I Am Alice

When I first immigrated to the States, I was four years old.  I was an only child and the only person I knew in this foreign world was my mother; my father hadn't yet been granted a Visa and remained in the Philippines.  I was usually the only one of my kind in any situation.  I was the only Filipino kid in my daycare, the only Filipino or immigrant kid at my church and the only immigrant kid in my Filipino community because all of the other Filipino kids were also American and born in the States.  

Kindergarten, circa 1989.

Kindergarten, circa 1989.

I often found myself desperate to relate to someone, anyone.  Any time I met another Filipino kid, I would excitedly ask them where they were born, hoping that I had at last found someone with whom I could commiserate and reminisce about my life in the Philippines.  But every time I asked, the response was always the same.  "I was born here."  The response never ceased to disappoint and carried with it a reminder that I was "other" and still alone.   

My mother tried to distract me from my loneliness the only way she knew how - with a room full of toys and stacks of kid friendly VHS tapes.  Of all the movies I was introduced to in the States, Alice in Wonderland was the one I enjoyed watching and acting out the most.  Anything that allowed my wild imagination to thrive was welcomed in our household and Wonderland gave me a much needed escape from my sadness. 

When I traveled to Wonderland, I was willfully trading one strange world for another.  I would spend hours running around the house, dressed in different outfits screaming “Yes!  Ro Majesty!” as loud as I could.   Rationally, I knew I was different from Alice.  She was white, I was brown.  She was British, I was Filipino.  But in this blond-haired, blue-eyed girl, I had finally found someone with whom I could relate because I knew what it felt like to be alone in a strange world full of strange people.  And in this strange, make believe world there was no need for me to make believe that I was Alice.  I was Alice. 

It had been some time since I last entered the world of Wonderland when I decided to see Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of Alice in Wonderland.  When I heard that they had cast a Filipino actress in the title role, I knew I had to go.  I was excited and nervous.  What would it mean to see someone who looked like me play a character I loved so much as a child?  I knew it meant something that a company had chosen to cast nontraditionally the role of Alice; I just wasn't sure what it meant.  

Alex Palting and Greg Atkin in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of   Alice in Wonderland.

Alex Palting and Greg Atkin in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of Alice in Wonderland.

The production was everything I expected a trip to Wonderland would be.  It was whimsical, playful, joyous and dark.  My friend and I put on our best dance moves as we were called on stage to dance with the actors during a musical number.  We interacted with the cast throughout the show and laughed hysterically as the Tortoise and the Stork threw shade at Alice for asking too many questions and challenging their perspectives as Wonderlandians.  I had nearly forgotten how much fun the story of Alice traveling through Wonderland was. 

But then, something unexpected happened.  

As I watched this woman who looked like me - who was Filipino like me - run around the stage doing cartwheels, asking questions and getting brushed off by the locals of Wonderland, I started to remember what it felt like growing up an immigrant child.  Every time I heard Alice defend her reason, her beliefs or her practices with the phrase, "In my country. . .", it occurred to me how often I was forced to defend my own identity as a Filipino child from the moment I stepped foot in the States.  

Then finally, the White Queen in all her brilliance and beauty turned to Alice saying, “You must be very happy here, living in this wood and being glad whenever you like.”  To which Alice replied, “Only it is so very lonely here…”

And in that moment, I remembered what it was like growing up an Other.  

I remembered what it was like to be surrounded by people who just assumed I should be so happy to live in such a strange and beautiful country where everything was possible and nothing should be questioned.  I remembered what it was like to constantly wonder why this was this way and that was that way and never get a straight forward answer as to why anything was as it was.  I remembered what it was like to be surrounded by people and still feel so utterly alone.

Alex Palting as Alice in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of   Alice in Wonderland.

Alex Palting as Alice in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of Alice in Wonderland.

I went home that night and thought deeply about my experiences in Wonderland, both then and now.  I thought about Alice, or at least Alex Palting's portrayal of her, and her determination to find any and all things interesting.  I thought of her unending curiosity and wondered if it was all just a means to survive in a world that felt unwelcoming and, at times, threatening.  I wondered if Alice was still me. 

I still question at times if my feelings of aloneness ever actually dissipated over the years or if I as an adult have simply become more adept at adapting, pretending like I am something other than Other.  I've observed in the past how my life as a traveler helps me feel more at ease with my experiences as one who grew up constantly between worlds.  I wonder if I traded in Alice's Wonderland for other foreign places.  

I never expected that seeing a play would plunge me back into a world of uncertainty and force me to confront, yet again, my experiences as an Other.  The truth is, I don't know if I would have felt so confronted about my experiences as an immigrant child had the company chosen to cast Alice more traditionally.  I have been arguing for years, practically the entirety of my professional career as an actor, the importance of diversity and representation in casting for theater, television and film.  I forget sometimes that the person for whom I am truly advocating when I make these arguments is myself.   

Chesapeake Shakespeare's production of Alice in Wonderland was a painful, unexpected reminder that I am still that little girl lost in a strange and foreign world.  But it was a beautiful reminder, nonetheless.  And it was unexpectedly empowering to remember that I am still, and always will be, an Other.

My first Christmas in the States.  Circa 1988.

My first Christmas in the States.  Circa 1988.