The following is an interview conducted with Alex Tizon, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of new book, Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self. The book is an honest account of Tizon’s journey as a Filipino immigrant and the search for his manhood as an Asian American.
How did you and your publisher decide on the title of your book: BIG LITTLE MAN?
The title came from a reference to pound-for-pound boxing champion Manny Pacquiao. On the night in 2008 when he beat Oscar De La Hoya, one of the HBO announcers referred to him as “the most exciting big little fighter in the world.” Pacquiao cleaned up eight weight divisions. Eight! That’s unheard of. He exemplifies the notion of dynamite coming in small packages. He is a smaller man in terms of weight, but quite large in terms of creating excitement and winning fights, and gigantic in terms of global appeal and impact. So that’s where the title comes from.
But I’m the big little man in the book. The book is essentially a memoir about my quest to assuage this racial shame that, in a sense, I inherited from my father, and which he inherited from his father. My family immigrated from the Philippines to the United States when I was four. It’s the story of my struggle as an Asian boy trying to figure how to be an Asian man. I had few guideposts. In telling my story, I end up telling pieces of the stories of many other Asian males–from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, etc.– in the West. There’s a shared experience.
We all at some point encountered—and continue to encounter—the deep-rooted Western notion, perpetuated by entertainment media, that Asians are at the bottom of the food chain, the weakest, the smallest, the least masculine of men. The book is about my climb up from the bottom, and what I end up recounting is both an interior and exterior journey. Many other Asian men are on the same climb. So, in a sense, Big Little Man also refers to the changing status of the Asian male in the West
You write in your book about your identity as an Asian American male. In what ways, if any, have you been emasculated?
I was never really emasculated, but I have felt emasculated. I think most boys and men go through periods of feeling emasculated, or at least of feeling less masculine than some ideal they have in their heads. Asian men in the West have the added burden, on top of all the other routine male anxieties, of dealing with pernicious stereotypes that to young men in particular can be hurtful. I had to deal with those. Most everything I learned in school, watched on television and in the movies, saw in advertisements, overheard in conversations, told me that I belonged to a lesser species of man. I didn’t experience these as emasculation as much as exile. I felt banished to the outside edge of the garden. But, truthfully, that was a long time ago. Most of the events of the book took place more than thirty years ago. I’ve come in some distance from the outside since then. The main thing now is to bring some light to my experience, and to make people–Asians and non-Asians–more aware of the various mythologies about race and the forces at work that they’ve encountered or even in some ways contributed to.
Being Filipino, how did you react when in school someone asked if you were a “chink?”
I didn’t like it, not because it was a racial epithet, but because I wasn’t Chinese. I felt chagrined that I was lumped in with all these other people I didn’t know or didn’t have anything in common with. Being lumped in was a way of being erased from the outside. I’d already been trying to erase myself from the inside, in the form of disowning all things Filipino in order to become more American. Being called a chink, to me, was another way of not being actually seen for who I was.
You wrote “Most of us, when imagining an all-American, wouldn’t picture a man who looked like me.” Why did you feel that way?
My family arrived in the United States in the mid-1960s, when race was a national preoccupation. The dialogue was almost always framed in terms of white and black — white Americans and black Americans. There were less than a million Asians in the United States at the time, and we’re still a relatively small minority today — 5 percent, I believe. I don’t think Asians have been in the country long enough and in large enough numbers for the majority of white and black Americans to be able to associate an Asian face with being “all-American.” I don’t like it, but that’s been the fact for as long as I’ve lived here.
For many of my fifty years in the U.S., Asian faces constituted the face of the enemy. In the 1950s, Koreans were the enemy. In the 1960s and 70s, the Viet Cong were the enemy. In the 1980s, the Japanese and their incredible economy were the enemy. Now, you can feel the nationalistic forces rallying all of us to suit up for the newest and most threatening enemy, China. For most of the time I’ve been a citizen of the United States, I have felt as American as anybody, but few people — at home or abroad — would associate my face with the red, white and blue. And let’s face it, “all American” has usually been a code term — used by reporters, ad people, pitch men and politicians — to mean wholesome, clean-living, and white. This is slowly changing but still largely the case.
How difficult was it for you to explore and share the issues and experiences you raise in your book?
Very difficult. Shame is hard to confront. Even if you know it’s baseless, it’s still hard to come face-to-face with. And then I felt ashamed that I was having such a difficult time – remembering the shame, exploring it, really getting into the crevices of it, and then writing about it so that it makes sense to other people. Dwelling in this pit for the purpose of writing a coherent chapter doesn’t put you in a conquer-the-world frame of mind. I mostly wanted to withdraw and take naps. It was like that for a couple of years. But, ultimately, it turned out to be a kind of therapy. I exorcised the demon to some degree. I came away from the process feeling…unburdened. But sharing the painful parts of growing up was essential. Otherwise, what would be the point? And indeed, based on the feedback I’ve received so far, the episodes of turmoil and isolation seem to be what most resonates with people. Hey, we’re in the same boat, man. The Buddha said that life is suffering. And he didn’t distinguish between races and ethnicities.
Without giving too much away, what do you think might surprise readers of your book?
One thing is that I found myself disengaging from the idea of race, and this surfaces toward the end of the book. I had believed, as a young man, that my deficit and my exclusion had to do with race, and you can always fashion an argument to support your beliefs. The America that my family entered in the 1960s was preoccupied with race, and it affected how we came to understand what we were experiencing. The whole country was looking through the lens of race. Much of the country, much of the time, still does. It’s very strange.
I began the journey looking through this lens, and at the end I come to this paradoxical frame of mind. On the one hand, I discovered that I had so much to be proud of in being a son of Asia. A son of the Philippines. A golden-brown man. On the other hand, I also came to the conclusion that race is really just a single side of a complex prism. There are infinite ways to examine a life and to interpret the course of events around us, and race as a concept is really a small surface on the prism, and very cloudy at that.
How difficult was it to get a book like this published?
Getting it published was relatively easy compared to getting it written.
(Note from the editor: An excerpt from Big Little Man: : In Search of my Asian Self will be published on AsAmNews Tuesday).