On fitness and the Philippines: an interview with Jeremy Rafal

For Decent Company February: BODY, Jeremy Rafal will be re-enacting a very special workout video from his childhood. Jeremy sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk about that video, the trials and tribulations of growing up as a Filipino kid in Hawaii, and the meditative power of working out.

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JOSH BOERMAN: Here we are, right? Just did a rehearsal of the thrilling new piece, Fun House Funk.

JEREMY RAFAL: Fun House Funk. (laughs)

JB: Maybe I should start by saying that we worked together before on the show that you did for Fringe, and that show also had quite a bit to do with your experiences growing up and the pop culture connection of those experiences. But this is taking it from a slightly different angle, so what prompted you to look at this particular part of your upbringing and connect it to the body and so forth?

JR: Well, I always had this story in my head about getting this fitness video. (laughs) Like, when you’re a sixth grader and you’re so excited about winning something, like a trivia contest on a kids’ channel. Like, “Oh wow, somebody answered, and they’re asking the question, and I get to answer the question. I know the answer to the question.” And I won.

And I remember that I was so excited about the prize, a video game. It was one of my favorite video games, and that was why I kept calling and calling every day.

JB: Right. But you got a fitness videotape instead.

JR: (laughs) Yeah. I was very disappointed when the woman on the other line was like, “Oh yeah, I’m sorry. We ran out.” Because everybody chose that video game, you know?

JB: Yeah. (laughs) Surprise, no kid wanted the workout videocassette.

JR: (laughs) Nobody wanted that workout video. And you can just imagine how disappointed I was. I was like, “Okay, fine. I’ll take it,” you know?

JB: Yeah. I mean, this was a major event in young Jeremy’s life. Really imprinted you in a way; you still remember this very strongly.

JR: Yeah. And, I mean, I kept the video, because yeah. I was thinking, “Okay, this is— I won it,” you know? And it’s free.

JB: And we learn about this in the piece and we hear about sort of the impact it had on you, and we’ll save that for the show. But I guess what I’m interested in about this piece is the way that it’s sort of taking this memory, this childhood memory, kind of embellishing it a little bit, but showing how it connects to who you are now.

And I’m so interested in those formative experiences and how when you look back after a while you can sometimes sorta see that there’s sort of a trail behind you. You didn’t necessarily know where it was going, but here you are now.

JR: Yeah. I mean, I was a sixth grader, you know? For me, from what I remember, everything is so simple. Everything is just like, okay, go to school, do your homework, and watch cartoons. And that was it, you know? Everything was simple.

But then one of the things I’m always interested in too is, like, innocence lost, you know? What happens? What turns us from that simplicity, that everything seems so— I mean, of course when we’re young, everything seems to be bigger than life. But now that we look back at it, it’s like, “Okay, what was I thinking,” you know?

But still, what are some of the things that happen in that anecdote, that little story, and how does it impact me today? And there’s a lot of things. I mean, after getting that video, I never thought about working out.

JB: Right. But you sort of became aware of your body, in a sense.

JR: Yeah, I became aware of my body. I started being conscious of the way I looked. Before that I was just, like, whatever, you know? Just do whatever. Also, when I was young, I wasn’t really thinking about how I looked.

JB: Well, ’cause you were a Filipino kid growing up in Hawaii, so it’s not like people looked that different from you.

JR: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

And then I still remember this, like with my mom, as I was growing up, sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, I was starting to gain weight and stuff too. And all of a sudden my mom was telling me, “Okay, I will give you a cup of rice and that’s it. You cannot have anymore. (laughs) You can’t have any more cups of rice.” ‘Cause I was starting to gain weight too, you know?

I think it’s at that point, at puberty, that you’re starting to think about yourself, think about your body, and think about all these weird things. And sexuality too, you know? Things are growing out of your body. It’s like, “Oh, where is this coming from? What’s goin’ on,” you know? That’s one of the main themes that I’m thinking about, when I wrote this piece. Things I started thinking about that I never thought about before this turning point.

JB: And do you remember specifically what that felt like at the time, or is it more just a hazy sort of general recollection?

