Alex Tizon

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines as a child in the 1960s. In his memoir, “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self,” Tizon reflects on the immigrant experience of shedding his language and culture in acts of “relentless self-annihilation.” As a Filipino male, he felt he was viewed as weak and feminine and, searching for a more masculine image, he tried on other identities including “swivel-hipped Latin lover, a Puerto Rican hipster, a Mexican street fighter, [and] a Native American soothsayer.” We talk to Tizon about how he tried cracking through Asian stereotypes.

Alex Tizon, author of "Big Little Man: In Search Of My Asian Self," journalist formerly with the Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times and assistant professor in journalism at the University of Oregon

  • Ramon Tinio

    Hey Alex! We are not Asian. We are Pacific Islander, man ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Guest

      I’m Pinoy bro, but also a very proud Asian Man ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Another Mike

    The biggest association I had with Asian males growing up is that they practiced martial arts. Nothing is more macho than the guy who breaks bricks and boards with his bare hands.

  • thucy

    Terrific, charming guest, dealing with a topic that many in the Asian community prefer not to discuss. Also appreciated discussion of inter-Asian tensions, something I hear from Filipinos frequently. Congrats on the Pulitzer, too.

  • Gracie III

    Pretty funny- I am a Caucasian woman in her 50’s- in my teenage years I had the MOST massive crush on David Takahashi- he was so cool- long hair down to his waist great guitarist- beautiful- and I thought really sexy. So maybe Asian men don’t know to ask?

  • K.A.AM

    Being married to a Malaysian-born man for the past 17 years, I learned the new sexy as 1)super smart, 2) MENSA-credited, 3)hardworking, 4)debt-free, 4)well-traveled, 5) well-spoken, 6)well-mannered and 7)very supportive of women’s rights.

  • Steve C

    Look at TV, Movies, Advertisements… Asian men fall into 4 stereotypes… (1) Kung Fu Master, (2) Smart, Nerdy, (3) Asexual…i.e. gay, effeminiate, old, babies (4) Evil… dictators and the like

    Even in stereotypes which are actually “positive” … it’s as if we don’t exist to Hollywood. Case in point… Grey’s Anatomy, where there are no Asian Male doctors, despite there actually being more Asians in Seattle(the fictional home of the show) than African Americans.

    • Another Mike

      My first doctor after my pediatrician was a Filipino. But this was in the Midwest.

    • Alan Dale Brown

      I once heard a joke about the Sandra Oh character in “Grey’s Anatomy”, made by Margaret Cho during an Asian-American Entertainment awards ceremony that Sandra had skipped: “Not only can we be a doctor, we can play one on TV!”

  • Another Mike

    I feel sorry for any guy who thinks Asian women are subservient in any way.

    • K.A.AM

      My mother-in-law has many things to say about me, anything but subservient.

  • Robert

    Alex, I’ve noticed that within the Gay community, it’s very common to see older white men with younger asian men. Any insights?

    • thucy

      Like Allan Bloom and his much younger Filipino lover.

  • thucy

    Tizon’s description of his culturally aloof German in-laws reminds me of my Jewish friends’ take on their Chinese in-laws. I think it also describes some of the minor tensions between Chinese and Filipinos in the US.

    • K.A.AM

      Think: culturally-reserved.

  • jdoubleu

    People from the Philippines are “Pacific Islanders” — not Asians. The Portuguese sailors, Spanish Sailors, etc., changed the demographics of those islands 150+ years ago. (Food, language, etc.) This is like President Obama saying he grew-up as an “African American” in Hawai’i. He did not: more than 80% of people in Hawai’i are multi-racial, from Pacific Islands or various Asian nations. (White people are a minority. Look at the Census Data.) People who are of mixed-race in Hawai’i are referred to as “Hapa” (HALF) in the islands, regardless if they are half-Chinese / half-Japanese, or half-white / half-Korean…

    • ForqiBot

      I believe it’s really a matter of personal identiy and preference. I have.some friends that are Filipino that identify as Pacific Islander while many consider themselves Southeast Asian, Asian, Filipino or the region/dialect they identify with.

      I believe people often view Pacific Islanders as those that live on islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (Micronesia, Samoa, Guam, etc). Even the term Pacific Islander is a western term.

      Technically Japanese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Eastern Malaysians, Brunei peole could also be considered Pacific Islanders if the definition is being on an Island in the Pacific. It’s really a matter of personal identity. I’m Vietnamese. I identify as Vietnamese American and Southeast Asian. I met others that say Asian or even East Asian.

  • bkdnapa

    Did you miss all those movies with the wonderful, smart, strong, sexy and funny, Toshiro Mifune? I watched them (with rabbit ears in the Bay Area) in the 60s onward, on Channel 9. For example:

    Seven Samurai
    The Hidden Fortress
    High and Low
    Red Beard
    The Bad Sleep Well
    Stray Dog

  • Ellen

    I wonder how Alex’s experience in Honolulu differed from living in other places on the “mainland”? I am a white woman who grew up in Hilo, and Hawaii has a very different cultural norm.

    Also, I think positive stereotypes can hurt as well as negative ones. I wonder how many Asian immigrant or Asian American boys suffer from lack of help in Math because of the nerd stereotype.

