“Fragments” is part of the In Between series, a series chronicling five artists in their struggle with navigating multiple identities through their art.
The sound of a hundred chattering voices echoed through the walls as a bead of sweat trickled down my spine. My high school graduating class was lining up in a cramped hallway of a stadium at a nearby university. Not having made friends with the other kids whose last names started with “R,” I stood at my spot in silence. A few feet away from me, I could see one of my best friends, who was lucky enough to have a spot close to some of our other friends, laughing and joking around. Jealous, I kept my eyes forward and wiped the sweat off my face, thankful that it was only the rehearsal and that I wasn’t soaking through my graduation gown - yet. When I looked up, I was met with a familiar face and I felt a pang of guilt at the pit of my stomach.
Despite only having immigrated to the United States two years prior, I was faced with another period of adjustment when my family moved from California to Maryland. I spent the first day of eighth grade anxious about my first lunch period at a new school, because walking into a cafeteria always felt like navigating the borders of different nations. There were unspoken rules of where you were allowed to sit. Despite my best efforts to find sanctuary within a group for the last four class periods, in this school, I was still a foreigner. I found myself standing in the middle of a bathroom on the second floor of the school ten minutes after the bell had rung- indicating the start of lunch. After a few more minutes spent pacing and considering sitting on the toilet and foregoing eating, I finally plucked up the courage to walk into the cafeteria.
Walking up to the lunch line was an exercise in reading the room. I was scanning each table and to analyze if my presence would be welcomed. Eventually, I was standing in the middle of the room, clutching my tray so hard, my knuckles were turning white. I walked down the lunch hall, slowly, hoping someone would invite me over. Dead man walking, I thought. Resigning myself to sitting at an empty table in the far end of the room, I picked up my pace before a hand reached out to grab my arm.
“Kumusta? Bago ka dito, diba?” said a boy with an earnest smile.
“How are you? You’re new here, right?” I looked at him dumbfounded as he ushered me into a seat. I was met with a dozen expectant eyes. Before I could answer, he introduced me to five other guys around the table who greeted me in Tagalog. Realizing my hesitation, they continued on with their conversation, but taking the time to include me here and there. The rest of eighth grade passed along in this manner- lunch with six rambunctious Filipino boys. It had felt like I finally found my own tribe. For the first time in a long time, my identity wasn’t split between who I was at home and who I was at school. I had found a group of people who understood a piece of me I thought I had left behind when I packed up my suitcase to leave the Philippines.
By the time we moved on to high school, however, I started to have fewer classes with this group of friends and I began to feel more and more distant from them. Growing up in the Philippines, I always had a strong fascination with Western culture. The radio and our television and movie screens were often inundated with American artists and syndicated television shows in English. Although they felt foreign, absorbing them carried a lot of social status, because not everyone had access to them. And while it may have been alienating in the Philippines, my obsession with American media created a baseline of cultural references that would help me thrive in this new environment. As a result, I grew closer to some of my other classmates, my white classmates. I slowly but surely stopped hanging out with my Filipino friends, partly because I felt this need to assimilate to the dominant culture, but also because I was slowly settling into a different part of myself.
I started to realize that there was something vastly different between me and this group who I thought I could completely identify with. When talks at lunch moved to sports, I often just nodded along- never having taken much interest. And when talks turned to girls, I didn’t say much, never having taken much interest in that either. As the next four years progressed, I became more and more comfortable in being open about my sexuality, to the detriment of my friendship with these boys. I felt more comfortable with sharing that part of myself with my American friends, who I met through theater. I felt like they would be more willing to accept me for being gay, because we were already in a playground of self-expression. So I found myself once again split into two different people: who I was with this group of Filipino boys who shared my heritage and who I was with this group of American girls who made me feel okay about my sexuality. In the end, my fear of coming out led me to completely move myself away from those boys. I’m not exactly certain why it was easier to share that part of myself with my American friends. I rationalized it with the notion that Filipino culture is more conservative, and that may have been true at the time, but when my family openly accepted me when I finally came out, I realized that I perhaps didn’t give those boys a fair chance.
Back at graduation rehearsal, I stood at my place in line, wondering if we were going to acknowledge each other. For the last few years, we had only greeted each other with a nod of the head whenever we passed each other in the hallway, but with a chapter of our lives coming to an end, this moment felt monumental. Before I could say anything, he reached out a hand, the same hand that saved me five years ago, and shook mine before patting my back.
“We did it, Chris!”
That was the last time I saw him in person. And despite having moved on, I still think about that instance because those things I tried to navigate through in high school, those moments when I felt like I was navigating through different parts of my own identity, still show up today- not just in my day to day life or my interpersonal relationships, but it also shows up in my art.
Whenever I pick up a pen, I imagine looking out into an audience with different versions of myself: a young Filipino boy, raised to value family and tradition; a young immigrant pressured into assimilating and repressing his cultural identity; a gay teenager, hiding himself away in shame; an adult, hoping to make a difference in the world. And before I write, I ask myself: Who am I speaking for? Which one of them am I giving a voice to? What and whose stories am I responsible for? Because how do I talk about the years my mom spent working to achieve the American Dream for her and her children and acknowledge that, that dream was never meant for us? How do I share stories about my childhood without the fear that people won’t be able to relate to it? How do I talk about my coming out story when it didn’t have the same amount of pain as other people’s?
Navigating through multiple identities feels like you’re made up of different fragments of a whole and those fragments carry so much pain with them. As theatermakers, we use our art to alleviate those pains, but how do we alleviate the pain of one without diminishing those other parts of ourselves?
An excerpt from "Fragments" appeared in the February 2018 edition of The Lark's monthly newsletter. To get more stories like this straight to your inbox, sign up for The Lark's mailing list!