Filipino American Voices – Lessons From a Balikbayan Box

June 13, 2017

filipino american voices - lessons from a balikbayan box
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Filipino American Voices – Lessons From a Balikbayan Box

In the United States, Filipino Americans make up the second largest Asian group population. That’s pretty awesome! And each Filipino American has a unique voice and story to tell.

That is why I am proud to introduce to you Filipino American Voices! A place for Filipino Americans to share their stories and experiences of what it is like being Filipino American.

Filipino American Guest Blogger

Today, I am delighted to feature guest blogger, Lora Bumatay, who shares her story of being Filipino American. Lora is a wife, mother, educator, and blogger.

From lizards, cockroaches, and no running water, to finding joy in the simple things, Lora shares her experience of traveling to the Philippines as a young girl.

Filipino American Voices – Lora Bumatay

Filipino American Voices - Lessons Packed in a Balikbayan Box

“Balikbayan” – loosely translated, means to return home.  In my youth, I could always remember my Mom and Dad filling up balikbayan boxes and sending it “home” to the Philippines when they or someone they knew would make a trip. The boxes would contain cans of spam, corned beef, chocolates, other toiletry items, and our old/outgrown clothing.  The last time I visited the homeland was when I was 13, over thirty years ago!  Little did I realize that the contents of these balikbayan boxes would have a profound effect on me.

It was 1983, I was 12 years old and we took a trip to the Philippines.  Since I was used to the mild, sunny temperature of San Diego, the climate of the Philippines shocked my physical senses as soon as I stepped off the airplane. The humidity and heat were overwhelming.  Within seconds, I was drenched in my own perspiration.  After such a long journey (15 hours or more), I longed to take a refreshing shower but would have to wait as the trip to my grandmother’s house entailed another hour of riding in a taxi and little did I know there would be no running water in the restroom.

“little did I know there would be no running water in the restroom”

In the taxi, my thoughts quickly transferred from wanting to shower to being in awe of the mountain-high block-wide amount of trash that people were scavenging through to find I don’t know what, scraps to salvage or recyclables, or even food. I could not stop watching the old and the young in bare feet picking through four story high hills of trash!  A feeling of shame then set on me. These people were trying to survive by sorting through garbage!  I thought to myself, what a privileged life I have been living. I was quiet the rest of the journey as I processed what I just witnessed.

filipino american stories - trash in Philippines

When the taxi finally turned down my mom’s hometown street, children mobbed the car!  We could barely inch through the crowd.  Faces were smashed against the window looking in.  I was a bit fearful to even get out. I didn’t know if I would be safe. The children were dressed in thread-bare shirts or tank tops, shorts, and flip flops or with nothing on their feet.  I was hesitant to open the door. I wondered if they were going to start touching me. They seemed so fascinated with us, the people from the “States.”  

“They seemed so fascinated with us, the people from the “States.”  

It was then I experienced another jolt of the day.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a lime green track suit pants with yellow stripes running down the side pant legs.  Wait a minute….that looked awfully familiar.  It then hit me that this boy, who was a relative that I hadn’t met yet, was wearing MY old pants from two years ago.  I loved that track suit! Yes, it no longer fit me, but I had wondered what happened to it! Here it was across the world. I never gave a second thought as to what went into those boxes my mom and dad carefully packed. Now I knew.

Since it was so hot, we slept with all the windows open.  I wasn’t yet adjusted to the time zone change so the next morning I was the last to wake up in my room.  When I opened my eyes, I immediately noticed three kids squatting on the tin roof next door just watching me through the windows until I woke up. I was spooked and ran downstairs to find my mom, ducking my head on the wooden stairs as I almost ran smack dab into a 2-inch long flying cockroach!  Eww! We were the local celebrities and the kids just wanted to see us!

filipino american story of traveling to the philippines

What else do I remember from that trip? I used a bucket with a long handle for the water to give myself a bath.  I stood in front of a fan to dry my hair.  I poured talcum powder all over myself to keep my skin as dry as possible. I was bit eyelid to toe by mosquitoes who loved my sweet blood.  I flinched at least a  half dozen times a day when a lizard would pop out of nowhere and scramble across the wall or ceiling. When shopping, I was an extra large in size compared to my relatives. When we ate a hamburger at Jollibee’s,  I wanted at least two more, because they were smaller than my hand!

I also remember the hospitality of all we encountered who opened their doors when we visited and offered us plenty to eat and wanted to show us around. I also remember the grandeur of the local cathedral when we attended mass. I remember seeing students in their white and blue school uniforms walking to class and wondered what their school day was like. I remember the sari-sari stores on the neighborhood streets and buying a piece of candy or something to drink.  I remember drinking soda from a plastic bag from a straw.  I remember women and girls holding handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths as they stood on the sidelines trying to hail a ride. I remember riding a crowded Jeepney and being jockeyed up and down as it drove over the pot-holed streets.  

“I also remember the hospitality of all we encountered who opened their doors…and offered us plenty to eat.”

Mostly I remember how that trip humbled me. It changed me.  My relatives didn’t nearly have the amenities and luxuries I had but they didn’t need these materials things to be joyful.  Laughter and smiles were plentiful! I understood fully for the first time that it really was the simple things in life that mattered.  I learned how to be appreciative and how to be grateful for what I had. I understood what humility meant. I came back with a total paradigm shift of what was important to me. On that trip many moons ago, all of those life lessons learned were packed in a balikbayan box held in my heart and mind since.



Lora Bumatay
Lora Bumatay is a proud wife and mother of three.  Educator by day and blogger by night, her world revolves around these “F” words:  family, faith, food, fun, and fulfillment from good deeds.  Check out her blog




Thank you to Lora Bumatay of LoraSaysSo! for sharing her story of being a Filipino American! Be sure to visit her blog and say hello!

What are your thoughts on being Filipino American? Have you had a similar experience? If you liked this story, please share with someone who might be interested!

Have your own Filipino American story to share? Contact me on Instagram or add a comment below.

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More about Deborah

Filipino American with a passion for making a difference. Writer. Blogger. Dreamer. Adventurer.

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