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The failure behind the balikbayan box warning

Posted on August 24, 2015 at 12:25 AM

Beyond the smuggling issue claimed by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) allegedly linked to the balikbayan boxes sent by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to their family and loved ones in the Philippines, why has the BOC’s infamous announcement on August 19 left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, if not most, OFWs?

Given a certain degree of logic behind BOC’s intention, why has it failed in its latest attempt at justifying its warning to scores of Filipinos across the globe concerning the issue? For every balikbayan box sent by an OFW back home, what exactly goes with it, other than the carefully packed imported items, which only the sender and the receiver will truly understand and treasure? What is it that the now-heavily-protested government office clearly cannot fathom?

Christmas, other occasions and the balikbayan box

In as much as many Filipinos back home are now looking forward to the approach of the so-called “-ber” months, a much-anticipated prelude to the Christmas season, OFWs in many parts of the world have their own way of doing this. Away from family and loved ones whose company can only be enjoyed through border-crossing—aka transnational—display of love and affection, OFWs turn to some rather limited ways of joining the predominantly Christian population of the country to prepare for the festive season, one of which is purchasing goods and sending them back home, if only to make themselves part of the celebration no matter how mundane and impersonal the act seems to others. While many OFWs do not just send packages during Christmas but also on other occasions, sending a balikbayan box back home, nevertheless, has always been symbolic of most migrant workers’ desire to be a part of special moments that they know will never happen because reality forces them to be somewhere else to make sure that there is food on the table in their own homes.

Studies on familial expressions of intimacy and affection across distances show how families, more often parents and left-behind children, try to cope with the separation just to ensure continued familiarity with each other even when apart. Sending balikbayan boxes to one’s country of origin is a very real example of this.

If one really thinks about it, the contents of balikbayan boxes do not bear much of a difference from what can be found in big supermarkets in the Philippines. More often than not, OFWs (and even thousands of immigrants in the West) who send said boxes two or three times a year tell their friends that they often send items like SPAM, lotion, shampoo, bars of soap, pasta, other grocery items and other personal effects. To others, such items may, in fact, seem mundane.

But are they, really?

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The life of an OFW and the sacredness of “padala”

An OFW’s story is not exactly new to most in the Philippines. Narratives of both their successes and misfortunes occasionally hit national and international headlines, fueling discussions in various social media sites and online fora. A survey of one’s neighborhood will most likely result in putting down one’s list a couple or so of families who have at least one member who is working abroad. Apart from the usual morning neighborhood talks—such as this so-and-so’s father is coming back home from Saudi Arabia or her sister, a long-time American immigrant, is sponsoring her alma mater’s reunion—what else does the Philippine society know about them? What day-to-day concerns do they have which the Philippine government bothers to take to heart, hopefully influencing the policies the State makes? Given the all-time high personal remittances, at $26.93 billion, sent by OFWs in 2014 that helped support the Philippine economy, how does the government reciprocate?

While it can be claimed that the Philippines, the leading supplier of world labor, has a considerable number of policies taking into account its own migrant workforce, this recent BOC debacle reveals that the State’s understanding of and appreciation for the country’s modern-day heroes turns out to be nothing but skin-deep. Amidst all the bilateral agreements and various state-to-state talks, BOC’s imposition of tighter rules displays complete ignorance of the fact that the often-taken-for-granted balikbayan boxes are the OFWs’ way of making up with their loved ones, even at a very temporal sense, for those special moments that require togetherness yet snatched away by the distance that separates them. Ordinary the contents of the boxes may be to many, but when an OFW sends cans of SPAM or bars of soap or boxes of chocolates or a pair of pants, these items do not remain the material items that they are in the eyes of many.

Every canned food that an OFW’s children partake during mealtime is synonymous to a father’s feeling of being able to join family meals and bond with them at that very moment despite their geographical differences. Why send bars and bars of soap when they abound as well back home? It is not because those left behind cannot afford to buy such items themselves. It is because the scent that the soaps produce recreates the abstract feelings caused by a daughter’s longing for her parents, a yearning that phone calls and online chats cannot put across. When a teenage girl dons the dress her mother has sent and posts her photo online, no words can capture the joy that both of them have because behind that simple dress sent from miles away is the mother’s tender way of telling her “I have you in my mind every single second of the day even if I don’t see you grow up as I should.”

NJ Abad, an OFW toiling in Saudi Arabia recounts layers of sacrifice he needs to do only to send balikbayan boxes to his family in the Philippines.

When I pack my BB, I want to optimize all the available space. It may be heavy and tight but it is good for transport. It is also a good way to protect the box from pilferage. I always find it fulfilling if I packed my BB well. Add to that is the difficulty of packing the things one by one...layer by layer, making sure there will be no spillages or breakages…. By the time I set foot at the courier's office, I would be dripping wet with perspiration and some riyals out from my pocket. And to ensure that things don't get lost while in transit or upon arrival at the BOC in Manila, I would have it double shrink-wrapped. I also have to pay more because my point of delivery is in Visayas.

What is, however, more important in his account is the narrative of unequalled happiness and the bond a father desperately tries to nurture with his family even through material things, expensive or not.

After all the documentation is done, I would immediately take a photo of the Bill of Lading and send to my wife through Hangout or FB Messenger. And though it will only reach our home after 60 days, I could already see the excitement in the faces of my family opening the boxes. And yes, I also celebrate that milestone in an OFW life. Much I would want a Jollibee meal or an AlBaik for the celebration, A 5 Riyal Shawarma and a liter of bottled water could be okay for the time being. I could have my wish meal at a time when I won't be sending any BB…. Seeing those smiles and the happiness of my family want me to pack another BB to send home. It's a panacea , an elixir to our homesickness and stressed bodies. Our BBs are sacred to us. It represents our blood, sweat and tears.

Fleeting. Temporal. Short-lived.

No matter what is said by many about the significance (or insignificance to some) of sending home these much-talked-about boxes, it is only when one is either the sender or the recipient of the items will a person truly know and comprehend their truest value. These and a whole host of utterly personal reasons are what make the balikbayan boxes intimate and sacred.

It may be well too easy to claim that BOC’s latest advisory is the agency’s way to deter elements in the society who are circumventing the law. The warning, however, reveals the bureau’s inefficiency in dealing with smugglers who have found loopholes and opportunities in the system. Rather than come up with more effective and altruistic measures to solve their own bureaucratic concerns, BOC’s handling of the matter burdens, instead, the poor migrant workers at the expense of breaking one more time family ties that have, in fact, already been severed when the State has failed to provide them jobs they deserve back home. Instead of becoming the beacon of hope and source of respite, given the OFWs’ sacrifices, nights of longing and yearning for the warmth and company of family and loved ones, the BOC in cold blood serves another form of exaction largely creating inequalities in the Philippine society.

When the State itself fails to recognize how these humanitarian reasons play a significant role in maintaining family relationships, where else can its own people take refuge?

Quo vadis, migranteng Pilipino?

Categories: Philippine Migration, Migrant Life, OFW

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