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Second ED - Ysabel Cacho.jpg
Edition #2
Networks and Labyrinths
Ysabel Cacho
Edited by Shanti Lara Giovannetti-Singh

Unpacking Lessons from the Balikbayan Box

Last summer, I moved three times to three different cities located on three different continents. New York, Manila, and Barcelona. There's a lot of emotional and physical baggage to unpack (or repack) there. Frankly, I'm still not overly fond of seeing a suitcase or a moving box, although I'm slowly learning to get over this. Each time I had to uproot my life, several balikbayan boxes held nearly ten years of my past in their cardboard confines to take overseas.

In Tagalog, balik means “to return,” and bayan means “country.” Together, those two words form balikbayan, which translates to “return to the country.” To non-Filipinos, the balikbayan box looks like a meager cardboard box packed with canned goods, candy, and clothing. The box is wrapped with cling foil to ensure safe delivery back to the motherland.

Labels don't matter

Where are you from” is a good conversation starter, but it could also be a conservation killer, depending on who is asking. Globalization has made the world feel smaller and more accessible, as testified by ERASMUS programs, expats, and even the Internet. In this increasingly multicultural world, making a big deal out of where people are from only widens the distance between individuals.


The question “where are you from” has gotten more complicated now that I’ve left New York behind. I'm still trying to navigate the answer. I don't think my Filipino identity should cancel out my identity as a New Yorker. Still, equally, I value this new identity and don’t believe it can replace the one I was born with. To do so would be to discredit the work I put into building both those identities. But unfortunately, not everyone can understand the concept of a hybrid.

A friend and I were recently at a restaurant in Spain. One of the waiters approached us after our meal and asked where we were from. My friend told him I was from the States. He pressed on and wanted to know where I was really from. (Really? We're still asking “really from” as a form of validation?) My friend replied that I was born in the Philippines– and so was this waiter. But that answer wasn't good enough, and he wanted to know if I was “half” or “full.” Is this information crucial? I asked him. He said yes. I didn't think this was his business, so I didn’t reply. I don’t understand the point of asking where someone is “really” from and whether they’re “half or full.” Unless you're an immigration officer or while filling petrol, those are two questions that should never be asked.


The only required labels were the sender and receiver information I needed for my balikbayan boxes to reach their destination. If it’s not required for custom or shipment, we agree that labels are outdated.

You can't bring everything with you


Even though the balikbayan box had no weight limit (since it was sent home by a sea carrier), I couldn't pack everything, meaning some were destined to be left behind. Adrenaline and exhaustion forced me to decide what to keep, throw, or donate. But while you may have a set agenda and excel file of itemized boxes, life has its agenda, so there were many things I wanted to keep that were unfortunately lost in transit. And by “things,” I mean people.


This has happened before, but it doesn’t make it any easier. You can’t take everything (and everyone) with you, no matter how hard you try, no matter how desperate you are. Regardless of the number of “let's keep in touch!” promises made. This is not always the case. Some friends make it through the next phase of your life. Others, however, will simply slip through your grip. This is not on purpose; it seems to happen naturally. The friends who once defined your college memories are nothing more than distant memories.  Your partner-in-crime at work becomes another LinkedIn connection. 

But why not simply “reach out” to these people? I hate being reminded to reach out. I really do. I hate reaching out simply “for the sake of.” (Whose sake is at stake? Mine? The person I “have” to reach out to? Or the other person who reminded me that I “have” to do this?)


My relationship with this person is not a little check box I need to tick off at the end of the day. Saying “hi, how are you?” shouldn’t feel like a chore. Besides, I believe these connections are symbiotic: the responsibility of saying “hi” is shared equally between both parties.


Keep on tracking


There’s always social media. Or is there? Social media has changed a lot since I first moved from my home in Manila to the US when I was 18. Then, it felt like a lifebuoy, something I desperately clung to while trying to stay afloat amidst waves of homesickness and schoolwork. Today, social media feels like the tracking number I'm given when I ship my balikbayan box off. I find myself absent-mindedly refreshing the page to see if there's a significant update– which usually isn't.


Social media offers a glitzy way to engage with people. Promises of follows, likes, stories, stickers, gifs, and memes can make it look fun. But without an actual effort to engage, social media, in the end, is merely an illusion of connection. 


Yet this is not always the case. Hopefully, amidst the pixels, numbers, and data, there’s a friend flesh and feeling on the other end who is present, not just online.

Make space


The essentials have been packed, and everything else is either thrown or donated. The box is carefully labeled, and a tracking number is issued. The vast size of the box makes it tempting to pack to the brim, stuffing every breathable space with traces of my past. But overpack, and certain items will get crushed or pushed out of the box. One of the last lessons the balikbayan box offers is to make space.


Beyond the confines of the balikbayan box, making space is a humbling lesson. Looking back, I suppose space is one of the final puzzles of making connections. Connections are complex. Connections almost feel like a living being that needs the occasional tending to—on both receiving ends. Once the essentials are in place, certain old relationships phase out; it's vital that they do because that makes space to allow new connections to grow in their place.

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