Big Little Man

“Fresh… searingly honest.”  —New York Times

“Remarkable.”  —Los Angeles Times

“A devastating critique of contemporary American culture.”  —Seattle Times

“Fascinating… covers an impressive amount of ground.”  —StarTribune 

“A deft, illuminating memoir and cultural history.”  —Kirkus Reviews

“Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Alex Tizon offers a well-paced, engaging combo of history, memoir, and social analysis… producing a narrative that moves fluidly between subjects, settings, and gazes.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“This hybrid memoir-history, written compellingly by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and professor Alex Tizon, portrays his life in deeply felt, extensively researched, and question-filled prose.” —Booklist

“Alex Tizon’s candid journey into the shifting and multiplying definitions of manliness and the masculine ideal is revelatory and sobering.”  —Library Journal

“Big Little Man bridges geographical, temporal and cultural boundaries in a seamless narrative about what it means to be not just an Asian American male, but a man in every sense of the word.”  —Hyphen Magazine

A part of me felt unfastened and vaguely put off by the idea that stabbing someone in the face and cutting up his body amounted to proof of manhood. At the very least, whatever gloating I could muster felt temporary and fragile, like a house of cards on a windy beach. Maybe all gloating is that delicate. Something or someone always comes along and knocks it all down.

In any event, I came away from my Mactan adventure with a sense that my floating notions of what made men men needed other anchors. And I became aware of the possibility that I had succumbed to an insidious kind of racial envy, that my secret quest was simply an attempt to assuage a feeling of inferiority that was mine alone. Maybe it was not an Asian manhood thing; maybe it was just a me thing.

This had been forming for a long time. I had begun the investigation long before I realized it was an investigation. It was never very organized or even clear-hearted in its motivations. It felt as much a groping in the dark as an urge to create something new. What I did not know at the time was that I was trying to piece together a three-dimensional puzzle without a picture of what it should look like.

a conversation with Alex Tizon

Where did the title, Big Little Man, come from, and to whom does it refer?

The simplest answer is it refers to me. I’m the big little man in the title. The book is essentially a memoir, about my quest to assuage this racial shame that, in a sense, I inherited from my father, and which he inherited from his father. My family immigrated from the Philippines to the United States when I was four. It’s the story of my struggle as an Asian boy trying to figure how to be an Asian man. In telling my story, I end up telling pieces of the stories of many other Asian males in the West. There’s a shared experience. We all at some point encountered—and continue to encounter—the deep-rooted Western notion, perpetuated by entertainment media, that Asians are at the bottom of the food chain, the weakest, the smallest, the least masculine of men. The book is about my climb up from the bottom, and what I end up recounting is both an interior and exterior journey. Many other Asian men are on the same climb. So, in a sense, Big Little Man also refers to the changing status of the Asian male in the West.

Changing status? What do you mean by that?

You could say we’re on the rise.

In what way?

In every way: socially, professionally, demographically, geopolitically, even physically.

That’s a sweeping statement. Can you speak for all Asian men?

It’s a ridiculously big statement. Also a moot point, which I’ll explain later. And, no, I can’t speak for all Asian men. It’s not what I’m trying to do. In exploring the grand themes of the book, the truest story I could tell was my own. And the most I could do in the book was talk about certain themes that ran through my life, themes that, I would discover, run through the lives of many males whose lineages trace back to China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and so on. What Martin Luther King Jr. said about blacks in America who descend from slaves is also true of Asians who immigrate here: “We came on different ships but we’re all in the same boat now.” To the extent that Asians in the West share a particular and common set of challenges, I can say that there is such a thing as an “Asian male experience.” None of us experiences it exactly the same way, of course.

I can see how this book might be relevant to Asian readers. Is that your target audience?

“Target audience” sounds like a business term, and I’m the least business-minded person you’ll ever meet. I don’t think I had a target in mind. I mean, it would be gratifying if Asians and Asian Americans found something they could identify with. But I think that people of all backgrounds, of every color and nationality and persuasion, male and female – can connect with the deepest undercurrents of the book, which have to do with universal human themes: exile and belonging, shame and redemption, the need for purpose, the search for love.

You devote two chapters to the experience of Asian women in the West. Why did you consider it important to address this topic?

Because I have six sisters. Because I was essentially raised by two Filipino women, whom I consider my two “mothers.” Because I have two daughters, and lots of nieces whom I adore. My own experience as an Asian male in the West can’t be separated from the experience of the Asian females around me. I see the good and bad of their lives up close. They face their own struggles. And I talk very specifically about those struggles. We’re bonded by our common backstories. But I also talk candidly about how our experiential paths diverge, and how – at least in one area: love, sex and mating – the Asian male experience in the West differs radically from that of the Asian female. In a nutshell, there’s a widely accepted notion that Asian women are desirable and Asian men are not.

