To & From the Philippines

Sandos from the Philippines.


A recent episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown-Philippines, included a scene highlighting the balikibayan box. Most L.A. Filipinos have at some point seen first hand the chaos at the LAX International Terminal when checking into a Philippines Air Lines’ flight. Any given night, travelers will find a long line of Filipinos and extra family members waiting (not always patiently) to weigh their balkibayan box imprinted, in perfect Sharpie black ink, with a Philippines destination. The box, filled with American goodies, will travel across the Pacific and pretty much bring joy to many waiting family members.

Any of us who have returned to the Philippines appreciates the amount of effort that goes into preparing for a trip back. For weeks, sometimes months, I’ll watch my parents purchase and collect giveaways for family living in the Philippines. Lotions, towels, sneakers, chocolates, socks, instant coffee (Folgers or Maxwell House), spam, purses, vitamins, clothes, and any other miscellaneous items that could fit within the balikbayan box’s strict required dimensions and weight limit. Recently, I noticed a surprising trend among my mom’s friends with upgraded items from Costco steaks to Babybel Cheese Wheels packed in the luggage!

Over my lifetime, I have gone back to the Philippines on multiple occasions. Despite the delirium of jet lag and long flights, I still remember arriving in Cebu late in the middle of the night and finding relatives waiting up anxiously to welcome us home. After the hugs, the blessings and snacks, our balikbayan box (or super size luggage) gets busted out and gifts are handed out to this uncle, that aunt, this cousin. There will be ah’s, excitement, trades and maybe even slight disappointment among my family during this late night exchange. As an aging adult, I now recognize that in these boxes, we brought a piece of America. These lotions, canned foods, chocolates became simple glimpses of a life that many of my family may never experience.

In my personal process of reflecting on the gifts we bring to the Philippines, I started thinking about all the really amazing gifts we bring back to America. My mom returned from Cebu just the other day. As I went through her pasalubong, I felt the excitement of receiving simple reminders of the Philippines.

Pasalubong from the Philippines.

Dried Mangoes

For those who don’t know, Cebu has the best dried mangoes. My entire life, I have only ate dried mangoes from Cebu, in particular, R&M. I’ve seen Trader Joe’s and random fruit stands’ version but when you have had the best dried mangoes (ever), nothing else comes close. Recently, I’ve turned on my coworkers to Cebu’s little piece of heaven and I’m quite popular when I share. I’m just trying to spread the word of Cebu’s dried mango game one cubicle at a time.

Handmade Outifts

While in the Philippines, my mom found a seamstress who made her a pantsuit for something like $5 USD. As we went through her pasalubong, my mom explained how the outfit didn’t fit her quite right so she gave it to my aunt. It actually fit my aunt pretty nicely and she wore that outfit to our breakfast. We may pack Nike sneakers in our balikbayan box, but on the return trip to America hook us up with $5 hand-made outfits!


Usually my parents always bring home Rosquillos. These cookies are not fancy in any way, but just a simple treat. Among her pasalubong, my mom brought a couple boxes of Rosquillos for my cousin down in San Diego. We may bring a glimpse of America to family in the Philippines, but for immigrant relatives, they want reminders of a life once lived.

Efficascent Oil (aka ‘Green Medicine’)

Last October, I went back to the Philippines and searched for this medication I always call ‘Green Medicine’. When I was young, my Lola used to rub this on my aches to ease my pain. I think ‘Green Medicine’ equals magic potion. I don’t use it all the time, but I find comforting knowing I have this medication within arms reach. I also love to give ‘Green Medicine’ as a gift to those who have aches and pains. Maybe ‘Green Medicine’ is the Filipino version of Tiger Balm? Smells just as good (slight sarcasm) and works just as well.

Dried Fish (Bulad?)

I understand how Filipinos here in the States get super excited for some fresh dried fish straight from the Philippines. However, in my opinion, it stinks and I can’t get down with this. But, I’ve witnessed how dried fish makes folks happy. While we bring Nestle Crunch bars or Andes candies to the Philippines, in return we bring back dried fish to California. Chocolate in exchange for dried fish!

I wish someone would bring me back a mango shake from the Philippines.

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