alpha Cargo is a holder of an NVOCC (Non-Vessel Operating Common Carrier) license. The company’s shipments left and arrived on a set schedule, and if timetables were botched by unforeseen circumstances, clients were informed immediately. For those living in America and whose lives are ruled by the clock, these things mattered, Concepcion says.

Now, he says, Alpha Cargo has overtaken much older competitors in Northern California, and is at the top of the heap, at least in that part of the United States. In an interview conducted at the impressive family mausoleum that Concepcion built at the Holy Mary Memorial Park in his hometown of Angeles City, the businessman analyzed the habits and profile of the typical balikbayan box sender. He explained his company’s marketing strategy as he toured me around the gleaming mausoleum built partly from the profits of the balikbayan box business. The mausoleum is divided into rooms, which have crypts made to look like beds and marble panels that conceal the interred remains of various family members.

Alpha Cargo, says Concepcion, targets apartment dwellers, immigrants who have yet to start mortgage payments on a new house and can still allocate portions of their salaries to regular balikbayan-box shipments. Once they decide to acquire property, immigrants are left with neither the time nor the money to send pasalubong home since they usually end up taking two jobs just to meet the payments.

The market of the cargo-forwarding business is just a tenth of all Filipinos in America, since, according to Concepcion, 70 percent are already citizens who have brought their families with them, while the remaining 20 percent are undocumented residents or workers. Yet the business is highly lucrative. Alpha Cargo, for instance, ships either a 20-ft or 40-ft container every three days out of the port of Oakland in Northern California; the 20-ft container holds 180 boxes while the 40-ft version can take as much as 400. With a fee of $65 charge per box, the sum of all freights makes for a very profitable venture. Alpha Cargo also ships out of Los Angeles and Chicago.

Gino Galang, who operates a local handler, ERG Express, says that while it’s a small market, there is a regularity to the shipments. “Hahabol sila sa fiesta o kaya sa graduation (They’ll try to send something in time for fiesta or graduation),” notes Galang, whose company receives balikbayan box shipments and delivers them to recipients. The busiest time for balikbayan box arrivals is obviously Christmas, when migrant workers still hope to play Santa Claus to extended families in the Philippines.

Galang’s company handles shipments from cargo forwarders in the United States and Canada, and has yet to tie up with those in Europe where business is slower, one reason being the distance and consequently, the higher cost of shipping. From the United Kingdom, for example, the shipping charge for a Manila-bound box can go anywhere from £45 to £100, which converts to about $83 to $189-definitely a lot of money, even ifboxes originating from there are usually bigger than those coming from elsewhere.

But the frequency of shipments may yet pick up, Galang notes, because “nurses are already entering Europe,” and it is they who seem to make the kind of money that allows room for regular pasalubong shopping and shipping.

NURSES OR not, though, Filipinos take gift giving to the extreme, especially when they get the chance to travel and sometimes buy items for no particular occasion and with no specific recipient in mind. They tend to storm the malls during sales, buying things they don’t need just because they’re cheap, observes Concepcion. The inclination is to spend, rather than save. Instead of putting their money on long-term investments, they splurge on consumer goods, used and brand new. It can even be argued, that the gift-filled balikbayan box has slipped from being part of a practice employed to maintain ties across the seas and has been reduced to an excuse to indulge in the Filipino addiction to shopping.

That is why those at the receiving end of balikbayan-box shipments get all sorts of stuff. I thought my family was already getting the motherlode. But one of my co-workers, Yolly Nicolas, has a network of close and not-so-close relatives, friends, and neighbors working or living in the United States, Japan, and Europe who send anything and everything imaginable that can be packed in a balikbayan box. A sibling’s sister-in-law who works as a domestic helper in Greece ships bigger items that have, in the past, included a chair, an ironing board, huge pieces of Tupperware plastic containers, and large cooking utensils. Another distant relative who is a singer in Japan once managed to I fit a used PC in that country’s tiny version of a shipping box. A sister-in-law who works as a nurse in California sends two balikbayan boxes each year that contain huge jars of coffee, rubber shoes that have their insides stuffed with assorted cosmetics, freebies from McDonalds, cans of corned beef, towels, bags, and chocolates, which are pasalubong perennials.

For some reason, the boxes contain even ordinary items that can be purchased locally like spaghetti, sotanghon (rice noodles), and sugar. Nicolas says, “Siguro mga sobra lung nila any mga ‘yon at wala na silang maipadalang iba (Maybe those are extras from their own shopping and there is nothing else they can think of sending).”

