In Alex Tizon’s new book Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor explores a complex and controversial topic: identity and masculinity as it applies to the Asian-American male. Tizon recounts his own journey as an immigrant from the Philippines, using that as a jumping-off point to examine the cultural aspects of identity, from the Asian male in big-budget American cinema (despite the efforts of John Cho, he usually dies in the beginning) to questions of “smallness,” from height to penis size. The results are provocative and honest, and I had the chance to talk with the Pacific Northwest-based author about them over the phone.
Flavorwire: You’re covering really quite a bit in this book, which is, at its heart, a memoir. How were you balancing the exploration of one facet of your identity with looking at how it relates into the world?
Alex Tizon: The truest story I could tell in relation to these topics was my own story. And that was the reason I chose that route. A lot of these issues that I talk about, you can find them in academic books. But I didn’t want to write an academic book. I wanted to write something that was deeply personal. And I hope that that strategy of mine – using my own life as an entry point into a larger discussion – I hope that it worked.
Were there any parts of your life that you felt nervous about sharing?
I’m nervous about the whole thing! I’m a pretty private person. Anyone who knows me knows that, and I’ve basically torn off all my clothes and stood naked in front of the world. First of all, talking about shame is a hard thing for most people, particularly men. Shame is a hard thing to talk about. And everything that comes with shame. And I spent quite a bit of time navigating my own shame.
Believe it or not, I didn’t have that much trepidation about the penis chapter. There’s a chapter in there devoted to penises. And I had less trepidation about that than my wife did. My wife – she thought it was silly. And kind of juvenile. And it probably was. But I tried to be as honest as possible – I don’t have anything to hide in that regard. I’ve been married twice, I’ve had numerous girlfriends. And I think 30 years ago, that topic might have been harder for me to talk about. But nah. Not at this state in my life.
That’s the nice thing about age and wisdom and not giving a fuck eventually.
Exactly. Not giving a fuck. That’s exactly what it comes down to. And I don’t give a fuck about that particular issue. I shouldn’t say I don’t give a fuck, but it’s not as important as it used to be. Shame, however, is a hard thing. Even at this stage. It’s a hard thing to unearth, and it’s a hard thing to express in a way that people can actually relate to.
I believe there’s a journalist out there who’s writing a book on the Virginia Tech shooting and the few other Asian men who’ve been spree shooters. And then last month you had –
The guy in California.
That kid really made sure to leave a trail so you could probe the outer edges of what he was dealing with completely. It seemed like, at his heart, there was a lot of stuff mixed up with his ideas about sex and his feelings about his race and other people’s races. And I was wondering if there was anything about that case that you could relate to? That you understood? That kind of teenage frustration on top of his half-Asian identity –
Who can’t relate to loneliness and being an outsider at some point in their lives? I can relate to that aspect of it. But the guy was a psycho! He was mentally imbalanced. And I think it isn’t useful to look at his case and the cases of other Asian shooters through the lens of race. It isn’t useful. It’s more useful to look at them through the lens of mental illness.
These guys were sick people who happened to be Asian, who happened to have that kind of loneliness and isolation and feeling outside of everything. But if you look at statistics – statistically, Asians are still, no matter how you look at it, vastly underrepresented when it comes to murder. Asians don’t kill very many people, even in proportion to their small population. So it doesn’t relate to what I’m talking about. I’ve been asked that question before, and I don’t have anything to contribute to it, because it’s not really about what I’m writing about. The shooters have some Asian blood in them, and they talk about certain themes that I’ve touched upon. But if you look at the backgrounds of all mass killers – whether they’re serial killers or street killers – you’ll find some sense of exile in them. And the race of that person, I’m not sure how relevant that is.
What’s your take on the concept of being “post-racial,” after writing a book that’s very concerned with race and its role in society? How do you feel every day?
I don’t consider myself post-racial. I think what I say in the book is, I’m definitely moving in that direction. I’m moving in the direction of looking at people and looking at the world in terms other than race. And I think that’s actually the logical conclusion that I’ve come to after spending so much time looking at race.
I’ve come to this point – a few decades later – that I believe looking too closely at race and looking at everything through the lens of race doesn’t really help any kind of feeling of reconciliation between people. It adds to divisions, if you look at everything in terms of race. And part of the reason I’m moving toward being post-racial is that I don’t think it’s really healthy. It’s not conducive to healing or reconciliation. But there are certain utilitarian uses for race, which I do talk about a little bit in the book. There are certain fields of science that use race to – to identify bodies, for example, forensic anthropologists.
There’s also the fact that if you look at economic structures in America and you don’t factor in the role race plays in that, you’re just lying to yourself. Wouldn’t you say race has to be considered in that case, in reference to underserved and immigrant communities?
Absolutely. I would tweak your statement in a certain way at this point. I think it’s more useful to look at these ostracized peripheral communities. I think if you’re going to look at them, it’s more useful to look at them in terms of ethnicity, which has to do with culture, rather than race, which is this biological term that often doesn’t apply. I prefer to look at things through that lens. Most people prefer to talk about their ethnic group rather than their race. Because race is too broad a stroke – it covers too much. Who wants to belong to this vague, giant category that nobody even knows how to define?
Asian could mean many things…
If you’re going to talk about Filipinos, talk about Filipinos. But even if you do that, you go to the Philippines and there are 80 different ethnic groups. They’re all different. So if you’re going to make a generalization, I think it’d be better to talk about the very specific group you’re talking about.
What’s your experience with the next generation of Asian Americans, particularly as a professor?
The students that I have in my classes – and all my nieces and nephews are “home grown,” is what I call them, meaning they’re born and raised in the United States — they’re a whole different story. I think some of them will read my book and not relate to some of it, because they haven’t experienced that sort of outsider-dom that I did as an immigrant coming into this country. I hope someday that people like me will be this fossil from a different age, and I think that’s probably inevitable.
I see the young Asian Americans in my classes and in my own family, and I think, “Wow, these guys have unlimited potential and opportunities.” There are still challenges. A lot of the notions of manhood that are attached to [Asian men] and the notions of womanhood that are attached to Asian women, they’re still very present. And so these young people that I’m referring to – they’re still going to face those, and they may face them for a long time. But overall, I see them and I think they’re going to experience life differently than I did and do better than I did.
While writing the book, what surprised you the most?
What surprised me the most is that the thing that helped me most in this search didn’t have anything to do with race or ethnicity. I was looking for a solution in the realm of race and ethnicity. But really, where I found my identity solidifying and becoming of substance was through work and finding a purpose. Finding a way to belong in the world that was useful to other people.
That’s really what did it for more than anything, was finding this purpose. If you find your reason for being and you’re serving something bigger than yourself, that’s helping other people in some way, the other questions just tend to fade into the background. I guess you can call that surprising. It was an unexpected twist in the plot.