Home / Points of View & Perspectives / What Customs won’t find in a ‘balikbayan’ box

What Customs won’t find in a ‘balikbayan’ box

Alegria A. ImperialOr how the worth of goods in it could be missed outright because they’re really more than the symbols of OFW “sacrifices and hardships,” which then-President Corazon Aquino’s amendment to the Tariff Law that exempts it, honors. What then could they truly be? Try mulling over on these: 

Thick fog on cold mornings that settles as protective mantle on bottles of instant Taster’s Choice, a big tub of Coffee Mate, cans of Spam and corned beef, dozen packs of Kraft Mac and Cheese, jars of Nutella, tubes of Pringles, and tins of Lindt chocolates huddled for boxing.

Solitary twilights that line the box like four walls—a pair each of cotton bedsheets in twin, queen and king sizes; also bath and face towels, that wrap medium-sized perfumes, one, an Elizabeth Arden cologne; a 50ml L’Oreal revitalizing day and night cream; a couple of Revlon lipsticks; and Michael Kors, Kate Spade and Coach small purses.

The many shapes of motherhood stuffed into a backpack—a pair of Nike sneakers with matching socks wrapped in three large-sized T-shirts emblazoned with LeBron’s name; anti-glare Foster Grants dark glasses; extreme whitening toothpaste tubes, deodorant sticks, acne-erasing deep-cleansing creams, sun-block lotions, and a still-loose space for a dream Beats headphone.

Items readied for packing in a balikbayan box.
Items readied for packing in a balikbayan box.

An ocean of memories that, like a rip tide, has swept and surged back many times, if prominent on a grocery shelf—Jacob crackers long ago divided between sisters, Quaker oats served only on Sundays, and powdered (Kool-Aid then) orange juice only for a sick brother, laid in the box especially for Nanay, as if to reverse the past, when she denied her own self, a bite, a spoonful and a sip of these.

Fitting goods into a balikbayan box takes Lyna about a year or more during timeouts from her daily trudge to work, some nights of overtime, solitary meals, off-hours browsing sale items, weekends stacking up finds, reviewing the list—so that no one back home would feel left out—crossing out or adding an item, juggling a budget saved from say, Canada’s Tax-Free Savings Account since two years ago.

She apologizes constantly to friends, especially Legion of Mary members, when they bring the image of Our Lady of Fatima for a week’s stay—consorts must walk sideways through the foyer of the basement apartment she shares with a friend, where she has stacked the boxes waiting for more items, which she hopes would be on sale soon.

Like Rebecca, who learned the preferences of aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, also friends, long deemed as relatives, during her few visits to the Philippines, Lyna has added items for her octogenarian ninang’s rather costly cosmetics, and her son’s hinted-wishes when asked what reward he might want for graduating bemedaled in multiple.

She and Rebecca worry about the looming tax over dubious smuggled appliances; her dream house has yet to take off from mere words, but already in a closet not only the porcelain dinner, glass and silver sets, curtains with valances, which she could not resist in a garage sale, but also a second-hand television set, a used-but-still-like-new toaster oven, a blender and juicer, await.

Rebecca rues how such tax in a way would chomp away a tradition, recalling what’s just-a-box hoisted onto the bus by a rope that tied its fragile sides decades ago, which probinsiyanos visiting Manila stuffed with pasalubong, like freshly picked gulay, and on the way back, filled it with Sunkist oranges, Golden Delicious apples and ubas, for kin left behind; this, too, did figure in thoughts swapped around recently.

But if Customs persists in exacting tariff for items in a balikbayan box, it might want to try monetizing value on lives lived simultaneously yet apart, the past in the guise of the present and vice versa, shuttling between seas and skies.


  1. How true, each and every item, each and every word…

  2. Alegria A. Imperial

    Lucy, thank you for resonating with me, hence, also with hundreds of Filipinos, who have turned to the Balikbayan box as bridge or boat to nourish longings for home. Of course, it’s true, as it often happens, that ‘something good’ could be twisted into ‘something bad’ by the unscrupulous but for most of us, it’s simply a box of regalo and pasalubong. Let’s hope Customs will see this through with clear eyes.

