Love (and bars of soap) sent home in a box

Filipino expatriates ship home clothes, treats, appliances and electronics. Many remember that their parents did the same for them.

John Paul, 27, Francis, 28, and Angel Laguilles, 25, prepare a balikbayan box to send to their family in the Philippines.
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ABU DHABI // Angel Laguilles knows the balikbayan box tradition well, having been on both the sending and receiving end of it. Ms Laguilles's parents were care workers in Las Vegas, Nevada, from 2001 to 2009. For nearly a decade, she and her two elder brothers in Cavite, south of Manila, each received several of the large cardboard boxes packed with gifts from the United States.

Inside them, they would find new sets of clothes, several pairs of shoes, school bags, chocolates, cookies and their favourite - Oreo biscuits. "The chocolates and other stuff from the States really tasted different from those bought in the Philippines," Ms Laguilles said. "Our parents always knew what to get us from there." Now, the three siblings work in Abu Dhabi while their parents, in their early 50s, are enjoying life back home in the Philippines.

"Now it's our turn to send those balikbayan boxes," said Ms Laguilles, 25, who works as airline ground staff. "We send home clothes, groceries, kitchenware, decorative stuff and anything from Home Centre and Ikea." Putting together a package and shipping all these items home in a balikbayan box - the name translated means "returning to one's homeland" - somehow eases the pain of separation for many overseas foreign workers.

"It's one way of showing one's love to the family we leave behind," she said. "And the feeling of receiving and opening a box is really hard to describe." Ms Laguilles is shipping a large box this week, which she hopes is delivered within a month and arrives during the weeks that she and her brothers plan to be home visiting. "I leave it to my brothers to do the packing," she said. "All liquids like shampoo and fabric-softener bottles are sealed with packaging tape and we use some of the clothes to wrap the breakable stuff."

Many of the thousands of balikbayan boxes sent from the UAE to the Philippines each year contain simple groceries and toiletries. The goal is not to waste space; gaps in the box often are filled with bars of soap. Glenn Consunji, 31, an architect in Abu Dhabi, shares Ms Laguilles' fondness for balikbayan boxes. "It feels great knowing that I can provide for my family," he said. "I can sense their excitement every time I'd call to say I've got something for them."

In July, Mr Consunji will send home his fourth box this year to his parents and three brothers in Samal, Bataan, north of Manila. The items he has sent include a vacuum cleaner, an old printer and a set of speakers. There was also food - 10 packs of dates, 20 boxes of Van Houten chocolates and a 10kg package of basmati rice. His eldest brother, Jommel, 37, loved what he ate so much during his visit in the capital that he asked for rice and biryani pilau mixes.

One of the boxes contained a food processor and juicer for his father, Jorge, 70, who suffered a stroke in March. "He needs to watch his diet from now on," Mr Consunji said. In February, his mother, Mina, a 64-year-old schoolteacher, asked for a new television set. He sent a 32-inch flat-screen model when it went on sale at Dh1,600 (US$435). Its original price was Dh2,100. Mr Consunji recalled how his father refused cash for his birthday and preferred a wristwatch from the UAE. "He could buy one for himself but he said he'd be happier if I got him a stainless-steel watch instead," he said.

Makati Express, a freight forwarding company, has enjoyed brisk business shipping the boxes - its Dubai office gets 160 per day, the Abu Dhabi office receives 50. The number doubles at Christmas. Most customers prefer sea cargo, a less expensive method of shipment than air freight. The expense of shipping a box to Manila ranges from Dh110 to Dh230, but the cost can climb to Dh340 to get a box out to the provinces of the Philippines.

"One maid sent home an old TV and laptop which her madam gave her," said Vinancio Buenafe, 41, a sales representative at the Abu Dhabi branch of Makati Express. Another boxed up a large cooking range and oven, courtesy of her employer. "We love to spoil our families," said Grace Pascua, 34, who works in customer service at the Dubai Makati Express. "They all love branded items from abroad." Mrs Pascua, who has been working in Dubai for a year, sent a package to her son Kit, 15, and daughter Alexia, seven, in December.

"We send money back home but I don't think we will grow tired sending these boxes to our families," she said. "The hardships we face abroad is nothing compared to their smiles when they receive our balikbayan boxes."

Dr Ron Villejo, a Filipino-American psychologist in Dubai, said the tradition of sending balikbayan boxes reflected a "sense of helping and responsibility" among Filipinos. "We Filipinos were raised to be responsible, to do good and to help others," he said. "That is part of our psychological make-up." In addition to balikbayan, there is pasalubong - a token gift to one's family, relative or friend as a way of showing thoughtfulness, bestowed after returning from a vacation abroad or in the Philippines, or a business trip. "There's a plus and negative side to this," he said. "Sending home a balikbayan box or giving pasalubong fulfils that responsibility to do good, to provide for the family. But this promotes too much dependency among Filipinos." Another negative aspect, said Dr Villejo, who has been in the Emirates for four years, was that many overseas Filipino workers could not afford to buy the gifts. "When taken into such an extreme, it brings about a tremendous amount of shame when that responsibility is not fulfilled or expectations from the family back home are not met," he said. "It then becomes an undue burden for the [overseas Filipino worker]." In January, overseas Filipino workers worldwide sent home US$1.4 billion (Dh5.1bn), representing an 8.5 per cent growth over last year, according to the country's central bank. About 450,000 Filipinos live in the UAE. They sent home $471 million in the first nine months of 2009 - 3.7 per cent of the $12.8bn in remittances that were sent by overseas Filipino workers worldwide. * Ramona Ruiz