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The Seeker

Alex Tizon was willing to travel the world to answer the question: What does it mean to be male and Asian in America? He found the answer in the most unusual place: himself.

Interview by George Getschow

Alex Tizon, a bronze-skinned son of Asia, never thought he’d amount to much. His Filipino parents told him Asians were small, weak and easily vanquished. He could not stand up to the “white-skinned gods” who marched through history, conquering everything in their path. So he tried to become a white man. He slept with a clothespin over the bridge of his nose to unflatten it. He put masking tape over his lips to make them look thinner. He swallowed prodigious quantities of protein supplements to build muscle and bone. And he hung from a bar attached to the top of a doorway for 30 minutes a day, trying to get taller by stretching the spaces between his spine. But all his attempts to transform his scrawny, 5-foot-7-inch frame into the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ended in failure.

By the time he reached college, Tizon says he “accepted his fate.” Then, a decade later, as a reporter for The Seattle Times, he traveled to an island in Southeast Asia to visit the beach where Lapu Lapu, an Asian warrior, had slaughtered his childhood hero, the great European explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

Lapu Lapu’s triumph brought a whisper of validation to Tizon’s sense of self, and set in motion a quest to track down the stories of other Asian men suffering from the same shame, stereotypes and racial envy. His quest would eventually give birth to Big Little Man, his taboo-busting narrative, published last year to rave reviews. The Library Journal lauded the book as “revelatory and sobering.” Kirkus Reviews called it “a deft and illuminating memoir and cultural history.” The New York Times hailed it as “an unflinchingly honest, at times beautifully written, often discomforting examination of Tizon’s remarkable, yet thoroughly relatable, life.”

Each week, Tizon’s inbox is stuffed with letters from Asian readers who, after reading Big Little Man, feel liberated from the chains of feeling inferior and impotent. Tizon responds to every reader. We caught up with the Pulitzer Prize–winning author between his teaching duties at the University of Oregon and his speaking engagements across the country.

“I believe I am here on this planet to continue the conversation that I started,” says Tizon. The Mayborn recently joined the conversation between Tizon and his passionate tribe of fans across the country. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Big Little Man began as one thing and became something else. Even your title changed, from Big Little Man: The Asian Man at the Dawn of the 21st Century to Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self. Could you talk a bit about the origins and evolution of the book?
When I trace the origins of this book, there are several points where I could begin. The earliest one was in the early ’90s, when I was a staff writer at The Seattle Times, and I proposed to my editor: ‘Hey, how about I take six months, I travel the world and I write stories about brown men and their lives. And in the end of the series, I can compile it into a book.’ That didn’t go anywhere, because it’s an outrageous proposal for a staff writer to ask for six months and $75,000. Then, in 2007, I proposed another book about Manny Pacquiao, a [Filipino] boxer bursting onto the scene at the time. I wanted to tell his story while addressing these same kinds of issues about how Asian men are perceived as weak but emerging into something new and more powerful. He was the embodiment of that idea at the time. I proposed that book, but it didn’t go anywhere either. The problem wasn’t the publisher’s interest. It was Manny Pacquiao’s people. They didn’t want anyone poking into his life, because he’s got stuff in his life that he doesn’t want the whole world to know. And his people were wanting money for the right to tell his story, a lot of money. So that idea died. And then a friend of mine at the Los Angeles Times, Terry McDermott, talked to me. ‘Hey, look, why don’t you just write your own story?’ he suggested. That was the birth of Big Little Man. The first version of my proposal was much more historical and sociological, and that’s where that first title comes from.

Was that the journalist in you influencing that kind of approach?
Yeah, it was the journalist in me. I find those things fascinating and interrelated to my personal story. But it became even more of a memoir, and less sociological, as I went through the editorial process with my publisher, who identified the most powerful way to tell this story, which was through a personal narrative. A narrative about me.

