Balikbayan Boxes

Roman Mars [00:00:02] Reboot your credit card with Apple Card. Apple Card is the credit card created by Apple. It gives you unlimited cash back every day on every purchase–up to 3%. And you can use that cash right away. No waiting and waiting for rewards. Just daily cash you can use right away on anything. Apply now in the wallet app on your iPhone and start using it right away. Subject to credit approval, daily cash is available via an apple cash card or as a statement credit. See Apple Card Customer Agreement for terms and conditions. Apple Cash Card is issued by Green Dot Bank Number FDIC. Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. This time of year, right in the middle of the holiday season, there’s a beloved, frenzied tradition playing out in Filipino households all around the world. Here to explain is reporter Gabrielle Berbey. 

Lola Berbey [00:01:29] Hello. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:01:30] Hi, Lola. 

Lola Berbey [00:01:32] Hi. How are you? 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:01:33] I’m good. How are you? 

Roman Mars [00:01:35] That, by the way, is Gaby’s grandma. 

Lola Berbey [00:01:37] I’m good. Okay. I just came from the church. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:01:41] A few weeks ago, I called my Lola to ask if she would be taking part in this annual tradition. Okay. So, are you sending a Balikbayan box this year? 

Lola Berbey [00:01:52] Do you know what my Balikbayan box is? 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:01:55] Are you quizzing me? The Balikbayan box is the box that Filipinos abroad send to their relatives back in the Philippines. 

Lola Berbey [00:02:09] That’s right. “Balik” is returning. And “bayan” is home, like Philippines. That’s my home. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:02:17] A Balikbayan box is a huge cardboard box, usually over 100 lbs., that Filipinos living all over the world send to family members who are still living in the Philippines. The word Balikbayan literally means “homecoming” in Tagalog. 

Lola Berbey [00:02:35] When I was in the Philippines, it was Uncle Dennis who came here in America first. He was the one who first sent us a Balikbayan box. To me, the Balikbayan box–we always looking forward to it. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:02:53] Today, my Lola lives in the U.S., which means she’s usually the one sending Balikbayan boxes. But when she was still living in the Philippines, she remembers receiving them. Do you remember, like, the delivery person walking up to the door? 

Lola Berbey [00:03:10] Yeah. Yeah. We were so excited. Oh, my gosh. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:03:13] The Balikbayan box is usually delivered right to your door. 

Lola Berbey [00:03:16] Someone knock on my door and say, “It’s a delivery.” “Jun! Ariel! The box from Kuya Dennis is here!” 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:03:26] The family gathers around the box. 

Lola Berbey [00:03:28] So, they all went down, open the box, and they were so happy, you know? 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:03:34] And the box is filled with lots and lots of stuff from the U.S.

Lola Berbey [00:03:39] They are full of chocolates usually, goods coming from Costco, the hand-me-down clothes like jackets… 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:03:50] Sneakers, socks… 

Lola Berbey [00:03:52] Books, electronics, Gameboy, even toothpaste, shampoo… 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:03:59] And the most prized object in the box… 

Lola Berbey [00:04:04] Oh, and spam. Spam is very expensive in the Philippines. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:04:08] Spam. 

Roman Mars [00:04:10] And it’s not just Gaby’s family that does this. 400,000 of these Balikbayan boxes arrive in the Philippines from around the world every month. But right now, with the holidays, it’s the busiest season. Mothers sending to sons. Brothers. Sisters. Hundreds of thousands of people waiting in the Philippines for their box. 

Youtuber #1 [00:04:30] Hey, guys. Welcome back to my channel. So, for today’s video, guys, I’m going to be showing you how I packed my Balikbayan box. 

Roman Mars [00:04:38] On YouTube, there are thousands of videos of people showing how to pack their box and the joys of Balikbayan boxing and Balikbayan unboxing. 

Youtuber #2 [00:04:48] I don’t know. How did I fit everything inside this box? So much work, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be worth it when I get there. Yay! 

Youtuber #3 [00:04:58] I’ve been waiting for so long, guys. 