Then again, grocery items are among the most common contents of a balikbayan box, in large part because they probably give the sender the feeling he or she actually contributes to the sustenance of those left behind. Cargo- forwarding company Forex Manila, which is based in the East Coast, even offers a service through which Filipinos can order prepacked boxes called either bulilit box or medium box, with standard contents the company takes charge of packing for the busy sender. The bulilit box, which can be ordered online and costs a total of $85 if shipped to Manila, and $92 if shipped to the provinces, has the following items:

  • 1 box Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate/Cocoa
  • 3 cans Spam
  • 3 cans Libby’s/Palm Corned Beef
  • 3 cans Tulip Luncheon Meat
  • 3 cans Libby’s Vienna Sausage
  • 2 can Libby’s/Del Monte Fruit Cocktail
  • 1 bag Hershey’s Assorted Miniature Chocolate
  • 1 bottle Taster’s Choice/Folger’s Coffee
  • 1 box Chips Ahoy
  • 1 can Nestea Iced Tea Mix
  • 6 packs Instant Noodles
  • 1 can Pringles or 2 cans Piknik
  • 1 can Prago or 2 cans Hunts/Del Monte Spaghetti Sauce
  • 1 10-lb sack of Jasmin Rice

There are also those who send hand-me-down clothes in varying states of usefulness and wearability. Nicolas, for one, has received her share of used clothing, which she says look like they could have been meant for ukay-ukay or second-hand stalls.

INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, ukay-ukay is a touchy subject among cargo forwarders. It seems that some do engage in the ukay-ukay business and use the shipment of balikbayan boxes only as decoy. This enables them to charge rock bottom prices for the service. The danger, however, is the boxes could be confiscated and disappear once the forwarder is caught by local customs officials.

But that’s not the only way balikbayan boxes could “disappear.” A couple of years back, a scandal broke out when it was discovered that a Canada-based forwarding company was still accepting boxes for shipping to Manila even though it had long gone bankrupt; in other words, a ghost company was collecting fees and promising delivery of balikbayan boxes.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) was deluged by complaints from frustrated local recipients who never got their much-awaited boxes.

“The lesson is not to trust fly-by-night companies, and not to surrender to marketing gimmicks that are too good to be true,” says Galang, who assisted in the investigations conducted by the DTI. Galang says his company helped track down the local counterparts of these questionable forwarders, whose containers were later found abandoned, the boxes’ contents looted.

Such incidents give cargo forwarders a bad name and drive away consignees, which is what the senders are called in the business. At any rate, industry insiders say business has slowed down since the 9/11 bombings in New York, which affected many industries that were forced to layoff workers or push them into voluntary retirement, Filipinos included. That, coupled with rising cost of living in the United States, has compelled many Filipinos to drop the habit of sending balikbayan boxes.

Besides, “people are sick and tired of corned beef already,” laments Concepcion. Many food items that have become balikbayan-box staples are also cheaper and easily available in the Philippines. Plus there’s the fact that “90 percent of goods in America are made in China,” says Concepcion; these will cost only one-fifth their US price if bought in Manila. Moreover, it seems people’s priorities have changed, and their relatives back home would rather receive tangible tender loving care in cash than in kind. Concepcion’s Alpha Cargo is in fact now working out arrangements with the Philippine telecommunications giant Globe to be an agent for “Globe Padala,” a money-remittance service.

But Concepcion isn’t ready to give up on the balikbayan box just yet. His company has been training its sights on the new arrivals to the United States, of which there still seems to be an endless supply. Alpha Cargo offers them the certainty that their boxes will arrive within 20 to 27 days for Luzon-bound packages and 27 to 35 days for those headed for the Visayas and Mindanao. Being a licensed cargo forwarder with a steady clientele, Alpha Cargo does not have to wait long for its containers to fill up because there is usually a deluge of boxes. It also keeps to the departure and arrival dates of the ocean-going vessels that carry the precious balikbayan cargo.

Still, it’s been more than a year since I last got a balikbayan box from the States. Just recently, however, the postman delivered a smaller box, right in time for my daughter’s postgraduation beach bonanza. She got a towel, sunglasses, two pairs of shorts, and a T-shirt. There were also two evening bags, but they came too late for her to pick one for her senior prom. And of course there were chocolates, which in our family are always appreciated, and are reminders that someone far away is wishing us well.