I FIRST heard of the word packrat from my boss Thelma San Juan, whose amazing power to observe and deduce telling snippets of human behavior is perhaps just a notch lower than her ability as a journalist to sniff out the next big thing.
Of course, she wasn’t referring to the rodent-like mammal endemic in certain parts of North America, but to a trait that mirrors that of a packrat, which seems to run among not a few Filipinos, particularly those who lived through and survived World War II.
Lest I find myself pounding the streets tomorrow answering help wanted ads, Thelma, a Baby Boomer, didn’t live through those trying times herself. But generations of women before her, including her mother, aunts and grandmothers did, which probably gave her a clear picture of how the packrat’s mind works.
Having lived through a period fraught with danger, uncertainty and extreme want, packrats wittingly or not tend to hoard things—from toilet paper to bath soap, bed sheets to pillow cases, table cloths to place mats, socks to underwear, canned goods to junk food, etc.—based either on an unknown or unrecognized fear that such material goods might run out from store shelves the next day.
(Packrats shouldn’t be confused with a more “extremist” group called panic buyers, although both traits they exhibit are somewhat related, as they’re triggered primarily by bouts of uncertainty and insecurity.)
Thus, for certain people in the Philippines who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, it was quite common for them to see their mothers and grandmothers buying items in bulk or in numerous quantities like there was no tomorrow. Or if they couldn’t buy certain items by the box, they went on constant trips to the grocery or department store, which most likely drove the men in their lives nuts.
Their packrat mentality was in full throttle, especially while traveling abroad during the days before globalization. So-called PX goods (read: items “Made in USA,” not China or India) were hard to come by then, and the few items that did make it
into mainstream stores were as rare and almost as valuable as moon rocks.
My grandmother, who was then already based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, out of the goodness of her heart, would always bring home several big bottles of shampoo, conditioner and lotion, plus bars upon bars of Dial and Ivory soap every time she and my grandfather went on balikbayan (homecoming).
(They’ve both passed away since. I miss you, guys.)
Food from non-food
Ditching suitcases in favor of several so-called balikbayan boxes, they had to carefully segregate the non-food items from the foodstuff like Hershey’s Kisses and chocolate bars, coffee and Swiss Miss powdered chocolate drink, for example, so as not to “contaminate” them with the scent of soap, perfume and even dish-washing liquid.
During one of their homecomings, they even brought home with them two color TVs (not plasmas, which was then just figments of some futurist’s imagination, but bulky Magnavox CRTs—the best and most cutting-edge viewing experience the times had to offer), one for my family and another one for my aunt and her brood.
How they managed to pack those fragile objects under layers of clothes, bed sheets, paper towels, toilet paper and cotton balls was a science in itself. Needless to say, the boxed TVs remained intact and had nary a scratch after being subjected to a 26-hour flight with several stops and plane transfers along the way.
Back then, flights from the US to Manila, and vice versa, allowed each passenger to bring with him up to two checked-in luggage weighing 70 pounds each without being charged extra.
Yes, those were the days, my friend, and we thought they’d never end. 😉 Now, airlines, apart from charging stratospheric airfares, make Scrooge look like Mother Teresa because of their unreasonable stinginess when it comes to baggage allowance, plus a few other extras.
And while original members of the packrat generation, including not a few men, have dwindled in number over the decades, that irrational fear of waking up to an empty cupboard has remained with us—their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren.
Apart from their penchant for hoarding, Filipinos, particularly those who travel regularly abroad these days, have become notorious—not exactly undeserved—for exceeding weight allowances and bringing with them more than one carry-on item on board.
It’s probably safe to say that this seemingly unique and endearing Filipino trait also has something to do with vestiges of our packrat mentality and the fact that we really miss our loved ones and friends back home badly.
Bring home the city
It’s as if bringing practically an entire city where we came from as pasalubong (loosely translated as present) could instantly make up for the long years of absence and separation.
Anyway, I’m sharing with you these thoughts after reading a news item from gawker.com accompanied by a series of videos on US shoppers gone wild, which was posted by my good friend Ivy on her Facebook wall. (Please tap on this embedded link [gawker.com/.webloc] to see it for yourself.)
The series of unrelated events happened a day after Thanksgiving, an after-party thing of sorts Americans dubbed as Black Friday, which remains to this day the biggest and perhaps maddest shopping frenzy in the consumerist giant’s retail calendar.
Well-fed, energized and in high spirits after a hearty dinner of turkey and stuffing downed with wine, beer, champagne and what have you, shoppers wait in line for hours in chilly weather for, say, a Wal-Mart store to open for them to get their hands on anything, from towels to consumer electronics like plasma TVs and the latest version of Xbox, at supposedly rock-bottom prices.
Scenes that you would normally associate with people from Third World countries fighting over food and water were captured for the entire world to see at several Wal-Mart stores, as people elbowed, shoved and nearly toppled over each other in their mad dash to grab whatever was being offered.
Were they on crack?
Good Lord, were these guys shoppers or escapees from the gulag? From their spontaneous reactions every time a store clerk signaled that the contents of a certain big box or pile were now up for grabs, they acted as if they had survived a famine in some God-forsaken Sub-Saharan African wilderness and, buoyed only by crack, gone without food for days.
Some folks even had the bright idea of bringing their small children along with them. They probably figured that such an event doubled as an ideal bonding time as well as on-the-job training, as these kids would someday morph into future Black Friday shoppers themselves in ten years or so.
Should we be thankful that, unlike last year, no desperate shopper, a woman, in her warped desire to “level” the playing field, decided to use pepper spray on fellow shoppers in order to snatch several Xboxes?
This leads me again to ask that perennial question: how many towels, game consoles, DVD players and flat-screen TVs do we need in an entire year, if not an entire lifetime, for us to throw away any semblance of civility out of the window, while risking life and limb and unwittingly hurting others?
We often deride the rich for acquiring dozens of private planes, sports cars, mcmansions, jewelry and luxury designer goods that not even their great grandchildren could probably fully maximize and enjoy in their lifetimes, and yet here we are seeing people from lower and middle classes doing their version, and a cruder one at that, of the same thing.
I’m willing to bet that more than half of the items these people risk their lives squirreling away would remain unopened and likely forgotten, gathering dust in some basement or attic until the next Black Friday sale comes along.
Classic packrat syndrome
And most of these people, who happen to be citizens of the richest and most powerful nation on earth, have probably not even lived through a long drawn-out state of war fought on American soil to exhibit classic manifestations of packrat syndrome on steroids.
To quote former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, the other half of the so-called “Conjugal Dictatorship,” who once cheekily declared in defense of her ostentatious ways that “there’s an Imelda in all of us.”
If that were the case, there’s also probably a packrat mentality lurking in every person triggered by a yet-to-be-discovered gene running through our system.
And like those guys in several Wal-Mart stores on Black Friday have shown, we don’t even have to live through a major cataclysm for that gene to plumb through our beings and activate the mindset of a latent and greedy hoarder in all of us.