BALIKBAYAN BOX: The Symbol of the Filipino People

I was riding the local streetcar here in Toronto, Canada when a woman came in with a folded balikbayan box. I quickly took out my camera and shot this photo:

Around this time of the year, it has become a tradition for many Filipinos living abroad to send these boxes to our loved ones back home. We pack it with all sorts of goodies: canned goods, clothes, bottles of shampoos, different kinds of soap, hand lotions, small electronics, and many more things in between. You name it, Filipinos have put it inside these boxes and sent it back home to their families.

This wonderful sight has let me come into a realization: the balikbayan box is the perfect symbol to represent the Filipino. We are a caring and selfless people, thinking about the well-being of others more than our own. This is who we are. Thousands of our fellow Filipinos are currently overseas, working hard trying to earn as much money as they can just so they can support their families back home. It’s not surprising that remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers bring in millions of pesos into the country every year. It’s also not surprising that thousands of balikbayan boxes are probably in the sky right now, on their way to the Philippines, packed and sent by these wonderful and inspiring OFWs.

Sadly, the balikbayan box has become a part of one of those stereotypical “You know you are Filipino if…” jokes. Just in case you didn’t know, it goes something like this:

“You know you are Filipino if you have balikbayan boxes instead of luggage at the airport terminal.”

Yes, balikbayan boxes are a common sight at flights heading to the Philippines. We all can agree on this; many of us have seen it ourselves. However, we must stop calling this as a joke and start seeing this as a source of pride. Let us celebrate the balikbayan box and what it represents – the kindness and generosity of the everyday Filipino.

The realization of the meaning of the balikbayan box to the Philippines and its people has also made me come up with a suggestion for a replacement to the tourism slogan for the country. Thanks to Facebook’s News Feed (and a few friends sharing a YouTube newsclip), I found out that the Department of Tourism of the Philippines is getting some negative feedback regarding the new campaign slogan and banner to promote tourism. Many are saying the overall design has been copied from another source and that “KAY GANDA!” is a weak slogan and does not leave a lasting effect, particularly amongst foreigners.

While the color scheme of the banner is pretty neat and I have no qualms about it, I want to focus on the slogan itself. Using just a few choice words, the purpose of a tourism slogan is to give potential international and local visitors a reason to come and visit the country. The problem with “Kay Ganda!” is that, more than likely, foreigners won’t know what it means. Some of you might say, “That’s why there’s a pronunciation guide in the banner!” I find that part a really bad idea. Promoting a tourism slogan should not be accompanied by a pronunciation guide.

This is where the balikbayan box and the core Filipino values it represent come into play. The Department of Tourism should not have only focused on the country’s landscapes and unique wildlife to entice people to visit. While there are many beautiful and memorable locations to visit in the country, much can be also said about the wonderful people who live in these places. The slogan should provide a reason for people to come visit the Philippines. Who better to provide these reasons than its citizens – our fellow Kababayans.  This is how I came up with, what I believe, is a much more effective slogan:

“Welcome, Kabayan!” gives a sense of comfort, a feeling you get when you’re among friends and family. You feel safe, loved, and welcome.  “KABAYAN” means “fellow citizen.” A single Tagalog word is much easier for foreigners to remember and leaves a lasting message. This is how we should see and treat other people, whether they’re foreign or not – as fellow citizens, as friends. Filipinos abroad call each other by this moniker. It has a homely feeling to it. Hearing the word KABAYAN instantly connects us with our fellow Filipinos. On a personal note, “KABAYAN” makes me remember fond memories of growing up in Pandacan, Manila and the friends and family I left behind.

International visitors should experience the same nostalgic feeling and this is what “Welcome, Kabayan!” provides. By sharing with foreigners the same core values of generosity, selflessness, and friendship Filipinos give one another through the humble balikbayan box, the Philippines can become not only a place where one can enjoy white sand beaches and exotic foods, but a place where you can experience the warm, welcoming arms of the Filipino people.

I sure hope you won’t look at the balikbayan box the same way again. I certainly won’t. Take care….Kabayan.

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