JR: I remember specific events. Like, I remember the first time I got hair in my armpits. And I was like, “What the hell is this? I don’t want hair in my armpit.” (laughs) And I freaked out. I remember freaking out.

And I remember freaking out about thinking about sex and stuff. Like, oh my god, what’s going on? Like, “I’m in church. I can’t be thinking about this.”

JB: (laughs) You’re thinking about sex during church?

JR: “I can’t think about sex,” right? Just stuff like that, you know?

JB: Yeah. And I definitely also remember myself having a similar kind of struggle, ’cause I still have some of my journals from middle school—

JR: Oh my god.

JB: Yeah, I know, right? And, like, early high school. And there’s definitely this constant thing where on the one hand, I’m thinking about sex all the time because all these hormones are brand new and coursing through me. But on the other hand, I’m feeling this incredible weight of guilt because I don’t understand these feelings. I’m being told that, to a degree, these feelings are wrong.

JR: Exactly, yeah.

JB: And I’m looking at my own body, being like, “What the hell is this thing? I don’t recognize this anymore.”

JR: Mm-hmm. There’s a lot going on, you know? And I don’t think there’s one event where everything just switched, but there are moments. It’s like, okay, so this one moment over here is one of the turning points of your thinking, one of the turning points of thinking about yourself and getting more and more conscious about your body or whatever’s going on. All the changes going on.

So I kinda wanted to explore that journey between, like, “Oh yeah, this is great, I’m doing this and I’m doing that,” and “Okay, what the hell is goin’ on?”

JB: Right. Because oftentimes throughout life, you don’t necessarily realize how important those moments are while they’re happening. It’s only in retrospect that you can see that.

JR: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So I guess that’s what I’m doing in this piece: in retrospect, what happened.

JB: Well, and that’s why it’s kinda fun to embellish it a little bit, too. Obviously, this is not a literal account of what actually happened, and when people see the show they will understand why.

But you’re sort of taking the opportunity to incorporate some discoveries that you made about yourself into this moment. And I’m just curious what making those discoveries looked like for you in real life and how you dealt with them.

JR: I think those discoveries were all— I did not tell anybody. Obviously I was scared, I was freakin’ out, but I did my best to not show anybody; my family, my friends, my teachers. “Oh god, if my teachers, my family found out what I was thinking about, it would kill me.” You know, one of those things.

JB: Found out that you were thinking about sex?

JR: Yeah. I mean, just stuff like that, thinking about sex or whatever. Back then it was a lot more like, “I’m in church. I can’t be thinking about this.” (laughs)

But that realization of who you are and everything: it’s like step number one, step number two, and it goes through your 20’s and your 30’s or whatever, you know? And in sixth grade, I was a new immigrant as well, so that was—

JB: Yeah, that’s right, ’cause you had moved just the summer before, or was it two summers before? I’m trying to remember.

JR: No, sixth grade.

JB: Oh, it was sixth grade. So sixth grade was your first year in Hawaii. Oh, wow.

JR: Yeah. Sixth grade was my first year in Hawaii.

JB: So on top of all of the stuff, trying to figure out your body and your emotions, you’re also figuring out—

JR: The culture shock and everything, you know? There was that too. Every time I talked to people, I would always use, like, two words or three words. I wouldn’t use sentences because they would detect my accent. (laughs) And that worked for a while, but then once I started talking in sentences they were like, “Wait, where are you from?” So I was dealing with that, and I was dealing with other stuff on top of that.

JB: And I imagine that that made you feel not just out of place, but almost like an alien, in a sense.

JR: Yeah. But at the same time, there were people that looked like me. There were a lot of people that looked like me in Hawaii. Like, my first day of class, I remember this girl. She was sitting, like, not the one next to me, but two chairs next to me, and she’s obviously Filipina.

And then… (laughs) I remember asking her, “You’re Filipina, right?” And then she said, “Yes,” and then I started talking to her in Filipino. And she was like, “Oh, I don’t understand.” I was like, “How can you be Filipino if you don’t understand,” you know? And I didn’t realize that there’s Filipino-Americans too.