Pinoy Wrecking Ball Parody [00:05:03] Hello? Mummy? You’re sending what? Oh, my God. You called and told me, “Anak ko, we sent you a Balikbayan box.” I’m getting Balikbayan box. Sent to me from my mom abroad. I will wait for a whole two months. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:05:29] Clearly Filipinos love the Balikbayan box. But I didn’t even realize that it was something that was unique to us until I traveled to the Philippines for the first time when I was 12. I remember going to the airport in San Francisco–completely jittery for my first long haul international flight–and seeing this long line only in front of Philippine Airlines, where people were waiting for those, like, high-powered Saran Wrap machines to get their cardboard boxes wrapped in layers and layers of plastic. And I remember looking around and thinking, “Huh. I wonder why do so many Filipino travelers have these massive cardboard boxes?” 

Roman Mars [00:06:14] The reason Filipino travelers line up in the airport to wrap a 100+ lb. Balikbayan boxes is the same reason why Filipino sons and daughters, mothers and aunts often live oceans apart from one another. More than 10 million Filipinos live abroad, and over a million more leave the country every year. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:06:33] This migration of Filipinos abroad is also what gives the beloved, complicated Balikbayan box–the homecoming box–its name. 

Anna Guevarra [00:06:43] My father left in 1982. And he went specifically to Libya at that point to work in the construction industry. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:06:54] Anna Guevarra is an expert in Filipino migration. She’s also from the Philippines and, like many Filipinos, grew up with a father working overseas. When Anna was around nine years old, her dad left the Philippines to work in the Middle East as a construction worker. She showed me a picture he sent her when he was in Libya. 

Anna Guevarra [00:07:11] It is a picture of the desert, you know, a very bare piece of land, kind of reddish in color. And there’s just one station that you can see, and that’s where the workers were based. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:07:26] He would write messages to Anna and her mom on the back of the photographs, telling them what he was doing, all the places he was seeing. 

Anna Guevarra [00:07:34] It says, “Dear Mommy.” Husbands and wives call themselves “mommy” and “daddy.” These are some of the terraces made by our men here. I intend to plant a huge billboard proclaiming “Handiwork of Filipino Crusaders for Libyan Progress and Development. With love.” 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:07:55] What does he mean by “Filipino crusaders?” 

Anna Guevarra [00:07:57] I think they saw themselves as individuals who, you know, were building up a nation. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:08:05] Not as crusaders building up Libya–but building up the Philippines as heroes willing to pack up, leave their family behind, and find work abroad to send money home. 

Anna Guevarra [00:08:18] I think they were quite aware that their remittances were of value to the country–that they were helping the country rise up from a really dire situation at the time. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:08:29] Decades before the birth of the Balikbayan box, remittances–where people abroad send money home–were a lifeline to families in the Philippines, who were living through one of the worst economic crises the country had ever experienced. That story starts in 1898. The Philippines was a colony of Spain. 

Roman Mars [00:08:48] Spain ruled the Philippines for nearly 400 years. Then in the late 19th century, the Filipino people rose up to fight for independence. But they did not fight alone. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:08:59] The United States helped the Filipino people battle the Spanish colonizers. This was at a moment when the U.S. was in the midst of imperial expansion into former Spanish territories, like Puerto Rico and Guam. 

Roman Mars [00:09:11] In the end, the Spanish lost. But rather than granting Filipinos their independence, the Spanish sold the Philippines to the U.S.

Gabrielle Berbey [00:09:19] You hear then-President McKinley proclaiming that the U.S. is coming to the Philippines as friends not enemies. And it is under a disguise of benevolent assimilation. 

Roman Mars [00:09:32] At the time, the United States claimed that benevolent assimilation was somehow magically different from Spain’s colonialism. 

Anna Guevarra [00:09:39] The U.S. saw the Philippines as just this collection of tribes and that through this benevolent assimilation, America can transform this citizenry into a more disciplined, a more rule bound population who would be fitting of the U.S.–of its empire. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:09:59] In an effort to basically erase Filipino culture and replace it with American ideals, the United States set up American hospitals, American schools with American teachers. 

Anna Guevarra [00:10:12] You know, it even went as far as teaching Filipinos how to eat. You know, proper etiquette when you’re at a dinner table, how to speak, how to pronounce certain words. So, it looked like a systematic erasure of the Philippines, basically. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:10:32] But President McKinley’s project of benevolent assimilation had a bigger objective beyond just westernizing Filipinos. The U.S. needed farm workers. 