You include a chapter on physical size. Is this a factor?

Yes, I believe it is. Very short men generally have a harder time in the courtship scene, and in the working world, although you can find exceptions everywhere. People from poor and developing countries all over the world tend to be smaller and shorter than those from wealthier, developed countries. This is true of immigrants from Latin America, central and southern Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe. But the idea of shortness in the Western imagination seems much more associated with Asians. I was as interested in the perception of smallness – its origins in history and pop culture – as much as the reality.

You say “the perception of smallness” as if it were not true. Are you implying that Asians are not on average smaller and shorter than whites and blacks?

There’s truth to the perception, but it’s a partial truth. Most of the first waves of Asian immigrants to the United States came from South and Southeast Asia, and they were shorter on average than white Americans. Famine and war contributed to their shorter height. But people of north, central and west Asia were taller than their southern neighbors, and in some cases comparable in physical size to Europeans. Today, the average height – because of diet, healthcare and so on – in the most developed Asian nations is shooting up. Researchers say, for example, that in one or two generations, the average height of Japanese could equal that of Americans. The same thing is happening in South Korea and Taiwan and in the modernized areas of China. The human body is elastic. Realities are changing, and perceptions will too.

There’s a chapter on penis size. Why did you feel it necessary to address this? And how did your wife feel about it?

My wife thought it was extraneous and a little puerile. She didn’t think it was necessary, for example, to mention how far I could ejaculate as a 14-year-old. She’s such a dignified person, a private person. Sharing intimate details, like I do in parts of this book, is not her style, and it’s not usually mine either. The chapter, I think, corroborated for her what she and a lot of women believe – that the whole penis-size thing is much more a male concern than a female one. She’s right.

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.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

Shame is hard to confront. Even if you know it’s baseless, it’s still hard to come face-to-face with. And then I felt ashamed that I was having such a difficult time – remembering the shame, exploring it, really getting into the crevices of it, and then writing about it so that it makes sense to other people. Dwelling in this pit for the purpose of writing a coherent chapter doesn’t put you in a conquer-the-world frame of mind. I mostly wanted to withdraw and take naps. It was like that for a couple of years. But, ultimately, it turned out to be a kind of therapy. I exorcised the demon to some degree. I came away from the process feeling…unburdened. And not just from the writing process, but from the entire journey of looking closely at some deep wounds, opening them up, and bringing light to them. It brought me to some unexpected vantage points.

What new vantage points are you talking about?

One of the main ones is that the whole idea of “race” as it’s commonly understood can be a real obstacle to healing. I had believed, as a young man, that my deficit and my 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 had 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 race as a concept is really a small surface on the prism, and very cloudy at that.

Can you elaborate?

Race is a troublesome word. I know I have trouble keeping track of what I mean when I talk about race. A lot of us do.  Does the word refer to biological categories or cultural classifications? Political entities or medical classifications? Sociological groups or regional populations? Are we talking about skin color, hair type, nose and eye shape, or skeletal formations? Nationality, ethnicity, political affiliation or geographic origin? Distinct groups or groupable variations on a continuum? Does one apply in one situation, another in a different situation? It just seems like a lot of us change what we mean by race according to how we’re twisting the kaleidoscope on that particular day.

It sounds like you’ve become “post-racial.” 

Yes, that’s the direction I’m moving. Not because it’s correct politically, but because it’s where my personal investigation has led. Still, I understand that in certain circumstances, race can be useful. Forensic anthropologists, for instance, contend that human beings seem generally to be grouped according to distinct sets of physical features, which helps in identifying corpses. Police insist on using race in descriptions of suspects in an effort simply to narrow the universe, and they can show a history of effectiveness. Epidemiologists say that some diseases target certain population groups more than others, and in more than a few cases those populations corresponded with recognized racial groups – vitally important to those needing or researching cures.

The geneticist Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, was being interviewed on a radio show. He said something simple that really encapsulated the enormous complexity. “There are two points you can make about race and genetics,” he said. “One is that we’re really all very much alike. Incredibly alike. But you could also say even that small amount of difference turns out to be revealing.”

What’s the significance of his statement?

As individuals, and as a society, we’re always being asked: do we want to focus on the likenesses or the differences? We might be tempted to take one side and condemn the other. This is what mostly happens now. The messy answer, it might turn out, is that we should focus on our likenesses – except for those times when understanding our differences can be helpful in making our collective life better.

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