Race and the Asian Male in America

Book Review: Big Little Man by Alex Tizon 

Alex Tizon's "Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self" (Source: amazon.com)

Alex Tizon's "Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self" (Source: amazon.com)

For Filipinos everywhere, a watershed moment occurred when Manny Pacquiao, with five world boxing belts to his name, defeated golden boy Oscar de la Hoya in 2008. One HBO analyst celebrated Pacquiao as the “Big Little Fighter,” which gave journalist Alex Tizon, age 54, the title for his observant memoir and exploration of Asian manhood and race, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

After earning a master’s in communication from Stanford University, Tizon embarked on a journalism career that began in 1986 at the Seattle Times, where he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and ended as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in 2008. Since then, he has served as an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon.

At age 14, Tizon began clipping articles and images related to race, manhood, power and sex. Now middle-aged with a full file cabinet, Tizon faced the daunting task of weaving into a single book subjects as disparate as the comedian Margaret Cho, the My Lai Massacre, neglected Philippine chieftain Lapu-Lapu and the fleeting sports craze called Linsanity.

At $27.00, or about one dollar per 10 pages, Big Little Man lays out precious insights into attitudes, reactions and other behaviors that have bothered, perplexed and amused Asian men since they first crossed the Bering Strait. It’s personal to Tizon and to us.

“The ideas in the book had been incubating for many years. How they came together into one book is really a series of happy incidents,” Tizon recalls.

“When Manny Pacquiao became the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, somebody suggested I write a book about him. I drew up a book proposal. My angle was to not portray him just as a boxer, but as a kind of symbol of the Asian male in the twenty-first century. He grew up in a world in which he faced huge obstacles, among them the prevailing notion of Asian men as small and weak.”

Tizon shows none of the famous Asian reserve in refuting some of the “mythologies” that oppress Asian men, including having a small physical stature and a Vienna sausage for a frankfurter.

Next Best Thing to Manny

Even an award-winning journalist would have trouble gaining the access he needed to write a full biography of the champion boxer at the peak of his fame, so Tizon improvised. “I could essentially write the same book if I replaced Pacquiao with another character -- myself. I figured I’d have more access to that character, and, hell, he faced the same obstacles, and he had the advantage of being an Asian Everyman, so people could relate to him.”

Tizon also had the advantage of having the intimate diaries of his late mother, Leticia Tizon Cvarak, that included his birth in Manila and arrival in Los Angeles with his parents and three siblings in 1964. Big Little Man also shows compassion for his impetuous father, Francisco Agoncillo Tizon Jr. In his new homeland, the senior Tizon suffered injustices, both real and imagined, and frustrations as a trained lawyer who could barely support his family as an assistant commercial attaché for the Philippine Consulate in Seattle, back when the city had only a Class A minor league baseball team named after a brewery.

The elder Tizon once made the news by nearly snuffing out his genetic line at the starting gate by closing the fireplace vent to conserve heat on Christmas Eve. His legacy survived to include a daily regimen of pinching his flat nose to achieve the aquiline nose most Americans took for granted.

With the exception of Filipinos who progressed to the clothespin cure, nose pinching could be considered an innocuous activity that harkens back to more innocent times. To son, Alex, however, this ritual was not funny: “I’d really like to convey to older generations about the whole nose-pinching thing is the damage they’re doing by essentially telling Filipinos that the body and face they were born with are inherently deficient or ugly. That’s the message that my father’s lesson drove home.”

Tizon asks, “Is that really something we want to teach impressionable young people, particularly in regards to physical characteristics that are immutable, short of surgery?”

Of his father, Tizon relates fondly, “He had the kind of courage that you might call bravado, a readiness to stand up and fight to defend himself and his family and to defend his honor if violated. The courage I most respected was his willingness to risk everything—fluency, self-respect, health, life—for a long-term gain for his children and grandchildren, which is what he did in mid-life, when he brought his large family from the Philippines to the United States. He was almost 40.”

Super Superficiality

Tizon bravely tackles an unfair norm, if not a glaring prejudice, that young Asian men silently endure: A bias among Asian women that relegates them to the status of gofers in a well-ordered coatroom.

In the book, he bluntly states, “Love is usually not colorblind.” He elaborates, “It’s clear to me that what may seem like innocent preferences so often stem from the mythologies that we observe from the society we live in. The fact that pop culture deems Asian women desirable and white men preferable is a big reason why the Asian woman/white man couple is far more common than any other interracial combination.

“These mythologies are so ingrained that by the time we’re adults, they seem so natural, so self-evident and harmless, that if anyone suggests something as insidious and crude as being attracted to someone because of their race, we feel offended. And of course, it never really is solely about race.” Tizon concludes, “The part that race plays is something that many of us would rather not think about in private, much less talk about in public.” 

Author Alex Tizon (Photo by Daniel D. Morrison)

Author Alex Tizon (Photo by Daniel D. Morrison)

An Unseemly Cinderella Story

Tizon shows none of the famous Asian reserve in refuting some of the “mythologies” that oppress Asian men, including having a small physical stature and a Vienna sausage for a frankfurter. (If my silly euphemisms cause you to grimace, be forewarned that Tizon recounts a boyhood competition that would make Wilt the Stilt and his 20,000 groupies blush. Suffice it to say this was not a game Tom and Huck ever played.)