Anna Guevarra [00:10:43] It was very strategic to turn to your colonized subjects as, you know, labor supply. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:10:50] The United States quickly saw that the Philippines most lucrative resource was Filipinos. At the turn of the 20th century, Filipinos, mainly men, migrated en masse to the U.S. mainland and Hawaii as farm workers. The first bricks were laid for what would become a major immigration pathway for Filipinos seeking work overseas. 

Roman Mars [00:11:14] In 1935, the U.S. promised the Philippines independence at the end of a ten-year period. But before those ten years were up, the Philippines was then occupied again by the Japanese during World War II. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:11:27] After the war, the country struggled to gain footing in a global economy. By the 1960s, nearly half of the country lived in poverty. 

Ferdinand E. Marcos [00:11:36] I, Ferdinand E. Marcos…

Gabrielle Berbey [00:11:42] And then in 1965… 

Ferdinand E. Marcos [00:11:45] Hereby solemnly swear that I will faithfully and conscientiously fulfill the duties of President of the Philippines. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:11:55] Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was elected president. The election of Marcos ushered in one of the darkest periods of Philippine history–one that would not only lead to the creation of the Balikbayan box but would also reshape the Philippines forever. At that time, the Philippines was an economic leader in the region. And Marcos ran on a campaign promise to bring even more jobs, development, and economic prosperity. But that didn’t happen. 

Anna Guevarra [00:12:25] There were a lot of embezzlement taking place. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:12:28] Instead of lifting up the entire country, the Marcos administration became a notorious kleptocracy. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:12:35] So the Marcoses were also known as being incredibly… Besides politically corrupt, they were known for, like, plundering the wealth of the Philippines and saving it for themselves. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:12:46] Anthony Ocampo is a sociology professor who studies the Philippine diaspora. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:12:50] Imelda, Marcos’ wife, is famously known for having rooms full of shoes–hundreds or thousands of pairs of shoes. 

Imelda Marcos [00:12:58] As First Lady, I have to flaunt love and beauty, so that the 50 million Filipinos will see what is perfection. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:13:09] In their desire to make the Philippines great, they wanted to appear essentially like royalty and just looked incredibly expensive and extravagance. 

Anna Guevarra [00:13:20] Marcos spent a huge amount of the public’s funds at that time, which then created inflation. It created all of these trade deficits. 

Roman Mars [00:13:30] Marcos stole billions of dollars from the Philippine economy. And to offset what he stole, he borrowed more. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:13:36] And then it just became cyclical to the point that the Philippines was in huge debt. People did not have jobs, could not subsist on what was being grown, did not have enough food to eat. 

Roman Mars [00:13:49] And then in 1972, Marcos declared martial law. 

Ferdinand E. Marcos [00:13:53] I am utilizing this power for the proclamation of martial law to save the republic and reform all social, economic, and political institutions in our country. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:14:08] He suspended democracy and basically used this power to fervently suppress any opposition that came. Their vision of the Philippines entailed them disappearing journalists who would speak out against them or activists that would speak out against them–and torturing them. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:14:27] By the 1980s, unemployment was high, people were desperate, and Marcos was casting around for a solution. What he landed on was to create an entire economy centered around remittances. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:14:42] Rather than developing the Philippine economy in and of itself, the Marcos regime would encourage Filipinos to move abroad, and maintain ties to the Philippines, and send money back. He basically launched immigration as an economic strategy for the Philippines. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:15:00] Marcos’ plan was twofold. Get Filipinos to leave the country, and then make sure they’d send money home, funneling their earnings back into the Philippines’ economy. 

Roman Mars [00:15:10] Marcos’ plan came to be known, ironically, as “Operation Homecoming.” And it took advantage of a recent change in U.S. immigration law. 

Lyndon B. Johnson [00:15:18] This bill says simply that from this day forward, those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills… 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:15:29] The 1965 Immigration Act passed, and that was the legislation that created a pathway for the so-called “highly skilled migrants” to come. 

Lyndon B. Johnson [00:15:41] Those who can contribute most to this country, to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit will be the first that are admitted to this land. 

