Subtitled “In Search of My Asian Self”, Alex Tizon’s new memoir deftly covers many of the popular topics I’ve written about on this blog. Yellow fever? Check. The challenges of Asian men in the dating world? Check. Hollywood’s harmful stereotypical portrayals of Asian men? Check. The myth that Asian men have small penises? Check. Discrimination against Asians (especially Asian men)? Check. Asian male role models that make us proud? Check. Big Little Man considers just about everything about Asian masculinity in the West in one fantastic book, which is one of the reasons I adore it.
But what I love most about Big Little Man is how Tizon tells the story. He’s painfully honest about his own struggles with things such as identity and feeling inferior in an America that has traditionally marginalized Asian men. He also keeps you turning the pages with his superlative writing and storytelling skills, which is where his journalist credentials especially shine through (Tizon received a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1997).
Ultimately, this is a memoir I’ll cherish for years – and chances are, you will too. You must read Big Little Man. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to peruse its compelling pages again and again.
During his 20 years as a journalist, Tizon worked first for the Seattle Times and then the Los Angeles Times. A graduate of the University of Oregon and Stanford, he now teaches journalism at the University of Oregon. You can learn more about him and his writing at AlexTizon.com.
In this interview with Alex Tizon, I asked him all about Big Little Man – from what it was like writing about yellow fever and his own insecurities about penis size, to what he thinks it’s going to take for Asian men to be seen as desirable romantic partners.
You offer one of the most devastating critiques of Western men with yellow fever seeking Asian women that I’ve ever read. While you acknowledge at the end of the book that you’re now more accepting of these relationships, for a time this phenomenon actually angered you. How did it feel to revisit your past feelings on this issue?
It didn’t feel very good. It felt terrible, actually. And the feeling wasn’t limited to just this phenomenon. The writing process itself is painful to me, and when you combine it with the probing and remembering that were required to tell the story, the whole enterprise at times seemed too much to bear. Remembering the sense of exile that I felt as a young man actually recreated the feeling of exile. Remembering the indignation I felt upon seeing rich old white men buying the affections of impoverished 15-year-old prostitutes in the Philippines filled me once again with anger and resentment, and I walked around that way. It put me in a snarly mood. I wasn’t fit to be around people. I withdrew and took a lot of naps. I really hope my next book won’t be such a torture.
In your memoir, you courageously confront the pernicious “small penis” stereotype of Asian men in part by sharing your own very personal and intimate experiences. When I was reading this section of your book, I almost often felt as if I was sneaking a peek at your diary! What was it like writing so honestly about something most men would never dare to discuss?
People are surprised to hear that it wasn’t that difficult to do, really. There were sections of the book that were much harder to conceptualize and write about. If I were thirty years younger, I might not have been able to write about this topic because of adolescent ego and vanity that are still so powerful at that age. But I’m in my 50s, with a respectable record of romances, and am happily married. I’ve sufficiently proven myself, at least in my own mind. My insecurities have moved on to other areas.
The challenge in writing the penis chapter was to do it in a way that elevated the discussion, at least a little, from the junior high locker room level to something that addressed the symbolism of the subject. I don’t know if I succeeded. My wife thought the chapter was extraneous and a little puerile. In my defense, I was more interested in exploring what the penis represents in the various mythologies about race. It would be incomplete to talk about the Asian male experience without addressing the idea of his mythically small penis, just as it would be incomplete to talk about the black male experience without addressing his mythically large one. These myths exert social force. Both myths are hollow, of course. “Asian” covers too many people over too large a swath of geography, as does “black” or “African.” The riotous diversity in those swaths! When you make simplistic generalizations about such immense sections of humanity, you’re bound to be wrong half the time. Nevertheless, the myths endure.
You devote an entire chapter to exploring Asian men in American TV and the movies, from the embarrassing stereotypes to “yellowface”. It’s one of the most comprehensive takes on this subject that I’ve encountered. How do you feel about the state of the Asian man in American movies and TV for this year?
There are promising signs. ABC will have two primetime comedies this fall starring Asian leads, including one, Selfie, in which actor John Cho plays a lead role, and some predict a romantic lead role. We’ll have to wait and see if that pans out. There’s Steven Yeung on The Walking Dead, and Daniel Dae Kim in Hawaii Five-O; both of those are supporting roles but good ones.
Cultural habits are hard to break, though. One show on TBS, 2 Broke Girls, that was called by the New Yorker as “so racist it’s baffling,” features an Asian male character straight out of KKK central casting: a diminutive, sexless, bumbling, language-challenged restaurant owner who is a constant butt of jokes, and he takes it like a true spineless loser. He’s the 2014 version of Lloyd Lee on Entourage, and Hop Sing on Bonanza. White America needs at least one per generation to remind itself that, oh yeah, this is what we think of Asian men. Chop Chop!
A few weeks ago, I watched a movie called Edge of Tomorrow in which the lead character was played by Tom Cruise. I like Tom Cruise. But the movie was based on a Japanese graphic novel, written by a Japanese author, in which the lead character is Japanese. There’s another movie coming out soon – same situation, based on a novel out of Japan, but the lead role was given to blonde, green-eyed Garrett Hedlund, who I’m sure is a terrific actor. When Hollywood starts casting Asian men in roles originally conceived as Asian men by writers who are also Asian men, then I’ll know we’re making real progress.
