Sunday, February 25, 2007

Balikbayan box: more than what is inside

I have lugged and shipped balikbayan boxes from three different places in the world. In Bermuda, I sent one by sea to the Philippines. My Aussie balibayan boxes had an orange kangaroo on the sides and was shipped via Qantas freight and the one I shipped from Japan had my name in Romaji and Katakana.

Looks like I have to start packing one from the USA and fill it with books that the Delaware Museum gave me for free. Nonetheless, I really have a lot of books now and I have to find ways to ship it by mid-March.

If you have a utilitarian philosophy, the boxes are mere objects with a function and that is to contain stuff to be sent home. But the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines have imbued the boxes with another meaning. Whereas before balikbayan boxes contained goodies from friends and relatives that can't be had in the import substituted Philippine economy, the Catholic bishops have now made it an icon of survival.

Why the change in attributes? In the globalized world economy anything that can be had in the United States for instance, can be had in the Philippines. The balikbayan box with goodies may have lost its mystique. And if you have the money, you can get almost anything in the USA and that is also the case in the Philippines. However in the Philippines only a very few have the money.

The Catholic bishops have made the box the icon of Filipino migration. But I even go further than the bishops. I think the icon of Filipino migration is the uncertain and anxious face of my kabayan in the airport lounge or in the immigration queue. I have often had the chance to have a chat with fellow exiles in these situations. There is a sort of perversion of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina principle here. All exiles are unhappily alike, every exile is unhappy in his own way. That is to say that the Filipino diaspora is not just of the lower economic classes but cuts through all classes EXCEPT the class that rules the country.

The class that rules the country seems unable to comprehend the nature of being exiled from your own country. (even if they know the economic windfall of remittances from OFs) And as I really do believe that the present political leadership did not really realize the deeper implications of the nursing boards leakage scandal. It is not irresponsible to say that most if not all of the nurses who took the exam want to work in the USA. The fact that the US authorities have issued a final judgement on the exam's credibility may threaten the hold of the Arroyo government on power. We can't say if the fallout from this affair can really determine the coming Congressional elections. But it is reasonable to say that it can.

The Catholic Church cannot be criticized for saying these things about balikbayan boxes. As the first global organization in history, it has 2000 years experience on migration and intercultural issues. A recent news article in the NY Times says that the Catholic Church in England is feeling the crunch of numerous migrants to Britain. As many of the migrants are illegals, they are not eligible for any assistance from the British government. Thus they seek the church for social services. The Church is now asking the government for assistance and roundly criticizes Tony Blair's priorities.

Migration has political, economic and spiritual dimensions. The Church recognizes all of these and challenges the secular authorities to act accordingly. One evidence of the spiritual dimension is the skyrocketing attendance in Sunday Mass. This year Catholicism will soon be the majority faith in Protestant England as a result of migration. Governments have to take note even if they rise or fall on the electorate's decision.

And so we go back to what is inside the balikbayan box. If the whole country will have to depend on what the box represents, perhaps it may be good for Mrs Gloria Arroyo to queue for a work visa when her term is out.

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