Roman Mars [00:15:50] While Filipino migrants in the United States in the early 20th century were mainly farm and factory workers, in the latter half of the century, the U.S. opened the gates to a different sector. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:16:01] Nursing shortages after World War II had crippled the United States healthcare system. And then in the 1960s, a second wave feminism swelled throughout the country. American women abandoned nursing to pursue other careers. Hospital recruiters needed to turn to the thousands of American trained nurses in the Philippines to fill the shortage. And the Philippine government also saw it as an opportunity. 

Anna Guevarra [00:16:27] So it was very easy for Marcos to see that as a pathway for employment for Filipinos–but also started to see that as a way to create a remittance economy. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:16:39] But this time it wasn’t just U.S. labor shortages pulling Filipinos abroad. Marcos went out of his way to incentivize Filipinos to fill labor needs all over the world–Hong Kong, Singapore, Madrid, and all over the Middle East. 

Anna Guevarra [00:16:56] The Middle East was experiencing an oil boom. During this time, Middle East countries were looking for workers. 

Roman Mars [00:17:03] To encourage Filipinos to move abroad, Marcos passed the 1974 Labor Code. The law basically secured overseas contract work by establishing recruitment agencies that worked with foreign companies to ensure a good wage and basic worker rights, but only if they went abroad with the sole purpose of sending money back to the Philippines. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:17:24] The kind of migration Marcos was encouraging wasn’t the kind we think of when people try and start a better life elsewhere. This national program relied on Filipinos having one foot in the Philippines and one foot out forever. Many of the workers going abroad couldn’t bring their families, and the overseas contracts were temporary. So, there wasn’t a pathway to citizenship in those countries after their work was done. But many Filipinos were ready to step up and take part in Operation Homecoming because they needed to. 

Anna Guevarra [00:17:56] I think for Filipinos, the incentive is survival. The conditions that you are living in in the Philippines at that time did not really offer any other opportunity except to leave. If you want a better life for you and your family, you have to leave. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:18:14] Marcos gave these people coming home a new name: “Balikbayans.” 

Anthony Ocampo [00:18:19] It actually is a word that emerged when Marcos launched this really aggressive migration plan–economic plan–to, like, encourage Filipinos to migrate. Whenever they come back to the Philippines and they visit, what they’re called is “Balikbayan”–so, like, the “homecoming” or the “return of our people.”. 

Anna Guevarra [00:18:39] He was elevating the status of Balikbayans. As a Balikbayan, you are kind of welcomed back to the country as the new aristocrats. Balikbayans had a lot of money. The dollars that they were earning were strong, and they are the new heroes. And he said this quite a bit. “You are the modern-day heroes of the country because your remittances are contributing so much to the Philippines.” 

Roman Mars [00:19:06] And throughout the 1980s, the Balikbayans weren’t just sending money home. They were sending stuff. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:19:12] Even though they were living elsewhere, they kind of maintained ties to the Philippines because they were sending cash. But they were also sending goods. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:19:20] Sometimes these boxes were gifts, letting their loved ones know, “I’m thinking about you.” But mostly, items inside were essentials that families needed during an economic crisis. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:19:32] And so what ended up happening is they would put them in these Balikbayan boxes, bring them back. And so, the boxes that they would send–you know, everyone loves alliteration–they were called Balikbayan boxes. 

Roman Mars [00:19:43] Unlike Marcos’ migration policies designed to bring wealth to the Philippines, this form of remittance–the Balikbayan box–happened organically. When families were separated, they want to remain connected to the families in the Philippines in other ways besides just sending a check home. 

Anna Guevarra [00:19:59] The goodies in those boxes often contained mostly American products or things that, you know, Filipinos would imagine, you know, represented the stateside life. We would open those boxes and think, “Oh, wow. Okay, the chocolates, the Twix, the Folgers coffee, the Colgate, the Jean Tate.” I mean, these were like–my God–luxury goods, right? This is the stateside way of life. And so, it kind of cultivated the sense of this is what it would mean to live overseas. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:20:30] Although Marcos didn’t anticipate the Balikbayan box, it ended up reinforcing his migration plan. First, it was utilitarian in that the Balikbayans were supporting their families with both money and the boxes of goods. But it also helped feed this fantasy of living abroad. If you become a Balikbayan, you too can have access to all these goods. 