Regarding your romantic life as a young man in college, you wrote, “My sense was female eyes did not see me…I was undesirable.” The three distinguished young Asian men you profile in your book, who you single out as examples of progress, also admit to challenges of dating at universities where most women are white. What do you think it’s going to take for Asian men to be seen as desirable partners?
Time. And a re-positioning of the world order, which is happening as we speak. Desirability in men is so often tied to power. As Asian nations and diasporas, and Asian Americans, both male and female, continue to accrue power – economic, social, political, corporeal – the more appealing they’ll become, and the more influence they’ll have in affecting ideals of beauty and desirability, which will be redrawn in their likeness. It’s a matter of time. Of course I’m talking about historical time: decades and generations rather than weeks and months.
While your entire book is an incredibly fascinating portrait of Asian manhood, I especially enjoyed your chapter on the Chinese concept of Wen Wu (文武) as it relates to masculinity: “For the past two thousand years in China, you could not be merely a tough guy to be considered an ideal man. You also had to be scholarly, poetic, and wise. The manliest of men were philosopher-warriors, and more philosopher than warrior. A cultivated mind was more highly esteemed than big biceps or deft swordsmanship.” How did it feel to discover this tradition of masculinity, and that it had such a long history?
It really put in place a missing piece of the puzzle for me. But it was more a sense of re-discovering it rather than discovering it. Because I grew up with it in my family, only I didn’t realize it at the time. We didn’t have the language for it, nor sufficient knowledge of our own history. But when I realized that the dynamics of our family, specifically the ones that shaped my father and brothers, were part of an old tradition of masculinity (I like the way you put that: a tradition of masculinity) that went back to the ancient Chinese, whose teachings influenced the whole continent, it made sense of things I’d been trying to figure out. It also liberated me in a very real way. I was freed to be the man that I was raised to be.
You write briefly about your first marriage to a white woman, which ended in divorce. You stated, “I don’t believe our ethnic and racial backgrounds played a huge role in our breaking apart, but they may have played a role.” How much do you think ethnic and racial backgrounds matter in relationships?
I have to believe that it will matter in different ways and in different intensities for different couples. I can really only speak to my own experience, and I’m more and more believing that I underestimated the influence, on a subconscious, molecular level, of our families or, as I put it in the book, our clans. I think the Emerson quote I use in the book, that we’re each a quotation from all our ancestors, is true. The wider the gulf between our ancestors, the greater the potential for disconnect in present-day relationships.
But I also know of a few interracial and interethnic marriages that are as solid as any I’ve encountered. They make it work. They do the impossible work of bridging impossibly wide gulfs. And let’s face it, the gulf between men and women everywhere and in all times can seem impossibly wide. But these couples seem to have what it takes for any couple of any background to last a long time: humility, deep friendship, an ability to create a spark now and then in some area of life. A little luck doesn’t hurt either.
You write about initially feeling uncomfortable with being lumped together with all the different ethnic groups from Asia under one label (“Oriental” when you were growing up, and “Asian” today), as if Japanese and Filipino is “the same thing”. At the end of your book, you state, “For the time being, and until we collectively move on to more enlightened ways of identifying ourselves, I guess I am an Asian guy.” What do you think would be a more enlightened way to identify ourselves?
Almost anything other than “Asian” or “Black” or “White” would be more enlightened. Nationality or ethnicity or geographic location would be an improvement. Perhaps the more specific the better. I am a fisherman from the Pacific Northwest of the North American continent. When I traveled to my mother’s home province in the Philippines in the early 1990s, I was enchanted to meet people who identified themselves, not as Filipinos or even as Tarlacenos (from Tarlac Province), but as people of such-and-such mountain or such-and-such river. They harkened from a very specific place, and identified themselves accordingly.
I’m watching the HBO series Game of Thrones, which is roughly based on medieval Europe, and I love the way the characters identify themselves with these very long, compound sentences: I am Alexander of House Tizon, Son of the First Men, Subject of the Seven Gods of Hodor, Squire for the Protector of the Realm, Native of the Andals and Ally of the Cebuano Fishers of the Black Sea, etc. I mean, it gets a little long-winded but it’s so eloquent and beautiful and rich, and so multidimensional. Wouldn’t it be great if we did the same in identifying ourselves. It might require the creation of a new language and a new tradition. Might it actually enrich our experience? Because what we name ourselves, I believe, profoundly affects how we see ourselves as individuals, and in turn how we conduct our lives. “I’m Black” or “I’m White or “I’m Asian” seems to open the door to such a limited reality – small and ridiculously vague at the same time.
Among some Indian tribes in New Mexico, there are over a hundred words for sunlight. There’s a word for the light that peeks over a hill in the morning. There’s a word for the light as it moves behind a particular kind of cloud. There’s a word for the sun just as it disappears below the horizon, and so on. You have to believe that their experience of the sun had more dimensions to it, was richer, and more poetic and precise. If we can figure out how to identify ourselves in ways as textured and layered and nuanced, we’ll have done a kindness and maybe come closer to the enlightened approach I hint at in the book.
A huge thank you to Alex Tizon for enlightening us all about Big Little Man through this interview! For more information about Tizon and his writing, you can visit his website AlexTizon.com (where you can also find links to him on social media sites). You can purchase Big Little Man at all major online retailers including Amazon.com.