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Pursuit of the Stage

It was always somewhat of a sad feeling when the lunch break happened during one of the all-day all-cast rehearsals. Among a group of what felt like nearly a hundred people, nobody ever wanted to have lunch with me. I got it. I understood why. I wasn't in the clique. I was more-or-less an interloper in the entire process... It makes perfect sense in hindsight...

...But in the moment, it was lonely.

Pilipino Culture Night (PCN for short) was a coming together of many of the Filipino/Pilipino student groups on campus to put on a glorious culture show. For one night only, we would get to perform on the same stage as many other world-famous and/or nationally-renowned artists: Zellerbach Hall. Not the Playhouse that the theater students use, but the actual Zellerbach Hall, with all of its two-thousand five-hundred and fifteen seats. Of course, we didn't fill it. Not even close. But for those who showed up to watch PCN that year, we performed our hearts out. It was a unified effort... a coming-together of months and months of hard work. It was nothing short of amazing. It was the first—and quite debatably, the only—time I ever felt such a rush before, during, and after the performance.

But I still never really felt welcomed into the group. And I suspect it was because, like I said, I was basically a stranger. Those F/Pilipino student groups on campus that worked together to put this show on? I belonged to none of those. Frankly, I never thought it made much sense to join a group based on traits I had no control over. Yes, I was—and still am—Filipino. Yes, I was actually born in the Philippines, and not in America like many of the other members. ...But so what? In my opinion, that doesn't really say much about me. It has nothing to do with the fact that I enjoy doing community service. It doesn't speak to my geeky/nerdy tendencies to play board games and video games and LARP. Being F/Pilipino says nothing about my enjoyment of singing and dancing. So why become part of a group of people solely because I was F/Pilipino? So I didn't. And thus, many of them had never seen me before.

And yet, there I was. When I heard of the call for script submissions, I wrote a little story about something that meant a lot to me without really thinking anything would happen... but it was chosen. During the course of the theatrical process, I would get to continue to develop the script, cast it, and direct it (even make a cameo in it). The other dance elements of the show would also be integrated into it. It was really kinda cool! And as one of the only four chosen writer/directors for PCN that year, I became one of the PCN Heads. I was one of the people in charge. Me. Someone they had never seen before. Not to mention I had just recently become a Theater and Performance Studies major, so my entire approach to the show was probably a lot less casual than everyone else's.

The result: I wasn't very popular... and I suppose I never cared enough to try to be. After all, my goal was not to make friends. If nobody bothered to extend their arm in invitation, so be it. My goal was focused on the show. My goal was to participate as fully as I could in it. In addition to the scene I had wrote and directed, I was also in nine of the elevan dances—PCN had taken legitimately taken over my social life that semester, and I had let it.With or without the establishment of new friendships.

I was miserable.

Why did I do that? It's just a culture show about a culture I apparently don't identify with very strongly, so why did I care that much?

Because Mom was coming to the show.

That's why.

I never really did tell her that I switched majors. As far as she knew, I was still pursuing the lucrative field of Chemical Engineering. I would be the one. The game-changer. All the years of sacrificing to ensure that I received academic support and a good education would finally pay off when I graduated from UC Berkeley with a Chemical Engineering degree. I would make good money. I would be able to save up and buy a house. I would be able to change our lives, and live a good one for myself. At this point in time, my older brother was already well into his academic struggles at UCD. It was unclear whether he'd ever finish. And to this day, he hasn't. In a way, most—if not all—the eggs were in my basket... Except, without telling anyone, I had let the basket go. I chose to get a degree in Theater and Performance Studies, an academic move that would almost certainly guarantee that I would be financially modest-at-best for the rest of my years on this planet.

And I didn't say anything. What would I have even said?

If my Mom had asked me why I switched, how would I have even explained it?

Because chemical engineering was too hard? Work harder.

Because I didn't really bond with the people there? Who cares. I was there to get an education.

Because I was unhappy? Everyone has to make sacrifices. Like my parents did when they came here.Why should I be exempt?

But if I didn't tell her, then she couldn't ask.

Instead, I decided to apply the basic theater mantra: Show, don't tell.

I would show her why I switched. I would show her how happy it made me. I would show her that it would be okay. I would be okay. And PCN was going to be my medium. Unlike me, who doesn't completely identify with my F/Pilipino culture, my mom really did take pride in it. She came from the islands—Let it be known by all!—so I invited her to the show. And she said she'd come watch.

And she did.

The script that I wrote was about young girl named Liberty. (I actually know someone named Liberty in real life, and I always thought it was neat.) Like me, Liberty was pursuing her higher education. She volunteered. She worked. She studied. She was friendly and polite enough. By many definitions, Liberty was a good kid. Her mother raised her right, they would say...

But she didn't really care about being F/Pilipino so much. In fact, she seemed to tune that out altogether. And she never really spoke much to her single mother either. She didn't dislike her mom, but they rarely spent time together because Liberty was always so busy with school and work and volunteering. Even though her mom insisted that they have dinner together, Liberty would always bring her books to the dinner table to study there.

Finally, Lyra (Liberty's mom) had had enough. One night, she pushed the textbooks off the kitchen table and sat down to eat with and talk with her daughter. And with the voice of subtle ultimatum that only mothers knew how to use, Lyra told Liberty that she would be going to their cousin's debut... a coming-of-age party of sorts, popular in Pilipino culture. Lyra had already called ahead and made arrangments with Liberty's client to make sure Liberty was off work that day. And, of course, Liberty was furious. Her work was being a personal assistant for an elderly Filipina woman named Estella. She decided she would go to Estella's anyway on the day of the party and apologize for having her mom get in the middle of their business.

But when she arrived on the day of the party, no apology was needed. Estella, who had grown distant from her own kids, recognized exactly what was happening. She would not sit idly by and let another mother lose her daughter to general busy-ness. To lack of communication. To lack of cultural self-identification and ownership. Knowing exactly what advice she should give, Estella manages to persuade Liberty to go to the debut. And, more importantly, to reconnect with her mother.

It was sappy, I admit. It was one of the first scripts I had ever written. But boy, was it a tear-jerker. Especially with a full-band accompanying the dramatic bits. Apparently, a lot of the audicence—dare I say most of the audience—in Zellerbach Hall cried during my scene. But, most importantly, so did my mom. Maybe it was because of the overall theme of P/Filipino culture? Maybe it was because of the dramatic prowess of my actors? Maybe it was because of the music? But I'd like to think that she shed tears because my messages got across. Both of them; The one that said, “I know we haven't spoke much. Nor do we really have time to bond much. But I am fully aware at all times of the sacrifices you made to ensure I have a good life, and I am living that good life as well as I can.” And the second message that said, “And I'm choosing to live life in this way: through the theater. I will pursue this. You've seen me act. You've seen me dance. You've seen my directing. You've heard my writing. My music choices. You cried. The whole auditorium did. I can do this. I can dedicate my life to pursuits like this. I'll be okay. So please be okay with that.”

Or maybe the messages didn't come across. But either way, after the show, she seemed so... happy. And when I finally did reveal that I had switched my academic major from Chemical Engineering to Theater and Performance Studies...

“Now I get to tell everyone that my kid's an actor.”

And then I think she smiled. I know I did.

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