“It was Arnel’s idea to first start sending balikbayan boxes to the children,” she said of her husband, who died in 2011. “He taught me everything I know about packing and stuffing everything into a box.” Like many migrant women from the Philippines, Lagpao has watched her kids grow up through the changing contents of the balikbayan boxes. "When my son was small, I would buy him robots,” she said of Tristan, who is now 34. “Now, I buy him gadgets. My girl, I used to buy her school bags. Now I buy her ladies' bags that she can use for work." When Aira first got her period, Lagpao began sending her sanitary napkins; she still does so now that her daughter is 22. “Yes,” Lagpao said with a laugh, “her napkins are from Paris!"
She soon turned serious. “When they were growing up, I was not around to hold them or hug them. When they were sick, I could not take care of them. Sending a balikbayan box is the only way I can show them how much I love them even if I am far away.” In contrast, Lagpao has spent years taking care of other people’s children. She recalled an episode when her wards refused to eat a meal she had prepared for them. “I cried in frustration because I could cook, care for, and even love these strangers, but cannot do the same for my own children,” she told me.
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In a 2012 study of migrant mothers and balikbayan boxes, Camposano found that as the children receiving the boxes grow older, some hint that they would prefer money to care packages. In their mothers’ absence, they have developed their own tastes, and they don’t necessarily want the gifts that come in the mail. Rowena Corpuz, 37, who moved to Paris two years ago, is experiencing this now with her two children, ages 16 and 17. "I don't want to just send them an allowance,” she told me. “I want to shop for them.” She spends most of her weekends looking for out-of-season sales and two-for-one supermarket specials. “I need them to know that I have not forgotten about them.” Yolanda Tapang, another Filipino domestic helper in Paris, described receiving a thank-you text from her children after sending the balikbayan box her “happiest moment.” She said, “I imagine how my son must look in his new shirt, all grown up.”
“It is not about the money, that can easily be sent,” noted Camposano. “Money can buy anything, but it cannot buy intimacy. It is the laborious process of shopping for her kids and the performance of this ritual that allows the migrant mother to somehow recreate her presence and secure her place as the decision-maker in the home.”
The Philippine government, too, has recognized the importance of gift-giving among migrants. In 1987, then-President Corazon Aquino issued an executive order waiving some taxes on items returning workers brought back from overseas, citing the “need to recognize the magnitude of the contribution of the overseas contract workers” and their “lonely sacrifices.” More recently, the country’s Bureau of Customs launched an online tracking system specifically for people expecting balikbayan boxes. Meanwhile, a whole industry of freight-forwarding companies has sprung up around getting some 5.5 million balikbayan boxes a year to the Philippines from wherever they originate. Services also exist to accommodate a migrant mother’s budget, with “send now, pay later” plans along with a delivery plan that offers at-home pick up when boxes are ready to be shipped.