Not a Suitcase


Why are you packing all that dried food into that relief package?

This is not a relief package.

Why are you packing all those used clothes into that donation box? 

This is not a donation box.

Why are you packing all that toothpaste into that storage box? 

This is not a storage box.

Why are you packing all those used shopping bags into that recycling box? 

This is not a recycling box.

Well, what it is then? 

It’s my Balikbayan box!

(Based on one of Ayay’s favorite books Not a Box by Antoinette Portis.)


“Be careful walking around here. There are a lot of people with a lot of boxes,” I told Ayay as we navigated our way through the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. And so began our immersion into the Filipino culture.

Filipinos of all ages were swarming the terminal. Two men turned heads while sauntering over to the Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay Class check-in counter. They were donning snazzy track jackets emblazoned with the Filipino flag and embroidered with the words Team Pacquiao. They stopped behind some well-to-do ladies dressed head-to-toe in Chanel and carrying Gucci wallets in Louis Vuitton purses. A few aisles down was a family of 4 saying goodbye to their 15 relatives who came to drop them off at the airport. The school-aged son proudly wore his Spiderman backpack and baseball cap, both of which he will display to his friends and relatives back home in the Philippines. Beyond that family sat about 12 elderly people, chatting with their relatives as they waited patiently for their wheelchairs and escorts to take them to their gate.

And the unifying factor among all these different kinds of Filipinos: They all had boxes. Not suitcases. Cardboard boxes. This is how Filipinos travel – with boxes instead of suitcases. Up and down the check-in counter, big boxes were being pushed, lifted, carted, weighed, tagged and x-rayed. These boxes were packed tight with sweatshirts, toothpaste, blue jeans, candy, purses, toys, jewelry, ziplock bags, cereal, shopping bags, frozen Costco meat and other pasalubong (gifts) that these Filipinos were bringing back to their friends and family in the Philippines. 

Filipinos refer to these cardboard boxes as Balikbayan boxes, which literally translates to returnee’s to one’s homeland boxes. While growing up, I think we always had an open cardboard box tucked away in an empty room in our house. As we outgrew clothes and toys, my mom would put the items in the Balikbayan box that would eventually go to the Philippines. These days, my mom collects new and used items and packs them into boxes months before her scheduled departure date. Unlike the Filipinos we saw at the airport on our departure day, my parents preferred to ship their boxes rather than take them along as luggage. 

As I waited for F to finish up with the ticketing agent, I came to the conclusion that our family was one of 5 families on the flight who did not have a Balikbayan box. I must say, I felt a bit left out. Maybe next time we can pack our own Balikbayan box? I can only imagine what Ayay would want to put in that box…


Balikbayan Boxes

Balikbayan Boxes




One response to “Not a Suitcase

  1. I’m so glad you decided to start a blog. You have such a great way of expressing yourself, and I really like all of the posts about Filipino culture. Welcome home!

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