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Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self

Alex Tizon

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Jun 2014)

The writing of memoirs is a complicated undertaking. It’s not merely a framing of the subject-author’s life; a memoir is itself inevitably framed by the contours of the life it describes. Memoirs of political figures often become reflections on the ways and means of power and politics; those of entertainment celebrities, revelations of turgid gossip and salacious drama. Memoirs of the twin offspring of justice – law officers and criminals – become reflections on the quest for justice in today’s world, or laments to its absence.


So it’s the memoirs of journalists which often contain the most compelling balance of storytelling and insight. It’s an inevitable by-product of the journalist’s central drive: to pursue a story, or to find a story amidst the apparent chaos of everyday life. What’s the story here? What storyline emerges from a life spent pursuing the meanings of society, the questions of reportage and the magic of the written word?


For Alex Tizon, Pulitzer prize-winning American journalist, the story around which he frames a rich lifetime of experience in journalism and reportage is revealed unabashedly in the subtitle of his newly published memoir, Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self. Now an academic, he was formerly a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and staff writer for the Seattle Times. His book is a reflection on growing up in the United States as an immigrant from the Philippines, from which his family emigrated in 1964 when Tizon was only four years old.


An intensely personal chronicle, he recounts his young childhood as an immigrant: from experiences in the schoolyard to the struggles of his parents. His own personal story – and his growing awareness of the significance of race in shaping that experience – is interwoven with discussions of the broader experience of Asians and Asian-Americans in politics, entertainment, journalism, sports and even world history. It all forms part and parcel of Tizon’s struggle to forge a sense of identity in a nation which was still very ill-at-ease with its Asian-American side. And he realizes that tied in with his struggle to understand the significance of his cultural identity, was a complex struggle to understand how it intersected with his sense of masculinity. His book perceptively draws out the complex ways in which processes of racialization intersect with the construction of ‘manhood’ among Asian-American youth.


There’s a considerable body of academic literature around race, Asian-American identity, masculinities and the intersectionality, which renders it all so complicated. The value of Tizon’s account, however, is that he eschews jargon and theory (for the most part) and instead breathes vitality into these complicated social processes by revealing them through the story of his own life. It offers a deeply personal and engaging point of entry into the broader and very complicated social and cultural politics of race, masculinity and immigrant identity.


Tizon’s account is strongest when it becomes journalistic. His accounts of traveling on assignment to the Philippines and China, which combine personal exploration with history and reportage, are perceptive, insightful and engaging.


The accounts of his family’s arrival in the US and struggle to survive likewise offer a moving and engaging first-hand depiction of the complexities and challenges that shape immigrant identity. These insights are equally valuable to the non-immigrant reader, as a potent unveiling of the impact good intentions and beneficent ignorance can have. The indelible and lingering effect of the actions of white Americans – imperceptible to those for whom they are second-nature, yet life-changing and traumatic to those against whom they are ignorantly deployed – is explored in impressively thorough and perceptive detail.


Indeed, as a study in self-analysis and personal reflection, Tizon’s exploration of his childhood offers a powerful deconstruction of America’s engagement with immigrant families. And a poignant one, too. His reflections on his father’s struggles, which appear throughout the book but merit a chapter of their own toward the end, are sharply perceptive and deeply moving.


More challenging to engage with is his treatment of ‘manhood’. This is not necessarily a critique; the intersection of masculinity and racism is a difficult one to unravel, particularly in the present-day. Tizon holds nothing back: reflections on young male sexuality – his own, and that of his peers – are presented in unbridled detail and then dissected for their deeper meanings.


The problem with such reflections, of course, is that the masculine standards and norms against which Tizon and his friends measured themselves (quite literally) were themselves often sexist, misogynist and heteronormative ones. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for young boys denied access to a mainstream sexuality which was itself heteronormative and sexist and, one would hope, on the way out.


But such sanctimonious posturing doesn’t erase the fact that a denial did take place, not because young mainstream male sexuality in the ‘70s was recognized as being problematic, but as an extension of the broader project of exclusion that was directed against Asian American youth. There is, perhaps, no easy way to handle this conundrum, and Tizon’s account is a personal one, not a broader cultural study.


Yet it would be useful to hear his reflections on what lessons can be learned from the confluence of racialized exclusion, young male sexuality, and today’s shifting standards of acceptability in masculinity and sexuality. Similarly, while he devotes two full chapters to reflections on the experience of Asian-American women (a laudable endeavor), they are reflections from a man’s point of view, and inevitably therefore only partial. Yet they serve at least to hint at the depth and power of racialized processes in shaping the lives of Asian-American women (as well as men).