Meanwhile, he boldly exposes the equally demeaning assumptions behind the American male’s frothing adulation for Asian women, known unapologetically as Yellow Fever. This insatiable desire for Asian females has spread overseas and fueled the industrial-level exploitation of impoverished Asian girls, many of them minors, by white men Tizon calls “Mr. Sharpeis” for their folds of excess fat, which remind him of the eponymous dog breed. These desperate girls and women, themselves buy into this myth with the improbable fantasy that a princely pervert will one day marry them and rescue them from their brothel.

A Hard Dose of Reality

Going dateless on a Friday night is trivial in comparison to the fate Vincent Chin suffered three decades ago at the hands of two white males infected by the xenophobic hatred of anything Asian, particularly Japanese cars.

“I describe the murder of Vincent Chin as a unifying event in the 1980s, but the thing that brought people together was that it could have been any one of us murdered that night because the killers didn’t distinguish between Chinese or Japanese or any other Asian nationality,” Tizon relates.

“I did spend a chapter describing the process through which immigrants from Asian countries found themselves in the U.S., lumped together under a single umbrella, first Oriental, then Asian,” Tizon says in explaining Vincent Chin’s murder as a tragic consequence of this generalization. At the same time, he acknowledges the social upside of pan-Asian solidarity in the future: “There would be advantages if Asian Americans could unite, or if Asian nations could form something equivalent to NATO or the European Union. I don’t think I’m optimistic about any of this. I’m hopeful.”

In 2011, Tizon first presented his concept for his book with the title, “Big Little Man: The Fall and Rise of the Asian Men.” As the early title suggests, he notices a change in the microcosm of the University of Oregon, as embodied by Aaron Lee, a 6’1 wide receiver of Korean descent. “Aaron was one of six Asian Pacific Islander (API) players on the Ducks football team. That’s roughly proportionate to the population of Asian Americans in the U.S. (5 percent or about 15 million).

“Definitely,” admits Tizon, “Asians in the U.S. are still on average shorter than white and black Americans, but APIs are starting to catch up. There are more Aaron Lees than the cultural imagination of the West is ready to acknowledge.”

A man’s height is beyond his control, but his attitude can have a stronger influence on his fortunes. “Really, the only thing we have control over is how we conduct our individual lives,” Tizon says. “And it’s up to us to make the most of what we’ve been given.”

Returning to Pacquiao, he adds, “Here’s a hard but powerful truth once accepted: It’s not the world’s responsibility to make us feel good about ourselves. The world doesn’t work that way whether we like it or not. Certainly, we should bear witness, speak truth, comfort the afflicted, fight for justice and equality, but hierarchies of power are usually determined in something akin to a bar fight. You get respect the way Manny Pacquiao got it in the ring. You don’t wait for someone to give it to you. Is the West ready to accept Asia and Asians as equals? The more relevant question is: Are Asia and Asians ready to assert their equality? More and more, the answer to both questions seems to be Yes.”

Pointing the Way

Asian men are not without role models in history and today’s world. While in China’s province of Fujian investigating the deaths of three Chinese stowaways in a cargo container bound for Seattle, Tizon learned of Admiral Zheng He (pronounced jung huh), the leader of the Treasure Fleet whose expeditions reached the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. (The Admiral was erased from the collective memory as Communist governments so proficiently and often do.) The 15th-century seafarer exemplified the Confucian idea of “Wen Wu,” the Perfect Man in which “wen refers to the development of the mind, wu to the development of the body.”

As Asians all descendants of the Middle Kingdom that defined China in its heyday, Tizon sees wen wu integrated into the character of Asian men who possess masculine power tempered by intelligence. For an example of a man who exudes wen wu confidence, Tizon turns to motivational speaker Jerry JT Tran, who fills conference centers with Asian-American men hungering for his techniques to succeed in the corporate world and with the ladies. Tizon says, “He (Tran) created his own largeness. He forged his own way of being powerful that was uniquely and effectively his own.”

In the process of deciding whether to purchase Big Little Man, the shopper may be amazed by the number of online comments that come from non-Asians who are curious about what makes the low-key yet successful Asian male tick. Whether you agree or disagree with his pronouncements, Tizon’s book is a seminal work that should not be overlooked. If you are an Asian man, you will want to know the reason for the funny looks folks give you. And if their gaze ever falls south, you may well be flattered.

My praise is a bit tongue-in-cheek, though the brazen manner by which Tizon conveys his beliefs offers a prototype worth studying. Courage is an admirable quality for Asian men and women alike.  

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela helps families in Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles public housing developments through workforce development and educational programs and grants.  

A Special Message to Positively Filipino Readers from Author Alex Tizon

Some readers of Big Little Man may find it surprising to hear me say that the deeper I went in this personal investigation of race and manhood, the more disengaged I became with the whole idea of race. I had believed, as a young man, that my deficit and 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 have 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. There are more compassionate and more accurate ways to interpret the differences between individuals and societies. I don’t dismiss the notion of race, but I have come to relegate it.

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