The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Eileen R. Tabios’ “INVENT(ST)ORY”

Eileen Tabios pic

Letters from the Balikbayan Box

[Some names have been changed or edited for privacy in this interactive poetry project.]

Balikbayan (back to town or country) is a word coined in the ‘70’s as part of the Department of Tourism’s program to give recognition to the hard work and persevering spirit of the Filipino expatriates. Most balikbayans opted to live abroad either to work, to pursue higher education, to get married or to join the U.S. Navy. Majority of Filipinos who left their nests have been pursuing dreams of wealth in order to provide a comfortable life for their families and relatives back home. A balikbayan, is someone who “brings home the bacon,” so to speak. He represents the Pinoy quest for the dollar, the deustchmark, the Gulf money, all in the name of prosperity. 

A few decades later, the same definition applies and endures. But now, the quixotic balikbayan, part of the growing global trotters who has internalized the values of unabashed consumerism, totes his requisite box or two, besotted with the idea that commodities can bring joy and gladness to everyone. Aside from the dutiful checks every month, either to support brother Junior who is going to college or to build a 2-room concrete house replete with crazy-cut marble floors, a balikbayan who returns home to visit is nothing without the care package/s, commonly called balikbayan box.

—from “The Shipping News: Globalization Inside A Balikbayan Box,” Bayani Magazine, September 2000

On May 1, 2005, at 5:27 PM, e-mails out to Filipinos in cyberspace through the Flips Listserve (a listserve of Filipino writers and those interested in Filipino literature):

Dear All,
For a new project I’m working on, I’d be interested in knowing what would be the kind of things you or your family or Filipino acquaintances would deem important in putting into a balikbayan box. Of course the contents would differ per person/family, but I would like to see if there are some products that have wide appeal for such a purpose.
Eileen Tabios

Date: 5/1/2005 5:47:08 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Jen XXX
Dove soap
“L’Oreal” shampoo
Clairol hair dye.
hair conditioners
used kids’ clothing
new women’s clothing
skin cream & lotions
lots of walnuts (my cousins own a bakery)

Date: 5/1/2005 7:32:16 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Barbara Jane Reyes
OTC meds
outgrown clothes and shoes various canned foods

Date: 5/1/2005 8:03:25 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Nadine Sarreal
used books and magazines
used clothes and shoes
medicines and herbal supplements multi-vitamins
small appliances (walkman, discman, coffee maker, toasters, hair dryers, etc) CDs and VHS movies
used computer(s) and computer parts
Thermos and electric water pots
photo albums (new/unused)
coffee and tea
toothbrushes (to offset all that sugar)
Colgate (has to be Colgate, not Crest) toothpaste
shampoo and conditioner
candy (stuff you can buy on sale because it’s after Christmas or Easter or Halloween) school supplies (notebooks, pad paper, pens, pencils, paper clips, staplers, crayons, mapping pencils, markers, sketch pads)
text books
requested items (special sized sports shoes, basketball, certain brands of clothing, perfume, shampoo, hair dye)
corned beef and spam (yes, SPAM)
towels and bedsheets (new and used)
unpopped popcorn
folding umbrellas
briefcases (especially the kind you get a conferences that have a sponsor’s name printed on the front)
mens’ briefs
sports socks
T-shirts (this is a general gift, you send one for everyone)
toys (new and used)
low cal salad dressing eyeglass frames (used)

This is as detailed as I can recall from 25 years of sending door-to-door boxes. There’s a technical difference between balikbayan box (which is what someone returning to the Philippines for a visit would bring) versus a door-to-door box which is what you’d pack with goodies and have a courier pick up from your house and deliver to your family/friends (thus door-to-door). Here in Singapore, it costs just as much or even more to send a door-to-door box home as it would cost from the US. The difference is that there is a range of box sizes, the largest one costing about US$90 to send. There is NO WEIGHT LIMIT but the service suggests you include only up to 12 cans of corned beef, 2 or 3 bottles of shampoo, etc.

Date: 5/1/2005 8:03:25 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Kathy XXX
My folks usually put things in balikbayan boxes like:
Canned salmon/lunch meat Towels Lotion/Shampoo/Conditioner Old clothes
Old paperback books mom finds lying around most anywhere Samples of perfume or the littleshampoo/soaps you’d get at a hotel Give-aways from the cosmetics counter (Clinic and Elizabeth Arden)


Microwave (this was put on as luggage during a trip back home) Entire set of Encyclopedia Brittanica from the 1970’s
Pots and Pans
Kitchen utensils

Date: 5/1/2005 9:09:48 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Bino A. Realuyo
my father (in n.y.) used to send them to us (in manila) every so many months, and there was one
and only one thing i looked forward to when i opened those boxes:
inhaling the escaping smell of america.
it was what i looked forward to as a child. i even wanted to live in that box so i could smell it all day.