While European explorers like Magellan earned your admiration, you grew up in a family that believed ‘men of Asia were small and weak and easily vanquished,’ as you put it in your book.
By the time I graduated high school, I couldn’t name a single preeminent Asian male figure who was a force for good — a hero. When you watched the news, you saw the North Vietnamese as the enemy, and you saw pictures of these tiny little men in flip-flops. They were small, cunning, hard to kill, hard to beat, wily enemies. There wasn’t a force in American society that gave me the impression that, well, there are different kinds of Asians and different kinds of Asian men. There weren’t any portrayals of strong, good, benevolent, muscular, powerful Asian men portrayed anywhere in the media that gave me a counter image to the images I saw on the news.

You wrote in Big Little Man that your parents had an adulation for all things white and Western.
You had to be white or have some whiteness in you, because whiteness and greatness went together. Brownness and greatness didn’t necessarily go together. My parents were like many, many Filipinos and many people who lived in former colonies. They were almost worshipful of our colonizers.

Of course, your parents’ attitude would have influenced you in profound ways.
As a kid, unconsciously, I believed that the pinnacle of humanity were white faces, European faces. The faces of accomplishment and achievement and conquest were European. They were the standard that we should strive for. Both my parents lived through World War II, and even though hundreds of thousands of Filipino soldiers and guerillas fought in that war, the only person who they talked about was Gen. Douglas McArthur, the American general who liberated the Philippines. The face of victory in World War II was an American face. Filipinos were the victims who were rescued.

You and your parents were immigrants. How different is life for Asian immigrants today than it was for you when you migrated to America?
I have nephews who are world-beaters. There’s nothing in their way. They don’t have any vestige of colonialism in their brains. They don’t have difficulty getting dates. They don’t have the kind of self-doubt that I had most of my young life. For them, I’m a relic from a different time. And yet, I have other nephews who are grappling with the exact same things I did. My story is their story. So the answer to your question has two layers to it. Yes, much has changed. Things are generally better. But there are still Asian men who walk around the world feeling like they rank very low in this hierarchy of manhood, feeling that they are the most undesired people on earth.

You set out on a search of an answer to a paramount question in your life: What does it mean to be male and Asian in America? Did you find an answer?
It’s the question I began the book with, and the answer I got wasn’t a simple answer. The idea of Asian maleness — being an Asian and a man in America — is undergoing pretty rapid evolution. There are still many young Asian-American men who grapple with the same issues that I did as a young man, because the conditions for them still exist. For example, the portrayal of Asians in cinema still creates these perceptions. In the new movie Entourage, for example, the portrayal of one of the main characters, Lloyd, is the stock Asian character: the wimpy, tiny, feminine Asian character. So the forces are still there and they’re still powerful. On the other hand, it wouldn’t shock me if an Asian-American or an American with some Asian lineage got elected president of the United States within 50 years.

What were some of the most important lessons you learned about race from doing your book?
That we have to be careful how we talk about race. For example, one thing I learned, if you look at scientific advancements in the human genome and DNA research, scientists are finding differences among population groups. But can we really talk about those differences? I say our society can’t, and isn’t ready to have a candid talk about it. There are people out there who will use it to their advantage and inflict some kind of suffering on other people.

Are you talking about the bigots of the world who would use data that shows a distinction between races and ethnicities?
Yes. But I don’t like the word bigots. I like the idea of tribalism. We all see ourselves as members of certain tribes. And one tribe will use information to gain advantage over another tribe, and those tribes very often do align with the way people look on the outside — racial differences. Probably the biggest thing I learned through the whole process is the very slippery nature of the word ‘race,’ particularly how it’s used in popular discussions. It’s a tiny word. Four letters. And yet it means so many different things. There are people throughout Asia, including parts of Japan and the subcontinent of India who, anthropologically speaking, have the same skeletal structure as the Caucasians of Northern Europe. Skeletally, they’re white, but their skin can be as dark as sub-Saharan Africans. The simple labels we have — Asian, black or white — don’t get at the infinite variations of people. Our racial labels can be utterly misleading.

