Journalist Alex Tizon

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Tizon examines race and gender stereotypes from the Asian perspective, as detailed in his text, Big Little Man.

Filipinas magazine named journalist Alex Tizon one of the 100 most noteworthy Filipino Americans of the 20th century. He's covered aspects of some of the biggest news events in recent times, including 9/11, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, and written profiles on heads of state, activists, murderers and poets. He's also won more than a dozen national journalism awards, as well as the Pulitzer (for his story on a federally-sponsored housing program for Native Americans). Tizon is on the faculty of the University of Oregon and a former Seattle Times staff writer. His first book, Big Little Man, is a groundbreaking look at the experience and psyche of the Asian American male.


Tavis: Race and gender stereotypes still dominate much of the American experience, but it’s more often than not framed in a Black and white dynamic.

Now tackling this from the Asian perspective is a groundbreaking new text from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and University of Oregon professor, Alex Tizon, called “Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self,” which combines personal experience with a historical perspective. Alex Tizon, I am honored, sir, to have you on this program.

Alex Tizon: Great to be here. Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: I wonder if I might put upon you to read one paragraph that I think will frame – got your cheaters in your pocket?

Tizon: I got my cheaters right here.

Tavis: Okay. I’m sorry I put you on the spot that way.

Tizon: It’s okay.

Tavis: But there’s one paragraph here that just struck me as fascinating and illuminating about your experience through the lens of your parents. I wonder if you might read this paragraph that starts out, “My grandparents bowed…”

Tizon: “My grandparents bowed to the Americans and sought to learn from them. My parents sought to be them. It was part of the grotesque progression. The desire fueled my family’s journey across the ocean leaving everything familiar behind to plunge into a vast uncertainty with little thought of the perils, the final result of hundreds of years of cumulative reaching for the beloved. The fingers of desire struck the match.”

Tavis: There’s a lot packed in that paragraph. I wonder if you might unpack it for me.

Tizon: Yes. Well, I grew up with a certain amount of embarrassment and shame about being Asian in America during the 60s and 70s. I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back on it now as a man in his 50s – I’m older than you.

Tavis: Barely [laugh].

Tizon: Barely, yeah. I see that much of that baggage was passed on to me by my parents and grandparents and by my great-grandparents. It was part of the colonial experience. I come from a country that was colonized by first the Spaniards and then the Americans.

And I think that that sense of shame and inferiority that I grew up with, that I didn’t understand, was something that I was given at birth and I didn’t really understand it until I was much older.

Tavis: How was that uniquely different from other cultures? ‘Cause we could have this same conversation, as I have in the past, about certain Negroes. We could have it about Hispanics, the Latino, the Chicano culture.

Tizon: Sure.

Tavis: What makes that an assimilationist journey, that assimilationist drive or longing, different when we look at it in the Asian culture?

Tizon: You know, I don’t know if I can explain that with any kind of scientific certainty. I can say that the intermarriage rates between Asians who come to this country and whites is much higher between Asian women and white men than any other combination of races.

I think that a lot of Asian cultures bow to the west and look to the west for guidance in how to become “civilized.” So there might be a stronger tendency among Asian populations to unquestioningly seek out to be like the beloved, which in this case were our former colonizers.

Tavis: When you say – that was a strong statement that just hit me right in my heart when you said that many in the Asian culture look to the west for how to be civilized.

Tizon: Quote, unquote, civilized. Yes, yes, yes.

Tavis: Exactly. You got to unpack that for me [laugh], speaking of unpackaged stuff. ‘Cause I love this country, as I’m sure you love this country.

Tizon: I do.

Tavis: But there are a lot of stains on our record when it comes to being uncivilized so that a particular culture looking to us for how to be civilized, particularly in the era that your parents arrived here, there’s a disconnect for me here.

Tizon: Well, there’s a disconnect for me too. I think there’s a disconnect for many of us. It’s hard to understand the reasons why. For example, I have a hard time with the little-known fact that the United States, when they took over the Philippines from Spain, got involved in a war with native Filipinos who wanted independence, and that particular war resulted in the deaths of between 200 or 600,000 Filipinos.