Date: 5/1/2005 10:00: 48 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Eileen Tabios to Bino A. Realuyo
You remind me of a veeeeeery old lady whose “pasalubong” from my family one trip was a small bar of soap. She wasn’t a relative or anything but in our village, people stopped by if there were state-side visitors so she got a small bar of soap. She lifted it with her wrinkled hands to her wrinkled nose, and then said, “Oooooh. Soap even smells different from America.”

Date: 5/1/2005 10:11:26 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Pearl XXX
ah, this one is a quick easy response.
kid’s clothes in like new condition kid’s movies, program video tapes video games
Ladies’ clothes and shoes handbags
dried goods food

Date: 5/1/2005 10:53:28 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Michelle Bautista
My uncle’s family went home to bring my cousin home for burial. But they still packed stuff to bring home to distribute and some stuff to use to cook for the ensuing 24 hour wakes upon their arrival.

The garlic and sugar they could get there, but those kinds of staples are considered expensive even relative to the dollar-peso exchange.

I remember when they took my grandmother home for burial my mother packed similar things saying it was easier to bring it over than to buy it there.

Date: 5/1/2005 11:06:01 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Michelle Bautista
Also, there were a couple of pieces in the “Dalagas and Tomboys” show [at Bindlestiff Studio, San Francisco]. One shows a woman talking to her balikbayan box and the box is talking back. She mentions how the mom wants her to bring Spam though they have it over there.

In a film, a woman talks about how she is the only one in her family to go back and how she feels obligated to share and bring back some of the “success” her family has had in the states.

I remember when I was little my mother often packed Nestle’s Quick, cans of Folger’s coffee, toothpaste, chocolate candies (m&ms, snickers), toothbrushes, Dove and Irish Spring soap bars. For an American friend now living in the Philippines, I always bring back a bottle or two of decent wine.

Date: 5/1/2005 11:45:28 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Rosy XXX
corned beef
Calrose brand of rice California wine cereal boxes
tennis shoes

Date: 5/3/2005 1:07:52 AM Pacific Standard Time From: Rochita Ruiz
paper towels chocolate sprinkles dishwashing liquid perfume
stuffed toys clothes

Practically speaking, it’s quite logical to send money home. Sentimentally speaking, the contents of the balikbayan box are my way of saying to my family that I thought of them when I was choosing things to put into the box. For instance, paper towels are available in the Philippines, but my mom loves the ones that come from here, so I always include those in a box that I’ll send home.

It’s not so much the brand name that’s important (I have a family who are not brand- conscious, which helps), but it’s the thought that’s been put into collecting together the things that go in the box. It’s also a bit like going home when I wrap up presents and label them with the names of those who are dear to me. Even though I can’t see them, they are always with me in my thoughts. (It also gives me an excuse to shop 😉

When my aunt used to send us balikbayan boxes, it was always exciting to see what she had put into it. It wasn’t so much the content as the anticipation that made it such a festive occasion.

Date: 5/2/2005 2:32:05 AM Pacific Standard Time From: Luis Cabalquinto
books, books, & more books new & vintage clothing
canned and bottled foods kitchen tools & supplies
farm & garden tools new & used toys
carpentry tools
dvd movie & game players
new & used computers tv sets
bottled “spirits”

My associates and I have sent all of the above at various times to relatives, neighbors, friends, and schools in our respective hometowns. LIBBY’S CORNED BEEF and SPAM are 2 most often requested and shipped canned food items.

Date: 5/2/2005 5:15:53 AM Pacific Standard Time From: Leslieann Hobayan
after seeing some responses on flips [listserve], i wonder if these are too general. after all, filipinos thrive on american labels. so i offer a couple of specific items that i remember putting into balikbayan boxes for my cousins: jif or skippy peanut butter, hersheys (always) chocolate with or without almonds, (more recently) sketchers sneakers (aka rubber shoes), new & still-boxed barbie dolls.