  3. This article completely mirrors me, and most OFWs. The things I do just to fill up a box to be sent before Christmas every year since I arrived here in the US…very surreal…

    • Alegria A. Imperial

      I’m glad it does, Alfredo! I like how you picture the way we pack into a box parts of our lives away from home as surreal. Thanks so much for taking time to write a comment.

  4. What you are describing is exactly what I did to fill up my boxes. hindi ako magpadala ng isa lang kung hindi lahat ng aking pamilya, mga kamag anak, at yong nag anticipate sa sana may matanggap sila.. ang ating buong pagmamahal at pagtiis ay nandyan kasama sa ating mga napadala. at iyon ang mga nilapastangan ng mga walang hiyang mga magnanakaw na inaapakan lang nila ang ating buong pagkatao. walang respeto sa mga naghihirap. kaya mmadaramdam ko ang galit ng mga ka OFW ko. sa aking katandaan na naghirap in 27 years, nasasaktan din sa kanilang mga kalapastangan at pagmumura nga mga tauhan diyan sa BOC.

  5. I was in tears while reading this article..you’ve said it all. I have a lot of clothes , toys and children’s book given to me by my employer since their kids are all grown up now. Her parents moved into a nursing home and they asked me to go and get everything i need or i want in the house before dispossing it. I really want to send all of this through balikbayan box but i cant afford the tax they are asking.

    • Alegria A. Imperial

      Hi, Linda! It pleases me to know that I have written exactly how you and hundreds of other OFWs pack a Balikbayan box. Thank you for expanding our sentiments over the proposed tax that Customs suddenly wants to impose on the items we choose with care and much love. Nakakasira talaga ng loob kahit sa isip man lang kung ito nga ay mangyayari. Tama ka at marami pang iba na nakakaramdam ng galit. Dapat kasi pati na ang ibinigay ng batas ay hindi binabawi lalo na sa mga naghihirap na mai-angat man lang ng konti ang kabuhayan. Parang hanggang ngayon ay di pa rin nila maisip ang buod ng paghihirap ng mga OFW. Sana ipagpatuloy mo at mga kaibiganmo at kakilala na iparating sa BOC ang niloloob ng daan-daan na OFW, Thanks again at Mauhay!

    • Alegria A. Imperial

      I can imagine how you felt, Sonnie. I was teary-eyed myself when I wrote this.

      Your experience with your employer sounds familiar. I have heard the same “pamana” of almost all the contents of a whole house here in Vancouver. What a nice gesture, indeed, in appreciation of your and many others’ services. If only it were as simple as moving these across the street or the next town, right?

      I suggest you ask around about the possibility of bringing all these when you go home to retire. I think you’re allowed to do so tax-free but I’m not sure. In the meantime, keep alive your sentiments and join others in protesting against the impending BOC ruling.

      Thank you for taking time to write a comment and sharing your feelings. Mabuhay!

  6. Akala ko titigil na ang BOC sa pakikialam sa mga balikbayan boxes matapos silang mabara sa Senado, iyon pala eh may balak pa silang mag impose ng taxes sa mga laman nito. What do they need the money for? We have so much money in the hands of government kaya we.can afford.to let h o n e s t people to take them. I have a daughter who is working abroad and she echoes exactly.the same sentiments you have so clearly stated.

    • Alegria A. Imperial

      Thanks for reading and taking time to write a comment, Wilie. According to what I’ve heard from TFC news and what I’ve read in Philippine papers, BOC seems inclined to tax items in the Balikbayan box. Pero hindi pa naman yata naisusulong. Baka sakaling hindi ito matuloy. It will really add to the burdens of OFWs if this happens. Let’s keep hoping and making our voices be heard that it won’t.

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