Entire islands were just depopulated. That was the term used, depopulated. You don’t hear much of that. In fact, you don’t hear it ever in history books. I bring this up to my father when he was alive ’cause my father was very much “the United States first, America’s the best.” He wished that the Philippines was the 51st state of the United States.

But I always brought up to him, yeah, it’s a great country, but do you know what the Americans did to our country when they took it over? Do you remember that, Dad? He didn’t. He didn’t know that. Why was that? It was because the schools in the Philippines were run by Americans. The whole educational system was built by the Americans when they took over in 1901 or 1902.

Tavis: You think he didn’t know that, Alex, or did not want to know that?

Tizon: Both.

Tavis: He misremembered that intentionally.

Tizon: I think it was both. I think that his education didn’t teach him that. I mean, he grew up learning about George Washington and apples in the Philippines. We don’t even have apples in the Philippines [laugh]. He grew up all about – you know, he knew all about apples and he knew about how George Washington grew up. He didn’t even know about the historical figures in our own country.

So part of it was learned and the other part of it was just, you know, this deep admiration for Americans and America. He really believed, for example, completely that the United States liberated the Philippines from Japan during World War II and was forever grateful for that.

Tavis: Share with me some of the stereotypes that persist to this day, as I mentioned at the top of this conversation, about Asian men that just, you know, rub you raw in the worst way.

Tizon: [Laugh] I mean, the predominant one is the stereotype of Asian men as being small. And I’m using small in the largest sense. Small, not just in stature, but geopolitically small. When it comes to anything that involves strength or power, that Asian men rank at the bottom. That’s the idea that I grew up with.

I think it’s a prevalent idea in the west and there’s reason for it. There’s reason for it because, in the last 200 years or so, Asia has gone through – Asia was dominated by the west. There have been major, major famines in Asia that have resulted in smaller populations.

Physically, a lot of southern Asians are smaller, so they’re small physically. They were small economically, but that’s changing. They were weak geopolitically which is also changing. All of this stuff is changing. With the economics going up and the political power increasing, that’ll translate down into other things like physical size.

So, anyway, one of the stereotypes, in answer to your question, is that sense of Asia and Asians being small which ignores a large chunk of the last 2,000 years in which Asian civilizations were the preeminent civilizations on the planet.

Tavis: I wonder to what extent you think those changing realities, those changing dynamics that you just referenced, will change the story and the image of Asians, and particularly Asian men?

Because you’re right. Economically, I mean, China is all that and then some. But it’s not just politically. I think, for example, of your countryman who I’m a huge fan of, Manny Pacquiao. I mean, even in the world of sports…

Tizon: That’s where the title came from, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Absolutely. I love Manny. And in the world of sports, whether one likes or loathes him, this guy has, you know, a fan base around the world who is this big little man, you know, who in the ring, more often than not, not always, is knocking people out.

But sport plays such a huge role in our lives. I wonder whether or not you think that even, you know, his success, say nothing of the economic success of China and beyond, will change this narrative in the years to come.

Tizon: You know, I hate to say it, but it’ll actually have a larger impact on the perceptions of Asian men than many other more important things. Athletes have that kind of influence. They’re so visible and what they do is so visual, and it communicates the quintessential qualities of what we consider masculine.

I think that the landscape is going to change because there are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of Manny Pacquiaos that have just not had the opportunity to emerge, but they’re there.

I think that, as Asia changes and as it gets richer, it has more time for sports and things like that, those athletes will emerge and the perceptions of Asian men will undergo – in addition to all that other stuff, it’ll undergo a slow evolution. It may not happen in my lifetime, unfortunately, but…

Tavis: Speaking of the landscape changing, I think in the coming years this narrative will change. But every one of us is on a search for our own identity and this is a powerful text, a wonderful memoir about his own personal search.

Alex Tizon is the author of the new book, “Big Little Man: In Search of my Asian Self.” I’ve just scratched the surface tonight on what is in this text, but I think you’ll find it a fascinating read. Alex, good to have you on the program, and congratulations, my friend.

Tizon: Thank you very much, Tavis. I appreciate it.

Tavis: Good to have you.

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Last modified: July 12, 2014 at 2:59 pm