JB: Right. And the difference between ethnicity and nationality—

JR: Yeah. So I was figuring out that too, that people looked like me but then they were different, you know? And I was different. I mean, there are a lot of different ethnicities, different Asian ethnicities in Hawaii, but at the same time, when that happens, there’s stereotypes. There’s stereotypes about the Japanese; stereotyping Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos—

JB: What were the stereotypes that you had to deal with?

JR: I mean, Filipinos were stereotyped to be, like, janitors. But the Japanese, the Japanese-Americans, they were more well-off. They were the business people.

JB: So there was a very clear class divide as well, where Filipinos were generally looked down upon as being of a lower economic strata, essentially.

JR: Yeah, exactly. And then whenever you talked about all the poor areas in Hawaii, it’s mostly “Filipinos are there.” So I had to deal with that, you know? And also for a long time I was dealing with, like, “I don’t wanna be Filipino.”

JB: Right. Which you also touch on in the piece a little bit, about how in this exercise video you got, this guy was, at least to you at the time, an example of like a pure, beautiful Aryan man. (laughs)

JR: Yeah. And I wanted to be white. I mean, I think a lot of Asians are like that too, you know? They have this experience of, like— especially the Asians that are in a predominantly white community. I mean, I was talking to my Asian-American friends about this too, that they wanted to be white. And I was one of them too. At least, I did not wanna be Filipino. I wanted to be at least Japanese, you know? (laughs)

JB: If you’re a kid, and you’re a kid who is not quite getting along with everybody and maybe looked down upon, it’s very easy to be like, “Well, if only I could be X, then everything would be better.”

JR: Yeah. Exactly. If only I could be this. There’s a lot of that. If I wasn’t this ethnicity, everything would be better. If my first language was English, everything would be so much better. If I looked like this, all my problems would be solved. Just like that. I mean, when I was in the Philippines, before moving, I didn’t have any of those thoughts, you know?

JB: Right. Because you were just like everybody else, basically. That was normal.

JR: Yeah. I mean, back in the Philippines, people liked me. (laughs) Teachers liked me, my classmates liked me. I would have been a popular kid in the Philippines. But then going to Hawaii it’s like, “Oh, I’m not. I’m like everybody else.” And I started to go in my shell a little bit more, until high school.

JB: Right, ’cause then you actually discovered things you liked to do. You discovered people who were like-minded, and you were able to start to feel like you fit in again.

JR: Right. I got that video in sixth grade, but I really put it away for years. I didn’t start looking at it until I think it was eighth grade or something.

JB: Oh, the workout video?

JR: Yeah, the workout video. Because I remember I did gain weight. Sixth grade I was okay, but then seventh grade and eighth grade, I just stayed in the library and didn’t do anything, and I did gain weight. I think I was like 170 pounds. That’s when my mom was like, “Oh, you’re getting fat, you’re not gonna get this much rice.”

JB: But now, obviously, you work out on a pretty regular basis. You do jump roping and Crossfit and stuff like that. And that’s a pretty important part of your life.

JR: Yeah. Working out for me right now is more like a meditation, a meditative activity, for me. So when I work out, it’s, like, the time for me. Nobody else, you know? I’m doing this workout and it makes me forget about other things, because I’m concentrating on the workout. You don’t have time to think about other things, all the negative things that tend to come to your mind. So it’s like cleansing for me.

I mean, a lot of people work out these days because they wanna change their bodies and they wanna get those abs over the summer, you know, stuff like that. There is a little bit of that too. For me, I like to think that I’m working out because it’s sorta meditative, and I got to a point where I was like, “I want to be a better athlete. I wanna break my record. I wanna break my PR in back squats.”

JB: It’s about improving on yourself. Self-improvement.

JR: Self-improvement. So I think of it that way. Not just body-wise, but also mental-wise. I still remind myself, if I have to do something I don’t wanna do, I think about the times I work out that it’s like, “Oh, this sucks, but I’m still doing it,” you know? So that’s what I do.

JB: It gets you through it.

JR: It gets me through it, yeah.

To purchase tickets for Decent Company February: BODY, click here.

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