Roman Mars [00:20:54] By the mid 1980s, just ten years after Marcos signed the Labor Code into law, the number of Filipinos going overseas to work increased by almost 1,000%. And as more Balikbayans went abroad, more boxes of goods came flowing back. To promote the Balikbayan box, the Philippine government made it cheaper to ship these boxes, making the items and the cost of shipping duty free and tax free. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:21:18] But the Balikbayan box didn’t become the multibillion-dollar industry it is today until Filipino entrepreneurs in the U.S. recognized an opportunity. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:21:28] One of the earliest Balikbayan box companies in LA was actually just in a little, like, pop-up in the Philippine grocery store. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:21:37] Anthony Ocampo–the sociology professor at Cal Poly–he actually wrote about the Balikbayan box businesses for his PhD dissertation. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:21:46] But what’s funny is that the sending of boxes by Filipinos is, like, a multibillion-dollar industry, but often these companies are just little rented spots in an outdoor shopping plaza. If you can imagine, like, that quintessential California outdoor plaza, where you’d see a convenience store and a laundromat–there’d also be a Balikbayan box company there. 

Roman Mars [00:22:09] Anthony also studied the lifecycle of the box–how it travels from one family member to the other all the way across the world. Today, more than 10 million Filipinos live overseas. And the more that go overseas, the more boxes get sent back. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:22:23] The box ends up in a boat that travels all the way to the Philippines from the port of Long Beach to the port of Manila. Just imagine, like, a warehouse that’s two, three stories high, but the whole room is filled with Balikbayan boxes–these huge boxes from all over the world. It’s bananas. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:22:44] For part of his research, Anthony actually worked for a Balikbayan shipping company in Los Angeles. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:22:50] Waking up at six in the morning, seven in the morning to go pick up Balikbayan boxes in a truck with barely any air conditioning. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:22:58] Driving to people’s homes to pick up Balikbayan boxes. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:23:01] I remember this 60-something year old woman literally got on top of her box and started jumping on it–like a kid jumping on their bed–to get it closed. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:23:10] And like any good sociologist, he was most interested in what the box meant to people–how they interacted with it in their lives. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:23:18] And I remember chatting with her. I was like, “Oh, who’s the box for?” And she’s like, “Oh, it’s for my son in the Philippines. You know, he’s doing so well over there. He’s getting married. Then I asked her, “Oh, are you going to be going to the wedding?” And I just saw the mood on her face get really sad. And she’s like, “No, I’m not going to be able to go.” And I just thought, “Oh, wow, this is like one of those moments where you see, like, the box is kind of supposed to fill the void of your absence, but it never fully fills the void.” And I remember taking the box away, and the older Filipino woman was just watching us from the balcony and, you know, was like, “Take care of the box, make sure it doesn’t break.”

Gabrielle Berbey [00:23:59] Anthony found a similar longing when he followed those Balikbayan boxes to their recipients in the Philippines. He remembers one box in particular sent by a father in San Diego to his adult son in Manila. 

Anthony Ocampo [00:24:11] He said, “You know what’s interesting is my dad–whenever he sends a box, he sends me pictures of cranes, like construction cranes. And, you know, that’s what I was really into when I was eight years old. And my dad–even like 12, 15 years later–he still thinks I’m into cranes. And I don’t have the heart to tell them that that’s not who I am anymore.” 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:24:37] What does it look like for a country to be built on remittances? Like, how does that shape an identity of a country? 

Anthony Ocampo [00:24:44] I think if a country’s economic development plan is based on immigration, what that means is that there’s a whole lot of its citizens that are going to be just, like, cognitively oriented toward building a life outside of the country they were born in. Filipinos, we have such tight-knit families, we have strong families, but it’s a country where people are encouraged to separate from their families for decades. And, you know, no matter how beautiful this Balikbayan box is or whatever nice things are in it, it doesn’t fill the gap that happens when a loved one is just not under the same roof as you anymore. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:25:26] My Lola, who received Balikbayan boxes from my Uncle Dennis when she lived in the Philippines… 

Lola Berbey [00:25:32] The Balikbayan box–it came from Kuya Dennis. It came from his heart. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:25:39] She moved to the United States decades later. But while coming here allowed her to connect with some of her kids in the United States, she had to leave her youngest son, Ariel, who is still in school. And then she became the one sending Balikbayan boxes. 