Date: 5/2/2005 8:04:39 AM Pacific Standard Time From: Maria XXX
Glucosamine, Vitamin B-12 (from Price/ Costco)—the big bottles
See’s chocolates
back issues of Conde Nast Traveler, The New Yorker, Marie Claire

Date: 5/2/2005 8:52:44 AM Pacific Standard Time From:
Dear All,
Thanks to everyone so for for your responses. A follow-up: in case there are specific labels that you have favored for some reason, I’d appreciate the specificity. The brand instead of just the category of “soap” or “canned goods.”

We always packed toilet paper, not just to use but also because it’s good packing material. I also remember an aunt who packed a pair of sneakers for some nephew, and that nephew had sniffed because it wasn’t “Nike”….:-)
Thanks again,

Date: 5/2/2005 9:00:34 AM Pacific Standard Time From: Reb XXX
here we go… with brand names:
chocolate, chocolate, chocolate (candy bars and powdered mixes, i.e. Nestle Quik) / Hersheys Kisses) are favored, as are M&Ms coffee (Maxwell House, Folgers, and the specialty General Foods International coffee tins)
tea (Liptons, and the flavored herb teas, i.e. Bigelow Orange Spice, Lemon Lift, etc.)
herbs (bottled freeze-dried basil, thyme, cinnamon, sage, etc etc etc)
shampoos & soaps (L’Oreal, Neutrogena, Dial, Dove, Ivory)
cosmetics (makeup, skincare items, hand and body lotions — Olay, Clinique, Almay)
hosiery (pantyhose) and underwear
tinned meat (ham, corned beef, spam, vienna sausages) — Armour, Libby’s, Hormel
books and music, dvds more recently
art supplies (oil, acrylic, watercolor paints, and brushes)
clothing (new and vintage); denim, college sweatshirts, tshirts

Date: 5/2/2005 8:35:08 PM Pacific Standard Time From: Mariel XXX
Be warned: I’m a closet list maker, so I’m going to give you a list. My gaggle of aunts always pack:
bath towels
bedsheets/bed linen
Ivory soap (always with the ivory soap!)
Dove soap
Jergens soap
Oil of Olay soap
Oil of Olay body wash
bottles of shampoo
big Jergens, Lander, or Dove lotion
body wash, always the herbal kind
Crest, Colgate, Close-up toothpaste
big botttles of Listerine or Plax
Ziploc bags
aluminum foil or Reynolds wrap
Saran wrap
paper towels (kitchen)
Nesquik chocolate powder
pistachio nuts
Planters mixed nuts
bags of walnuts
Potato chips
boxes of prunes
Taster’s Choice coffee
coffee creamers
various brewed coffee packs (they don’t drink coffee but they send a lot) Campbell’s soup for the lola/the apos
Spam, or other meat in a can
vienna sausages in cans
Vitamin E
Vitamin C
calcium caplets

Date: 5/3/2005 9:07:43 AM Pacific Standard Time From:
En un mensaje con fecha 5/3/2005 11:00:24 AM Eastern Daylight Time, Eileen Tabios escribe:
Is colonialism discourse a “luxury”?
[Though anytime one wants to communicate with anyone else, perhaps we should say “chat” or “converse” rather than “discourse”….:-) ]

i think this balikbayan box has many, many sides, depending who sends it, and who is on the receiving end.

when my father left manila in the late 70s, he was terminally ill. the rest of us, my mother and two siblings, had no idea of his fate in america. my brother and i were young boys, and my sister a teen. a few months after my dad left, the balikbayan boxes started to come in.

This selection comes from Eileen R. Tabios’ collection INVENT(ST)ORY, available now from Dos Madres Press. Purchase your copy here!

Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released about 40 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in nine countries and cyberspace. Her most recent is INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems and New 1996-1915 (Dos Madres Press, 2015). With poems translated into seven languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized ten anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays in addition to serving as editor or guest editor for various literary journals.  She maintains a biblioliphic blog, “Eileen Verbs Books“; edits Galatea Resurrects, a popular poetry review; steers the literary and arts publisher Meritage Press; and frequently curates thematic online poetry projects including LinkedIn Poetry Recommendations (a recommended list of contemporary poetry books).  More information is available at

librecht baker. Dembrebrah West African Drum and Dance Ensemble member. Kouman Kele Dance and Drum Ensemble memeber. MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College. VONA/Voices & Lambda Literary Fellow. Sundress Publications’ Assistant Editor. Poetry in Writing the Walls Down: A Convergence of LGBTQ Voices & CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape. Currently, birthing & manifesting.




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