You spent much of your book looking through the lens of race and interpreting your own experience. Now you’re eschewing race as something to use to discuss distinctions in humanity because these labels are limiting and can do harm.
I know. What a ridiculous thing to do.

Why do you want to rid all vocabularies of the word ‘race’?
Because it has far outlived its usefulness, and I think it has become a toxic term. I listen to the news coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland, and they’re still using the same narrative that I heard in the ’60s and ’70s of the oppressor and the oppressed. The racist white cop is a stock character. The black thug is a stock character. If we really want to address what’s going on in Baltimore or Ferguson, let’s think of a different narrative that will lead to a different ending [other than] talking about the racist white cops and black thugs and instilling these ideas in the heads of a whole new generation of kids. I see more places like Baltimore in the future if we don’t change the way we think about these differences in people.

How can we as journalists cover racial issues like Ferguson without resorting to those labels and stereotypes and, in effect, contributing to the problem rather than resolving it?
I don’t have the definitive answer for that. The one thing I know we should do, and can do, is for each of us to be aware of this outdated narrative that we all perpetuate. That’s the first step. I’ve been watching the coverage of Baltimore and Ferguson. I get mad at these reporters. They go back to the same old narrative.

What I hear you calling for is almost a new narrative, one that isn’t going to cover complex stories in simple terms, but will be layered and nuanced and provide a depth and an understanding of the situation that goes beyond the easy stereotypes.
You just said it much better than I could.

As a journalist, you’ve written profiles on murderers and oddballs and cataclysmic events such as Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet you say the hardest and most perilous thing you’ve ever done is look deeply into your own experience. Why?
Because you’re crossing this sort of infinite ocean to get to the other side, to see a glimpse of something you think will finally give you the right answer to yourself. And so you just keep rowing and rowing, farther and farther. Was it Carl Jung who said that the self is the hardest thing to fathom? And yet, despite all this mystical stuff, you have a deadline and an editor saying, ‘Is it coming in anytime soon?’

Did you find the process of self-examination, of really being honest with yourself, of looking inward and exposing yourself, a perilous undertaking?
Oh, yes, on many levels. It was painful to examine parts of myself that aren’t that easy to look at, parts that I discovered I’m ashamed of. And to really spend time there, not just to think about it for an hour. But to spend weeks and months fleshing out and remembering the stories associated with the shame that I felt or the aloneness that I felt put me in a very anti-social frame of mind. It put me in what you could say were mild depressions. Maybe not even mild. I went into some deep crevices and my mood went with me. The other peril is that you could actually tell a story that humiliates yourself, embarrasses yourself for no good reason and alienates people that you care about because you told a part of their story. Those are some of the perils that anyone who is thinking about writing a memoir has to bear in mind.

Going into the book project, did you have trepidation that some of those things you did reveal, humiliating things, would be misunderstood by critics? One reviewer wrote that you had a bad case of penile dysmorphic disorder.
Wesley Yang [of the Los Angeles Times]. I remember him.

How did you feel when you opened the paper and read a review like that?
I felt terrible when I read his review. I felt unfairly ridiculed. But my wife reminded me: ‘Remember, you were ready for this. Remember, you said this would happen. Remember, you were not going to take it personally.’ And it’s true. I knew it was going to happen. But when it did happen, it still hurt. I think most reviewers missed the bigger point of the book. There was so much attention to the penis chapter that they didn’t get my using penis size as a metaphor for size in all things. Size intellectually. Size economically. Size geopolitically. Size in domination of one culture over another. So the penis represented something. The book wasn’t about penises. And yet, some of the reviewers took great pains to describe my preoccupation with penises and penis size. Come on! I think they missed it.

They didn’t get the metaphor?
Or weren’t interested in it. But I have to take responsibility for it. I guess I didn’t write it in such a way that made that metaphor clear. Of all the chapters, the most important chapter was the one on “wen wu,” Chapter 10. That was the crucial chapter of the whole book. But no one ever brings it up. I wish I could write it over and make it better.

