In my (almost) 23 years, I’ve been to the Philippines five times; when I was 3, 10, 14, 18, and now. With a degree in journalism and a few years of reporting experience under my belt, I’ve made it a point this time around to take note of what I see and hear on my current trip back to my parents’ native land and the place I consider to be my second home.
My parents, brother and I flew via Asiana Airlines from Chicago to Manila, Philippines last July 10. Despite the 14-hour flight from Chicago to Seoul, Korea (our three-hour stopover) and the three-hour connecting flight from Seoul to Manila, we very much felt comfortable and enjoyed both flights. We faced no problems checking in our luggage back in Chicago and had no issues upon our arrival in Seoul.
However, when it came time for us to take the approximately 45-minute Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to Tacloban City, Southern Leyte, we faced very questionable and rude treatment by workers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Despite my parents’ attempts to pack no more than 25-30 kilos in each of our boxes (the maximum weight for Philippine Airlines), we were informed that we had excess check-in baggage and must pay 4,000 pesos (approximately $80-$90). My mom was obviously not very happy because she had intended for that money to go to other purposes, but decided against fighting the charge. You see, being charged for excess baggage is nothing new to my family. We have faced this issue each and every time we’ve traveled domestic in the Philippines.
We paid the fee and were about to make our way through security when a female security guard stopped us. She eyed my parents’ and my brother’s carry-on suitcases, as well as mine and said, “Your luggage is too big. You need to go back to the counter and check them in.” (I should note here that as the guard spoke to us, two women whose suitcases were much larger in size than ours went through security no questions asked. Did the guard not question them because she knew they weren’t Americans? Who knows …) Needless to say, my parents were furious and my temper was nearing its boiling point. My mom told the guard, “We traveled on two international flights with these suitcases as our carry-ons and had no problems and you’re telling us they’re too big for the planes here?” The guard continued to just say that we had to return to the counter and so we eventually did.
Once we were back at the same counter from earlier, my mom (God bless her fearlessness of confrontation) demanded to know why the young gentleman who checked in our baggage did not make any mention of our suitcases being too big. She also demanded the name of the female security guard, to which the young man replied, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I do not know her.”
“Oh, really? I think you’re only saying you don’t know her because I’m asking you for her name. Am I right?” my mother asked. She raised her voice a bit higher so that the other workers at the counters and other passengers could hear. “Is this how you are all trained to treat balikbayans? Were you all told to charge us with as many bogus fees as you can so that you could take all of our money? Hindi na ‘to balikbayan; balik gastos! (This is no longer a homecoming; it’s coming home to pay!)”
Many people may think my family and I overreacted, but I’m sure if you spoke with other balikbayans you will discover that they too have faced these same issues.
Philippines customs officials and airport employees are notorious for opening the boxes of balikbayans and taking items that are meant for their family and friends to keep for themselves (Upon our arrival in Manila, we discovered that a set of brand new bath towels that my mom had planned to give away had been taken. We knew the box had been opened because it had been resealed with tape that said “SECURITY CHECK” and the rope we used to tie it was inside). They also ruthlessly make false claims that certain items are not allowed to be brought onto the plane so that passengers will be forced to leave the items behind and the customs people can take them for themselves.
My family and I love the summers when we can go back to the Philippines to visit our extended family and friends. However, the treatment of many balikbayans has continued to be a problem. It is unfair and very upsetting to see our fellow Filipinos taking advantage of us when we just want to enjoy ourselves. It is also unfortunate that they don’t seem to understand that the money and items they, for whatever reason, so very much want to keep for themselves could be better used to help the children begging for food in the streets and the elderly who are forced to sleep on dirty sidewalks.
There is no doubt that the Philippines is a beautiful country full of equally beautiful and kindhearted people. I most definitely am not generalizing and saying that all employees at Filipino airports are unfairly targeting balikabayans, but it is a problem that I believe needs to be addressed immediately before the situation gets so out of hand that Filipinos living abroad no longer feel welcome in their motherland.