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Author Alex Tizon Examines What It’s Like To Be An Asian-American Man

As a boy growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, Alex Tizon was well aware of a racial hierarchy that existed, a hierarchy that put him, a Filipino immigrant, at the bottom. 

His parents admired white Americans and all things western. Tizon once caught his father massaging and pinching his nose to make it sharper and narrower, and less round and Filipino-looking.

“I took it a step farther,” Tizon said. “I used to put clothespins on my nose.”

Tizon used to hang on pull-up bars in an attempt to get taller. One’s physical size in this country —“the land of the giants,” as his father liked to say — was linked to one’s worth.

Credit Courtesy of Alex Tizon.
The author at age 4.

But Tizon was a short, brown-skinned man constantly mistaken for anything but Filipino. And the images he found in popular culture weren’t helping his self-esteem.

“Everything I saw on TV, in the movies, in books corroborated the sense of Asian men being less manly, less masculine than other men,” he said.

So Tizon sets out to figure out how he fit in the world. And his own personal investigation of manhood, specifically what it means to be Asian American and a man, is the subject of his new, deeply-reported memoir, “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self.”

A former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, a longtime Seattle Times journalist and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, Tizon now teaches at his alma mater, the University of Oregon in Eugene. It was in college where Tizon butted up against one of the most painful stereotypes he says all Asian men encounter: that they aren’t sexually attractive.

“I think Asian men, for the last couple of hundred years in the West, have been seen as not desirable, which is the opposite of what a lot of Asian women experience,” he said.

Reporting trips sent Tizon to Asia where the author searched for “examples of men in history, men that I could aspire to be.”  He learned about Zheng He, “the Chinese Columbus,” and Lapu-Lapu, who helped defeat Ferdinand Magellan’s invasion of the Philippines.

“Part of what I was looking for was my own worth as a man,” Tizon said.

Back in the U.S. he met a pair of politicians, first Ben Cayetano, the governor of Hawaii, “who was darker than I was,” said Tizon.  

“He was browner than I was. He had the same Asian face that I had. And I marveled at him,” he said.

A few weeks later, Tizon shook hands with Gov. Gary Locke of Washington.

“And these were formidable men,” Tizon said of the two elected officials. “And that made an impression on me.”

There’s now a new generation of Asian-American men, the students Tizon teaches in Oregon. They’ve grown up in a more accepting country, he says, with many more visible role models around them. The word Tizon uses is “limitless”; these are men who regard themselves as having limitless potential.

That notion wasn’t something palpable when he was their age. And it was torture figuring out how he mattered and belonged. The struggle to belong “is really what my book’s about,” Tizon said. It’s that universal struggle. His just happened to be couched in race.

Alex Tizon will read from his book on  June 18 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Books and on June 19 at Edmonds Bookshop.