Who are we, where did we come from, where are we going? All basic questions humans have always asked and contemplated. The self-queries are especially poignant for anyone who has moved to a part of the world where people seem very different.
Alex Tizon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a longtime staff writer for the Seattle Times, is now teaching at the University of Oregon. In his book Big Little Man, written from his personal perspective in his late teens, Tizon shares what it means to be male and Asian in America, and for that matter, human anywhere in the world.
TIZON: The issue of masculinity and Asian-ness has been on my consciousness for a long, long time. The birth of the idea and the title came from Manny Pacquiao, who’s a boxer from the Philippines, and was called “a big little fighter” by one of the [TV] announcers. I actually thought about writing a book about him, addressing the same issue of masculinity and “Asianness,” some of the stereotypes of Asian-American men. I ended up just writing a book about myself because I have experienced a lot of things in my 50 years in the United States.
STEVENSON: What were some of the issues that you dealt with specifically as you grew up [in the 1970s]?
TIZON: I think there has been a long-running notion in the West that Asia was a continent of people that were really conquerable. That people from Asia were weak, they were small in all ways - including physically small, geopolitically small, economically small – all of which are changing, of course. I definitely grew up with the notion that Asian men in particular were toward the bottom of the hierarchy of manhood. I didn’t think it was even possible for someone like me to do anything terribly great. I actually graduated from high school [in] 1977, unable to name a single East Asian figure who was a force for good.
STEVENSON: A good bit of your book deals with the size issue, if you will, from the perception of Asians being small in stature to the more personal aspects – which I understand your wife wasn’t too thrilled with you writing about.
TIZON: Well, yeah. She thought it was just juvenile. A lot of women think of this issue as juvenile and kind of a male pre-occupation. Yes, there are the sexual stereotypes. The thing about stereotypes as we all know, there is often truth in them, but it’s almost always a partial truth.
STEVENSON: Alex, I can’t ignore two chapters of your book, they come early, one is called “Seeking Hot Asian Babes” and if that weren’t enough, “Babes Continued.”
TIZON: (Laughs) Yes, yes. Those titles are meant as satirical. I spent most of the book talking about what it is like being a young Asian man growing up in the West and some of the challenges I faced. I couldn’t ignore the fact that Asian women and Asian-American women and girls faced their own set of challenges and hardships very different from the kinds that I faced. But it was definitely worth exploring, definitely worth spending two chapters talking about. I have six sisters, I was raised by essentially two mother figures, I was surrounded by Asian women all my life and so I saw firsthand what they had to deal with.
STEVENSON: There’s so much good first-person material in this book, our audience really has to pick it up and read it to get all of the wonderful stories that you’ve written, what specifically would you like our audience to know about right now about your book?
TIZON: Ironically, even though I spent most of the book talking about race, talking about Asians and Blacks and Whites, and looking through the lens of race and interpreting my own experience, I have actually come to a conclusion at the end of the book that race is not the best lens to look at my experience or the experience of other people. I had to deal with the great problem of shame, which, in my life, had formed around the issue of race.
But everyone, at some point, deals with the idea that they don’t live up to some ideal and live with a certain kind of shame, being not tall enough, not thin enough, maybe you don’t have enough money, maybe you come from the wrong family or don’t have enough education. The idea that humanity is divided into these separate and distinct and disparate groups with clear boundaries has been disproven by science a long time ago, decades ago. Humanity really is more of a continuum, and that people belong on the same continuum and there are no clear breaks between these so-called races. I think it makes much more sense to talk about population groups, to talk about ethnicities which have to do more with culture than any kind of biological factors.