The fascinating story of American masculinity continues to unfold. In his new memoir, “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon takes readers on a highly readable journey by mapping the particulars of Asian-American masculinity. He shares personal stories of growing up as a Filipino-American immigrant and his wide-ranging quest to educate himself out of shame (at his country of origin, his face, his color, his height) and into something better, unmapped and emerging.
Within chapters with names such as “Land of the Giants,” “Orientals,” “Seeking Hot Asian Babes” and “Wen Wu,” Tizon covers an impressive amount of ground, touching on many important trends and ideas that have influenced the identity and social status of millions of Asian-American men, and, of course, women.
In the chapter “Orientals,” Tizon is 12 years old and living in the Bronx in the ’70s (and by the time he is a senior in high school, his immigrant family of eight will have “U-Hauled it coast to coast twice,” with Alex having attended eight schools) and tells a story of a tense, potentially life-threatening encounter with another kid in his neighborhood. He writes that “later that night the encounter came back to me, swirling in the brew of my thoughts and keeping me awake. What most agitated me was not the belligerence or the gun in my face but the fact he’d called me Chinese. … I loathed the idea of being indiscriminately lumped in with all the other short, skinny, black-haired people of the world. It was another form of disappearance.” This motif of disappearance is an important one, which Tizon traces convincingly through the memoir. It is especially moving as it relates to his father — his struggles to support his family and fulfill his role as a man.
Tizon takes us to the Philippines, to where Magellan declared “holy war” on the inhabitants of Mactan; to inside his family’s first American house, where it could not have been easy to expose to readers his “parents’ adulation of all things white and Western and their open derision of all things brown or native or Asian”; to recent statistics on interracial dating and marriage patterns, and beyond to identify shifting points in the matrix of Asian-American identity.
As a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, Tizon honed his investigative skills and his shaping of narratives about immigration, race and community, but as he writes in the Author’s Notes, “the book is more a series of reflections. The intent was to chronicle a mostly interior journey while staying true to external events.” This personal narrative of self-education and growth will engage any reader captivated by the sources of American, and Asian-American, manhood — its multitude of inheritances and prospects.
Sun Yung Shin is a poet and writer in Minneapolis.