Adolescence is the least favorite phase in life. At that age, our body does things we’re helpless against, and they put a damper on our relationship with the people around us. I was a fat kid. My stomach was so protuberant that I couldn’t see my feet, and rolls of lard bulged out between my shirt buttons. Initially, my heftiness had not been an issue in the Philippines. I didn’t care that my brother called me biik (piglet) and that my cousins teased me with baboy (pig). I loved to eat – pork skin roasted to the crisp, toast coated with butter and melted sugar, and chocolates, lots of chocolates. Being fat didn’t get in the way of fun weekends at the carnival or splashing around in our swimming pool.
When my family moved to Walnut Creek, just outside of San Francisco, it became a different matter. I was 12 years old. A burgeoning consciousness of judgment based on appearance coupled with hormonal urges shaded what I saw in the mirror. Plus, I was effete and inept in sports. Some classmates called me Buddha or fag. Other’s downright ignored me. So I starved myself. To my uninformed mind, dieting entailed skipping breakfast, food so parceled out that little did I realize I was depriving myself of nutrients, and hunger nausea. My weight loss was so drastic that at 13, with the family moving back to Manila, the outline of my ribs was visible. While I held myself accountable for my new body, other issues surfaced over which I had no control, mainly acne and a lack in height. Dermatologists and stretching exercises notwithstanding, the only thing I could do was to wait until I was an adult. These curses would cease to be, I believed, so that glaring lights in crowded rooms would no longer be a phobia, and girls who spoke of cute boys would include me in their roster.
This is how it is. Every girls needs to be pretty. Every boy needs to be cute. A first kiss wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Even simply holding somebody’s hand would be a challenge. Essentially, affection is what largely matters, whether we’re a teen or an adult, the euphoria of having a person we gush over gush at us in reciprocation. Such is the bind young Josh (David Moscow) in the film “Big” (1988) is stuck in. He’s handsome enough, charming even. The problem is that the girl he’s infatuated with is every other boy’s eye candy. She’s sunshine blonde Cynthia (Kimberlee M. Davis), stunning in pink, five inches taller than he, and on a date at a fair with a high schooler who has a driver’s license as his chick bait. Josh doesn’t even fit the height criteria for a roller coaster ride. Dejected, he makes a wish with a fortuneteller machine, and that wish is to be big. Zoltar may be manufactured, but his sorcerer’s turban and fiery eyes are creepy. The thing could have been made in Satan’s workshop, especially since it functions while unplugged and dispenses a card stating that Josh’s wish has been granted. The next morning, Josh awakens a 30-year-old man in the body of Tom Hanks.
Josh returns to the fair in search of Zoltar so that he could renege on his wish, only to find the grounds deserted. Since mom (Mercedes Ruehl) thinks he’s a fiend who might have abducted her son, he can’t go back home. Next stop, therefore, is New York City. With any ‘80s flick that stars Tom Hanks, we’re in for a raucous ride. The first thing a grown man does is he finds employment. No better dream job is there for those of us who are a child at heart than in a toy company. Josh is such a master in determining what makes play things click with youngsters that in a week, he’s promoted to VIP, complete with his own office, a secretary, and a feast of toys that serves as incentive for brilliant ideas on the next blockbuster gadget. He lives in a luxurious loft and dresses in pricey suits. He’s got a playmate in his best friend, Billy (Jared Rushton), the one person to whom he confides everything so that he need not feel alone and who is privy to his secret, as well as a love interest in Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). She’s easy on the eyes, our Susan, and although she’s got a reputation as an opportunist at the company, she changes her avaricious ways when she becomes smitten with Josh for all his innocence and joie de vivre.
It’s incredible to be a grown up. Then again, this is Tom Hanks in a romantic comedy. The truth is that the insecurities that plague us when we’re in our teens don’t all disappear. A few years ago, I attended a high school reunion. A man was present whom I didn’t recognize, Mr. Clean bald and built. He approached me as I stood with some people at the buffet dinner, complimented me on my own fit physique, and then I saw his name tag. Though the guy had left upon finishing middle school, a friend he kept in touch with over the years had invited him. Robert used to be as monstrous as a fat orangutan and mean. “I don’t recognize you,” he said. “I recognize almost everybody here, but you.” All I said in return was that I remembered him. He used to hiss “gay boy” and “faggot” at me whenever I walked past him in the corridors. After leaving the Philippines, Robert returned to the States, where he was originally from, took martial arts, developed muscles, and worked as a cop. At the time of the reunion, he was an officer at a correctional facility. “So you beat up guys,” I said. Robert laughed. “I’ve been known to do that.” All the while, the shriveling at the pit of my stomach 30 years earlier as he would hurl those nasty words at me, the incapacitating nervousness, came back to me as if I were a fat, effeminate boy once more.
Even the gay community, despite its allegiance to equality, can aggravate self-doubt on account of a high school cliquishness. I recently saw a documentary on AIDS survivors who move to Palm Springs in order to escape the lifestyle demands of such urban centers as Los Angeles and Miami. The documentary covers the stories of 13 men, and it is striking that the muscular Caucasian homosexuals have established their own tribe within a tribe. They dine together, work out together, and are in unison over the fruits and frustrations of dating a guy 35 years their junior. Those in the documentary who don’t fit the image are an entity unto oneself.
In “Big,” Josh as a man finds a sense of belonging with Susan. Susan discovers through Josh that love is not about favors or self-advancement or money; love is the trust that comforts one, as it does a child, when in the presence of goodness. However, the absence of adolescence forms a void in Josh that needs to be filled only by returning to where he came from. His mother misses him so… distress and hope have been dueling inside of her… and Josh misses her equally as much.
Susan doesn’t want to let go of Josh, and yet she must. As painful as adolescence is, she knows that he needs to experience it because it’s on these very pains that we build our strengths. I myself survived the harassment, though I am not so egotistical as to believe that I am unique in this. We all go through some form of hell at that age. Whatever the trials, they push us in the years that ensue to be the best that we can be. I wouldn’t be writing this had adolescence never been. That I am here a middle-aged man to share this with you is an achievement. And when I remember my teens, it isn’t the bad skin or the negative self-image that comes to mind, neither the bullying nor the impatience to grow up. It’s the summers abroad spent with relatives I only got to see once a year and the Christmases that brought my sister home from college in New York, homework in my parents’ room to the sun shining through the window and my brother’s untangling a tape of Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb stuck in a cassette player.
I remember the love of family.