Lola Berbey [00:25:54] Whenever I ate something, like the chocolate, “Oh,” I remember, “Ariel loves this chocolate.” So, I go to Costco. And it’s like when you’re homesick and you miss your son, I buy something for them and then put it in a box. That makes me happy–that my homesick will be cured because of that. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:26:25] Thinking about my own family’s history, I don’t really know how to hold that happiness with the reality of why we send the Balikbayan box in the first place. On the one hand, I feel sad when I think about my Lola always being oceans away from her children for these big historical and economic reasons far beyond our control. But on the other hand, there’s something beautiful about her tasting a chocolate, knowing that her son in the Philippines would like it, and then going out of her way to buy boxes and boxes of that chocolate to send to him. Why do you say your homesick will be cured? 

Lola Berbey [00:27:07] Because whenever I think of them and I give them something that I have here and not in the Philippines, that makes me happy. 

Roman Mars [00:27:35] When we come back after the break, Gaby tells us about the salty, delicious, artery-clogging item that you can find in almost every Balikbayan box after this. Reboot your credit card with Apple Card. Apple Card is the credit card created by Apple. It gives you unlimited cash back every day on every purchase–up to 3%. And you can use that cash right away. No waiting and waiting for rewards. Just daily cash you can use right away on anything. Apply now in the wallet app on your iPhone and start using it right away. Subject to credit approval, daily cash is available via an apple cash card or as a statement credit. See Apple Card Customer Agreement for terms and conditions. Apple Cash Card is issued by Green Dot Bank Number FDIC. This episode is brought to you by Zelle. No matter how tech savvy you are, odds are you eventually might need some help, which is why tech support lines are so helpful. What is not so helpful? Tech support scammers. Follow these simple steps to get you the help you need without worrying about scammers. First, watch out for any unsolicited phone calls or text messages alerting you to a computer issue, requesting remote access to your system, or asking you for personal information. Real tech support companies won’t reach out to you this way. Next, if a security message pop-up window appears in your computer screen alerting you to a problem, don’t call the number on the screen or click any links. And finally, only install antivirus software on your computer from a reputable source. If you’re having computer issues, go to someone you know and trust, visit a technical support center in person, or just call your Gen-Z nephew to figure it out. Many of today’s occupations didn’t really exist a decade ago. Driverless car engineers, cryptocurrency analysts, podcasters–if I’m being honest. From Etsy seller to emoji translator, new opportunities to build a career are popping up every day. And Squarespace is the ultimate tool for professionals to build a site to market their brand and sell anything. Features like Squarespace Analytics allow you to use insights to grow your business. The appointment scheduling feature allows you to add online booking and scheduling to your Squarespace website. With the video studio app feature, you can create and share Pro-Level videos. Squarespace even offers a member area feature, where you can sell access to gated content, like videos, online courses, or newsletters. All the modern tools you need for the new jobs of today. Head to for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. If you retire, do your savings retire tools? Will rising inflation deflate a life of hard work? Does everyone know this stuff but you? The only wrong question is the one we never ask. That’s why at Lincoln Financial, they make it easy to start. Their annuities are designed to help do more than grow the money you already have. They can offer a protected monthly income for life once you’re ready to retire. Go to to learn how to plan, protect, and retire. Annuities issued by the Lincoln National Life Insurance Company, Fort Wayne, Indiana–and in New York, exclusively by Lincoln Life and Annuity Company of New York, Syracuse, New York. Variable Products distributed by Lincoln Financial Distributors, a broker dealer. So, Gaby, you’re back to tell us about the in-depth, surprisingly deep story of one specific item found in the typical Balikbayan box. And it’s actually an item you made an entire three-part series about last year for WNYC in The Atlantic–their podcast called The Experiment. Can you tell me what that item is? 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:31:38] So this item that I made an entire three-part series about is the salty, delicious, and surprisingly profound spam. 

Roman Mars [00:31:50] Why did you decide to make an entire series about spam? 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:31:54] Okay, so the main reason was that my Filipino family and Pacific Islanders in general love spam. 