Race? Is that really the best word to use? Tizon reflects on this in his final chapter, discussing the complicated ways one can answer that question in light of the growing scrutiny applied to the term, from biologists to sociologists. He’s come to believe that “…the whole idea of ‘race’ as it’s commonly understood can be a real obstacle to healing,” he explains in an author interview. Race is a “troublesome word”, he admits, and while he finds himself moving in a ‘post-racial’ direction he emphasizes that the idea of ‘race’ still has an evocative power in our society and thus cannot be ignored. It has a power, he writes, that leads “…everyday people in everyday conversations to continue using racial categories for a long time to come – the rest of my life and probably well beyond.” 


The book is, as Tizon explains, “a mostly interior journey” but one that covers a lot of ground. Tizon pursues many routes in seeking to grapple with the sense of shame and inadequacy he felt as a child and young adult, and which took him years to begin to move beyond. He looks at the growing public success of Asian athletes, entrepreneurs, entertainment stars and journalists and more significantly at the impact their public presence and acknowledged achievements have on young Asian-Americans today. He compares this visceral shift in consciousness to his own lack of heroes and mentors growing up, and reveals the impact this has.


He also delves into history, rediscovering the Asian heroes he never learnt about as a boy. He even travels to China in pursuit of Zheng He, the Chinese admiral whose fleet traversed the world making remarkable discoveries decades before Columbus. He gazes up at the statues of the European explorer-conqueror Magellan and Lapu-Lapu, the Filipino chief who defeated him.


Most importantly, he unravels the role such figures play in reinforcing a sense of self for marginalized youth in the US (as elsewhere). Reflecting on his own childhood: “…just the notion of Eastern influence on Western ascendance would have been an affirmation to me as a boy seeking historical fathers and looking for signs of ancestral involvement in the game. Perhaps I would not have felt so far removed from the story of humankind.”


Equally powerful is his discussion of the changing role of Asian-Americans as public personalities in politics, film, television (including news journalism) and the entertainment industry. Here, too, he offers a personal chronicle of how these roles have changed since his childhood, and what impact this has had on him as well as on youth today. “Movies and television shows are magic mirrors, and we watch for the reflections that resemble us. They show us who we are. They give us the silhouettes of identity so difficult to envision on our own.”


It’s through incisive and illuminating commentary like this that Tizon succeeds most ably in using his own life experience to pry open complicated social processes; and his method works more viscerally than any academic text. “Messages hidden in the thickets of a story are the ones that burrow deepest because most of us don’t realize that any burrowing is going on at all,” he writes, on the power of symbolic exclusion.


Big Little Man doesn’t use big language and doesn’t try to explain complicated problems in theoretical jargon. Some might be put off by the simple honesty of the prose; Tizon explains that even his wife frowned on his including some of the more puerile escapades of his youth. But it is a deeply personal telling, and perhaps such blunt honest truth-telling is what America needs more of; rather than couching the pain of lived experience in clinical, theoretical language that distances reality as much as it disempowers those who live it.


There’s a larger narrative here as well; one about how human beings treat each other. It’s one shaped most powerfully by race, but it extends tendrils into other areas of identity and leaves pain and suffering in its exclusionary wake. “So I guess you could say I’ve written a lot about one thing as a journalist,” writes Tizon. “But I hardly ever saw it as exclusively about race. To my mind, it was more about telling stories of people who existed outside the mainstream’s field of vision. Invisible people. Barely discernible beings who lived among us, sometimes right next door, or pushing a cart down the same cereal aisle at Safeway, who moved through life largely unseen because their stories were largely untold.”


This taps into the real accomplishment of Tizon’s memoir: by telling his own story, he has also told the story of countless others. Or at least, he has revealed the complicated stories lurking within millions of other racialized Americans and immigrants. To have the insight and courage to tell such a story undoubtedly places him among those daring pioneers, the absence of which he felt so acutely in his own childhood.


As he says in an interview “Shame is hard to confront. Even if you know it’s baseless, it’s still hard to come face-to-face with.” In this memoir Tizon finds the courage and insight to confront not only his own shame, but that of countless others. In a world where writers take the time to demonstrate such skill and courage, and where readers take the time to read the stories they have to tell, perhaps there is hope for our collective future after all.

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Hans Rollmann is a writer and editor based in Eastern Canada. He's a columnist, writer and opinions editor with the online news magazine TheIndependent.ca as well as editor of Landwash, a journal of literary and creative arts published out of Newfoundland and Labrador. His work has appeared in a range of other publications both print and online, from Briarpatch Magazine to Feral Feminisms. In addition to a background in radio-broadcasting, union organizing and archaeology, he's currently completing a PhD in Gender, Feminist & Women's Studies in Toronto. He can be reached by email at hansnf@gmail.com or @hansnf on Twitter.


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