Soap, water, and toothbrush – how Filipino hands rediscover quality
When mom sets up the balikbayan [gifts and goods sent to family and friends remaining in the Philippines] box, she disappears inside the cardboard container with a roll of duct tape to secure its corners. Stacks of canned food, toothpaste tubes, hard candies, and linens surround the basement floor in a line-up of what will go into the box first. We’d stock up on these items over a few months, keeping in mind our family’s preferences and favorite American products. Along with groceries, mom would ask everyone to sort out what we have and find things we’d be willing to send as a gift abroad. Mom’s guidelines to balikbayan box hand-me-downs:
Clothes that are too small would fit your younger cousin.
Clothes that are out of style would be a big hit with the teenagers.
Old shoes and clothes with a little bit of wear and tear, your tita can fix that.
Even pairs of sneakers covered in dirt were acceptable to add into the box. If using an old toothbrush to scrub the shoes clean worked for us, it surely wouldn’t be a problem for our relatives to do. Though I’ve never been to the Philippines, I imagine the skill of my family’s hands as they handle the balikbayan box, in all its excessive duct tape glory.
Everything we would have typically tossed aside as unwanted is a gem in their eyes. It doesn’t mean that our relatives have bad taste and don’t deserve brand new clothes. What this whole gesture proves is that we are so quick to find a replacement for the sake of convenience. If there’s a major stain on a shirt, I might buy a new shirt instead of experimenting with bleach. In the Philippines, our relatives would handwash the stain away. With soap and water, they’d use a toothbrush against the dirty soles of shoes. They’d get every corner until it looks brand new.
My relatives don’t necessarily need the balikbayan box, but sending these goods to the Philippines is considered our pasalubong. It translates to “something for when you welcome me,” similar to the concept of souvenir giving. Coming from a nation whose greatest export is its people, Filipino immigrants pack balikbayan boxes as a way of giving back to the family they left behind. It’s a thank you for the continuous support and an invitation for the whole family to enjoy the success gained abroad. Sending balikbayan box isn’t necessarily an obligation, but duty to the family plays a strong part in the giving. It’s a thoughtful gesture that reminds family in the Philippines that they’re remembered despite the long distance. However, in most cases, many overseas Filipinos’ leave home in order to support their families in the homeland.
Along with requested items and groceries (Toblerone by the bulk and all the canned goods after a ShopRite Can Can Sale), secondhand items are part of the pasalubong. Mom encourages us to give what we don’t want because in the Philippines someone will treasure them. They may not be the family member who the gift is intended to (we’re all guilty of regifting what we don’t like), but the wealth of balikbayan boxes are typically shared in the neighborhood. Growing up, my parents expressed the importance of valuing what we own and how as kids they maintained the condition of their belongings. They understand the resourcefulness of Filipinos and thus, pack the balikbayan box for our loved ones.
When the box finally arrives after a month of shipping, I would see things I once owned worn by someone in a photograph. The person may not even be a relative but someone in the neighborhood my family extended the gifts to. Somehow my clothes don’t look the same in these pictures. They appear spotless, clean, almost perfect. My family’s kamayan—both the givers and receivers—values what we have as blessings. One end prepares a box to send on a ship across the world, and the other puts in the effort and skill I wish I had. With clothes in a tub of water, my relatives rub the fabric against itself to rid dirt and stains. They know how to take care of their belongings with a hand labor that seems natural. They know the friction that rediscovers the quality of hand me down clothes. My relatives in the Philippines preserve the condition of their material goods. They are the best people to send gifts to because most of the time, they know its worth more than we do.