The Balikbayan Complex, Part I


I often wonder what it is like to grow up with family around. Specifically, extended family–cousins, aunts and uncles that are my parents’ siblings or cousins, grandparents, and other relatives that come from an expansive tree. I appreciate hearing stories from people I know about their families, growing up with cousins and spending holidays at a relative’s house that is only an hour or so away from home.

For my family (parents and brother), we could only hope to have enough money to travel halfway across the world to see our relatives. I was lucky enough to visit the Philippines several times, more times than other people I know that only know about the motherland through anecdotes, The Filipino Channel, and short paragraphs in history textbooks. But I always feel like I am missing whole chapters of a book about my life. That is to say, I don’t know my origin or context, with regards to how I came to be here, in the United States, at this point in time.

I am actively investigating and recovering the missing chapters. That means looking for anything that has not been touched by the foreign hands that sought to take away the riches of my ancestors. It also means undoing the tangled wires in my mind, about how we are “lucky” to be here in the States, while our loved ones back home are “so poor” and need our help. There is nothing wrong with wanting to help relatives back home; but the problem is this mentality that was imposed on us, based on overconsumption, materialism, and vanity.

Growing up, I was used to hearing things like “remittance”, “balikbayan box”, “pasalubong”, and “send to the Philippines”. I never started questioning the concepts behind these things until I realized how much stuff we have accumulated over the years that sits in clutters around our house. What am I to do with the things that I no longer have use for? Just pack it in the box, we’ll give to our relatives, was always the solution.

I thought I was doing the right and thoughtful thing–sharing my “treasures” with relatives. How they would love to have something that came from the States, how they have an “American cousin/niece/tita/granddaughter/relative” who was willing to give away her things. But what value or intentions have I placed in my pasalubong? What will become of these things when their purpose has been served? Who will eventually inherit the “riches that came from a foreign, prosperous land”?

I am not being spiteful or spoiled. I feel the need to actually voice my thoughts on this matter because I recently came across a post where a fellow balikbayan posed the question about our way of thinking balikbayan. How did we come to regard the motherland as “Third World” or “a developing country”, where people live in perpetual poverty, violence, political turmoil? Why did we–the ones that were “lucky” enough to find social and economic mobility “overseas”–adopt this way of thinking? What motivates us to send back pasalubong to loved ones, besides the fact that we still love them?

Maybe I have no right to speak about this, because I was “American-born”, that I was “lucky to never experience hardship and poverty” like my parents did. I would never know what it was like to grow up “in the bulod” or to live on rice and vegetables alone. But have I no right to speak about the lives that are connected to mine? Have I no right to show you how our ancestral lines survived so that people like me can tell our stories that would otherwise have been forgotten?

The only things I can afford to bring back home are stories. The weight is light yet heavy, the value is priceless yet rich, the thought counts yet matters. The stories are imperfect, incomplete, but they are pieces of a larger narrative that must be put together before they become lost.

There is more for me to discuss about this thing I call “the Balikbayan Complex”. This is just a starting point. I am in no way criticizing balikbayan, but I am too familiar with the balikbayan life to not be vocal about it. My purpose for writing about this topic is to undo the thinking that was imposed on us by certain powers that have ingrained in our minds that we should consider ourselves “lucky” and others “less fortunate” just because “more stuff” will “validate” our status, our existence, our lives.

Those of us in the Philippines (the motherland to the Balikbayans) and overseas are all rich with stories that need to be told and put together. There are many of us, but so few of us in spaces that call for stories about us. I take it upon myself to go on this journey of uncovering and recovering the missing chapters. This is as much as I can do for now, until better opportunities come my way that will allow me a louder voice.

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