When I moved away from the Philippines to live in New York City, I brought with me only two suitcases: one of books and another of clothes. I hefted my own bags easily as I watched fellow Filipinos in NAIA struggle to push balikbayan boxes onto the check-in counter’s scale, but I felt heavy anyway. Everyone in the airport seemed to be struggling with something or another; I didn’t want to be one of them.
When I returned to the Philippines to visit my family for the holidays, I forced myself to pack everything into one carry-on suitcase, but before I left, an aunt requested that I make space in my suitcase for boxes of nasal spray. It was, she said, something my mother had asked for. I fumed as I filled my bag with the ugly, bulky boxes, resentful at becoming a mule between America and the Philippines, even as I took pride in flitting down from the plane and straight through immigration, bypassing the baggage carousel where passengers craned their necks and said, gently and not so gently, “padaan po.” How blessed to be free of stuff, I thought, how delightful to be light of heart.
My mother was shocked that my suitcase was near-empty except for her boxes. See how far I’ve come with nothing, was what I wanted to say; instead, what we understood was that I had come with nothing else to give. My father was happy just to have me home.
There’s a certain kind of travel anxiety that can only be soothed by overpacking, or at least pushing right up to the weight limit.
When I began packing for my return to NYC, wrapping up the gifts I’d received over the holidays, he suggested that I bring more suitcases. One by one he brought them down from the attic, each bigger than the last. He offered to pack my bags for me. If there was one thing my father took pride in, it was his ability to pack a perfect suitcase: the kind where the clothes are laid flat and then layered, a bag exactly the weight limit.
I balked at first, wanting to arrive in America as unburdened as I had left it, but my childhood bedroom loomed around me and so did all the books I had to leave behind. I had hurt my mother’s feelings and refused my father’s lessons because I couldn’t let go of the belief that heavy baggage was a tacky, embarrassing habit.
A few months later, the photo of Miss Thailand posing beside her seventeen suitcases would go viral. I envied her grace, and her belongings. A self-possessed woman, surrounded by possessions. By then I was back in New York, three entire suitcases unpacked in my room, wondering why I was so discomfited by my own insistence on less baggage.
“He who would travel happily must travel light,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which is pretty rich for someone who disappeared while flying over the Mediterranean. Modern travel writers praise freedom from stuff, insisting that experiences would be more authentic if only you were carrying less. Bringing medicine, cellphone chargers, jewelry—all of this looked down on. You can always find a replacement for tech equipment, the blogs reassure me; you’ll make more friends if you interact with people while looking for a pharmacy, they say. I thought of my mother and how she brought four Ziploc bags of medicine on our family trip to Japan.
I thought of my father: a shy, reticent man, and how he would rather tough out a headache than have to attempt communication with a stranger, especially one separated from him by a language barrier. I thought of how when I first landed in New York City, I wasn’t able to afford a replacement for anything I had brought with me, especially my phone. My pretensions about traveling light began to look a lot like privilege.
How blessed to be free of stuff, I thought, how delightful to be light of heart.
There’s a certain kind of travel anxiety that can only be soothed by overpacking, or at least pushing right up to the weight limit: the anxiety of belonging, which is, in a way, the anxiety of one’s belongings. One belongs to the Philippines, and so your Philippine belongings come with you. Another copy of Time and Materials is probably available anywhere in NYC, but the one that matters to me—that belongs to me—is the one given to me in Manila. The book is precious to me in New York because it was hard to find back home.
The anxiety of belonging/belongings is a twin anxiety. When you head out of your country, you worry about losing the comforts of home, the objects that remind you that you belong to a particular place. Hence my mother’s handfuls of Decolgen, my father’s fanny pack that was allotted the family’s passports and green cards, hence the wild desperation I felt when I tried to fit a stack of photocopied readings from college into my New York-bound suitcase. The overpacking—the stuffed backpacks and the unwieldy carry-on cases that we wrangle onto and off the plane—is an attempt to bring as much of home with us as humanly possible.
On the other hand, when you come home, you worry about whether you’ve brought enough stuff home in order to belong. Pasalubong, for example, is an insidious but necessary social grace unique to Filipinos. Yes, pasalubong says, I was thinking of home even while I was away. Here, proof. Me, hauling my mother’s suitcase, complaining, “What the hell is in this? Rocks?” My mother, pleased, “Actually, tiles. With our house number on them. We’re going to put them on our gate.”
I envied her grace, and her belongings. A self-possessed woman, surrounded by possessions.
Even Filipinos who can’t come home find ways to belong—via the balikbayan box. I’ve learned that the process of packing a balikbayan box is slow. Sometimes it takes months. The box sits in an OFW’s living room in Dubai or Hong Kong or New York City and it’s filled day after day until it’s ready to send. The things that go into a balikbayan box are less frivolous than pasalubong—as utilitarian as cans of SPAM and sacks of socks, as if the box was not a gift box, but rather an extension of one’s family home in the Philippines. Weight in this case doesn’t matter; a balikbayan box is ready to send as long as it is full. That’s why it’s a measuring unit unto itself.
The Filipino understands that they will always—for better or for worse—return home somehow. Sometimes it takes decades, or lifetimes, but as long as a Filipino is not in the Philippines, they are only ever a visitor and they bear that baggage accordingly.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 02.