Roman Mars [00:32:01] I find this really fascinating. So, I grew up never thinking of spam as anything other than not very good meat–like, super processed. You know, it kind of fits into the hyper processed American food that is not appealing. I don’t know if I even had it for most of my life. And then I met Joy, my partner, and she’s Filipino. And now I have spam way more than I ever thought I would. And I like it a lot. And her family loves spam. And it’s just one of the things that’s part of my life now. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:32:29] Oh, yes. That feels like a very common story. Yeah, once you’re part of the Filipino community, spam is just, like, going to be part of your life. From now on, it’ll be a family member. And I wanted to try and understand why that is for Filipinos. And what I found was that it has a lot to do with the American quest to spread democracy abroad. 

Roman Mars [00:32:55] Okay. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:32:55] So what I mean is during World War II, spam was one of the key food sources, and it was called the K rations for American GIs. Spam has a lot of calories, it stores well, so it’s perfect for soldiers. And when the Philippines became a central battleground for the United States to fight the Japanese, American soldiers landed in Manila. And with them, so did the spam and their food rations. And just to put this into context, in total, 150 million lbs. of spam were produced for the war effort during World War II. So, you can only imagine how much of that is ending up in the Philippines during that time. 

Roman Mars [00:33:34] Wow. Yeah.

Gabrielle Berbey [00:33:35] And the irony of American soldiers eating spam morning, noon, and night is that they got so completely sick of it. They would trade their spam with locals for literally anything else that wasn’t this nondescript slab of pink, salty meat. 

Roman Mars [00:33:52] A delicious nondescript slab of pink, salty meat. But I can imagine not wanting to eat every day. And so, they traded it far and wide, and a lot of it ended up in the hands of local Filipinos who began to love it, right?

Gabrielle Berbey [00:34:08] Exactly. And that’s definitely part of the story. But also, spam really holds this very sentimental value for Filipinos who went through Japanese occupation. My grandpa–my lolo–was around eight or nine years old when American GIs started to come to the Philippines in droves. And he remembers hiding in the mountains from the Japanese army and, like, spending months feeling hungry and scared with his family. So, when American GIs came and, like, started rolling through the dusty mountain roads in their trucks, this was a big deal for them. And the American GIs would throw stuff to Filipinos lining the road. So, cookies, cigarettes… 

Roman Mars [00:34:53] Okay. Probably had some downsides with cigarettes.

Gabrielle Berbey [00:34:54] Chocolate, and of course, cans of spam. So, my grandfather tells this story of, you know, chasing after the trucks and catching cans of spam as the trucks were kind of rolling by. And he’s not alive anymore, so I can’t ask him this, but I always wondered if, you know, that was the first time he had ever seen an American–if his introduction to America were American GIs tossing cans of spam at him during World War II. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:35:27] That’s a strong sentimental linkage to, like, this army that is helping free people and then giving them food–to people who are hungry. That’s really intense. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:35:37] Right. So, to him, it was like spam represented freedom. And this was a very common experience in the Philippines for people in my lolo’s generation. Spam symbolized luxury, abundance, and American freedom. And after that, spam became this prized delicacy in the Philippines. And that’s why it’s still a quintessential item today in Balikbayan boxes. 

Roman Mars [00:36:02] Yeah. So, I understand that for someone like your lolo’s generation, spam represents, you know, all good things about American culture. But I’m curious if that love of spam extends to someone like you. Like, how do you feel about spam? 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:36:17] So obviously I have a really sentimental attachment to it because of my grandpa and how much he loved it. And also, when I would come home as a kid with, like, good grades or something from school, my mom would make me a special spam breakfast. 

Roman Mars [00:36:36] Oh, yes. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:36:37] Yes. Rice, eggs… 

Roman Mars [00:36:39] Rice. Fried egg. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:36:40] Fried spam. 

Roman Mars [00:36:41] Fried spam. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:36:42] Fried garlic. 

Roman Mars [00:36:44] Mm. Lovely. Yeah. I love it.

