It came in the mail on Monday, a battered blue-striped box postmarked from Daly City, CA. My father, a man who needs other people to wrap his Christmas present for him, had swaddled every exposed inch with packing tape.
When I rip it open a big green can rolls onto the kitchen table. Big letters on the side proclaim it as “Marca El Rey: authentic chorizo de bilbao”.
It’s a lie. They have never heard of this chorizo in Bilbao, or anywhere else in Spain. It’s made in the USA. But in the Philippines, this can is worth its weight in gold.
It’s packaged in Illinois but you can’t find it anywhere except in the Philippines or in a handful of Asian groceries in San Francisco. In a marvel of modern economics, it is produced in America, exported to the Philippines and smuggled back into the US by desperate balikbayans hoping that the customs inspectors will somehow miss the big green cans secreted in their luggage.
I was scarred for life several years ago by having my one precious can confiscated by dour customs inspectors in Detroit. If I’d had a can opener I would have devoured it on the spot. Bitter, I imagine the customs officers gathered around a grill in some back room, feasting on their ill-gotten chorizo in the middle of the night.
Filipinos are notorious for bringing anything and everything edible in their luggage. Every time I cross the border I am invariably asked, knowingly, whether I have any tuyo (dried fish) with me today? Or perhaps a lechon (roast pig)? Any bagoong (fermented shrimp paste)?
DVDs go one way across the Pacific; dried fish and bagoong go the other. My mom wants moisturizer and those little devices for cutting pills in half: so useful! She gave one to all the old grandmothers and years later they still talk about. My cousins splurge on DVDs and books that arrive in a tidal wave of mail at my doorstep in the week before I go home for Christmas. Like clockwork, in mid-December I get the sheepish call, asking if I wouldn’t mind bringing home “a few things”. I say yes, of course, knowing that my consent is not actually required. What are relatives for, if not for carrying things back from abroad? My suitcase is so full of other people’s stuff that I’ll be lucky to fit my own clothes.
I’ve brought home cans of cranberry sauce and boxes of twinkies and velcro ties for bundling cables. Labelling machines and refills for organizers, plates, boots, jackets, band-aids, Yardley’s English lavender powder, and boxes of roach poison.
When I come back I’m laden with soup and sinigang mix, dried mangoes and tsokolate. Golf-ball sized pellets of native chocolate, hard as little cannonballs, invariably land me in the agricultural inspection line. They are so dense, I suppose, that they look like ammunition in the scanning machine. The overhead bins are full of other travellers’ provisions: tubs of ice cream packed in dry ice, bakery boxes of mamon and ensaymada.And so it goes, the galleon trade in the 21st century. For a few months I’ll live high on the food of my childhood and then it’s back to western grocery stores and the occassional trip to Chinatown, until it comes time to do it all again.