You wish you could write the wen wu chapter over again?
Yes, because it didn’t seem to make an impact on people. None of the reviewers mentioned it. The Western conception of the Asian male as weak or wimpy is because of wen wu, the philosophy that proscribes a certain formula for manhood that idealizes restraint. Restraint from using violence is a much more powerful thing than actually using violence. But to the people in the American West who ran into these Asian men, they thought, ‘They must be wimps.’ It was a misreading of Asian maleness. Do you see what I’m saying? The Asian men who came here were living up to the Asian ideals of manhood. But they were not the same as the Western ideas of manhood. And so it was easy to say, ‘Those chinks must be weenies.’

I can certainly see why reviewers would have a field day with your penis chapter and ignore the more complex issues of wen wu.
If you were a magazine editor and you had a choice, what headline would you use: a headline that contains the word penis or a headline that contains the word wen wu?

When you spend a chapter talking about penises, anybody reading your book would assume you actually did rip yourself open and told it all in a raw, unfiltered way. And yet you say you gave the PG version. So what did you hold back?
I held back lots and lots of details. You only have a certain amount of space. Chapter 8, the penis chapter as my friends call it, was quite a bit longer. In fact, originally there were two chapters (on penises). It has more to do with, not the penis, but with love in general. Romance. And that I winnowed down quite a bit. My editor, thankfully, saved me from myself.

How did you decide what details to leave out and what to leave in?
I had one rule: ‘What can I live with?’ So I didn’t want to write anything that would dishonor my father too much. I didn’t want to write anything that would alienate and embarrass any of my family members. So I left out details that I think might have caused that.

What about the chapter “Seeking Hot Asian Babes,” and the next chapter titled “Babes Continued?” What motivated those two chapters?
I didn’t want to be the whiny Asian man saying ‘Poor me!’ Part of the reason for writing those chapters about Asian babes was to bring up the idea that Asian women have it just as hard or harder. It’s just that their challenges are different.

It’s one thing to write about your own experience, quite another thing to write about someone else’s experience. What were the challenges of doing that, of writing about women?
I spoke to a lot of Asian women, including my sisters, Asian-American women, colleagues. I had to write what I could live with. That chapter could have been rated R or X, too. But it was PG in the sense everyone could read it.

Did you allow any of your sisters to read the chapter before it was published to get their input?
No. I talked to them about it. They all had different responses. Two sisters got slightly defensive explaining to me why they married white guys. One sister said, ‘I just thought Asian guys weren’t interested in me.’ I have other sisters who, every time they find a hot Asian guy on the Internet, they send me the picture with a note that says, ‘See?’

Why are your sisters sending you photos of hot Asian guys — to debunk the stereotype that there are no hot Asian guys?
Partly that. And partly that they themselves notice them, because a great part of the chapter described how many westernized Asian women don’t like being with Asian men.

Would you say that some of the stereotypes about Asian women have a ring of truth to them?
There’s the stereotype of Asian women as submissive, Geisha dolls that live to fulfill the needs of men. Then there’s the reverse stereotype — the ruthless dragon lady who will do whatever it takes to get what she wants. I’ve never met an Asian woman who fits either one of those stereotypes. That’s why stereotypes are something to avoid.

So what’s going to be your next book, Alex?
I fantasize about writing a sequel to Big Little Man. One of the criticisms of the book is that I was much more compelling in laying out the problem and not so compelling about the solution. I think there’s a whole other book about this. I lived an incredibly blessed life. But I had a hard time writing about the good stuff because it sounded self-serving.

So the short answer is, one fantasy is to write a sequel in which I make the tail end of my life more compelling, the part that’s full of triumphs.

But who wants to read that?

Alex Tizon was willing to travel the world to answer the question: What does it mean to be male and Asian in America? He found the answer in the most unusual place: himself.
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