Gabrielle Berbey [00:36:46] But I also have this love hate relationship with it. Love because it’s always been this distinctly Filipino thing to me. And when my lolo was alive, he loved spam. And when he came to America, where spam was freely available and it wasn’t a luxury item, he would still eat it all the time, like every day for breakfast. That was until he got diagnosed with diabetes. And when he was diagnosed, his doctor was like, “The spam needs to be the first thing to go.” So, there’s this negative connotation for it with me. You know, American imperialism and American canned goods imported to the Philippines have done a lot of harm in terms of public health. Like my lolo, for example, died of complications from diabetes a few years ago. Like, all of my family members have diabetes. And I’m not saying that it’s because of spam, but the widespread export of unhealthy, processed American foods and, like, the reverence for processed foods like spam–for me–is part of, like, the real public health issue in the Philippines. And diabetes and heart disease are some of the leading causes of death in the Philippines. 

Roman Mars [00:38:03] Yeah. And this is pretty widespread. Like, everything that we export is processed, and high in fat, and high in salt, and high in sugar. You know, this is something not unique to the Philippines. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:38:12] Right. And it’s widespread, especially throughout the Pacific Islands. Wherever American GIs went during World War II, they left a trail of fatty, salty, American processed foods in their wake. And spam has become really integrated into local cuisines in places like Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa. And all of those places have, like, staggeringly high rates of diabetes and heart disease. So, the story I thought I was telling through the spam series was, you know, that spam was delicious and a relic of imperialism–The End. But when I started researching spam, and especially when I went to visit spam’s headquarters in Austin, Minnesota–that’s when I really opened a Pandora’s can, so to speak. I found out that the factory that makes spam actually played a huge role in the American labor movement in the 1980s. And that story led us into a larger story about immigration, the history of meatpacking, the evolution of labor. And it ended up being that the story of spam crisscrosses decades and continents, and it touches some modern, pressing questions about food, family, and how we want to work to put food on the table. 

Roman Mars [00:39:36] Well, it is all really fascinating stuff. So, if people want to hear more–and I really recommend they do–they should check out WNYC’s and The Atlantic’s The Experiment podcast from last spring. There’s a three-part series on spam, How the American Dream Got Canned. Thank you so much, Gaby. I really appreciate it. 

Gabrielle Berbey [00:39:51] Thank you. 

Roman Mars [00:40:01] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Gabrielle Berbey and edited by Kelly Prime with additional help by Christopher Johnson, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Swan Real, and Vivian Le. Mix by Martín Gonzalez. Music by our director of sound Swan Real. Delaney Hall is the senior editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Chris Berube, Lasha Madan, Jayson De Leon, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Robyn Rodriguez. Gabrielle helps produce More Perfect, a show about the Supreme Court from WNYC Studios, which will be releasing its new season in the spring. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg, while it lasts. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, and TikTok, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at You’re listening to a Stitcher podcast from SiriusXM. Thank you for sticking with us in 2022. I’ll see you next year. 

  1. Piotr

    I knew of course that it won’t be joyful episode, but the crane pictures anecdote hit so hard I was close to crying.

  2. Judith Martin

    Definitely bitter-sweet. Not everyone who leaves their home to make a living is well received and well looked after. Or well paid. What on earth does a 100 lb box cost to post?

  3. I love 99% Invisible and I LOVED this episode. I’m a 48-year-old Filipino American born and raised in New Jersey. There were moments in this episode that brought me to tears: sometimes joyful, sometimes sad. Wonderful job Gabrielle (and Roman.) What a great Christmas present to see this episode this week.

    Maligayang Pasko!

  4. Steve

    As a kid in the 80s, I would see these boxes at the airport when picking up relatives and I never understood why they couldn’t afford a bigger suitcase. I realized later that we were sending them back full of our old stuff and started to appreciate everything that we had growing up in the States. This is a great story that I’m sharing with my kids to help them understand the Filipino culture.

  5. Daniel Przybylski

    While sending money and good home to support a dictator certainly is unique, Sending goods to relatives is pretty common. My mother would put together boxes for her siblings who still lived in Poland during Soviet occupation. She and my father grew in Poland and later Belgium during World War II, and while they emigrated to the US, many relatives stayed in Poland. When the reality of the Iron Curtain became apparent, “care packages” as I called them became a regular thing. My mother would have to explain to me why she was sending what seemed like these ordinary items like toothpaste or chocolate “back home, things I took for granted. We relied on the respective postal services to get the package there, and it required a visit to the Post Office as there were no online services then. Your story brought back lots of memories and certainly opened my eyes to the reality of the Marcos regime and how it was more than a lady with too many shoes. Thank you.

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