    This is a great discussion–I hope others are inspired to write about their experiences, and the conversation can deepen and continue.

    • chrisnfolsom

      I constantly find growing up in the Bay Area gives me a very warped perception of how race is dealt with in the USA and many places in the world. Fortunately things are “norming” out as so much has changed in the last 30 years regarding media, immigration, tolerance – generally for good.

      • StCredZero

        I’m finding that the Bay Area simply has a different set of warped perceptions with regards to race.

        • chrisnfolsom

          There is no perfect perception – only warped and more warped… The minute you think your perception is “correct” you start making excuses to protect it – not let it grow and change as it must.

    • Commnt8r

      I’m from Hawaii, but I’m third generation Chinese American. I wonder what you experienced as a ‘different cultural norm?’

      • Ellen

        Hawaii is a place where a white person is in the minority, and thus “whiteness” is not the norm. The language of race is different in Hawaii because the cultural make-up is very different–for example, no one speaks of “ethnic” food, and the word “diversity” does not exist, because the average person is a mixture of 5 or 6 different ethnicities. As you know, it is a unique place.

        • Commnt8r

          I do know, and I’ve been aware of how well that has served me, living on the mainland. Asians who grew up here in California have a very different perspective and view of themselves.

  • Michael Sun

    I was wondering what it’s like telling people what you do for a living. I’m a 1st generation chinese-american and I got a history degree. Anyone who’s non-asian immediately assumes that I’ve had some kind of falling out with my parents because I didn’t become an engineer or a scientist. It’s kind of offensive quite frankly, because it assumes like all immigrants come to America for money and stability. I know my parents came because they wanted their kids to be able to pursue their dreams, not so their kids could do exactly what they did and maybe buy a bigger house.

    • Another Mike

      I had a similar reaction to the children of my Indian-American friends. Every one of my generation was either an engineer or a physician. Yet many of their children wanted to study theater or art. I didn’t think they had a falling-out, but I was surprised their talents were in such a different area.

      • Commnt8r

        I think that no matter what your ethnic origins are, which generation away from the immigrant generation makes a big difference. The first generation has the hard job of being the outsider, maybe not speaking the language, and having to work hard and/or fight for their place in the society. The next generation is usually more assimilated and probably more financially secure, so they are freer to pursue other kinds of interests and careers.

  • sach

    I have noticed these days that many TV commercials show an Asian women and a Caucasian male, but not show Asian males. It is surprising to see how TV commercials reflect the currently accepted or popular cultural stereotypes. On a different note, I am Asian as well, Indian to be precise, but I am not considered “Asian”. I was once told that one meant “slanty eyes” and not “brown skinned”, when one meant Asian.

  • pommydiddy

    In this entire conversation, I’ve not heard anyone speak about the consideration of black women as a dating/companion option for Asian men. As an African-American woman, it feels like this perpetuates our society’s culture that black women Are not considered desirable by other races.

    • Another Mike

      Good point, but the theme seemed to be how he was perceived by the dominant culture. Joshua Johnson did speak of his personal views of Asian males, as an African-American.

  • chrisnfolsom

    Stereotypes go both ways – I have found the stereotypes in other countries are much, much worse in the USA – not an excuse, but we need to work on stereotypes in all communities. There are many Big white men who would like to be more effeminate and don’t have the tools to learn how to explore that side of themselves – giving a society ways to deal with these differences, and making them available is important. If most people were asked about the stereotypes concerning themselves they would say they are incorrect, yet many will use stereotypes against others without thinking….

  • Robert Thomas

    After reading The Sound of the Waves when I was about fourteen, my idea of manhood was very much affected by the character Shinji and by Yukio Mishima.

    I was well aware of Mishima’s troubled, melodramatic life, vehement views, furtive sexuality and violent death; I was more drawn to him at the beginning – as I had been to Gide, Burroughs and L-F Cรฉline – because of his unacceptability than because of his art. As with these others, I came to admire Mishima because of his art and despite his iconoclasm.

  • lizs

    Married nearly 20 years to a man of Japanese descent and cultural issues have been one of the biggest problems in our relationship. You briefly mentioned the discord when you discussed your 1st wife but did not address the problems that the emailer asked about – those of sustaining a relationship with an Asian man. My husband and I have learned, through a great deal of hard work that I, as the wife, have a very specific role, which I was not fulfilling. His parents were appalled when I asked him to change diapers or clean dishes. I am liberal and very well educated but had no idea what the cultural norms were for them. Frankly, nor did he, he was simply raised that way, the “treasured first son”, the hero son. We are woefully uneducated about intrinsic differences in cultures and are then shocked when clashes erupt. A loud, spirited, independent, demanding, and affectionate American woman is in for rough ride with an intense, quiet, and subtle Japanese family. The language barrier is the least of the problems. And while the man and woman may love each other there are huge family of origin issues to “unpack” that could completely destroy the relationship before they are discovered

  • Navi Thach

    My phone cut off when I was on the line with Josh and Alex. So I’ll finish up here. It’s just that I feel that I’m facing up an uphill battle considering all the stereotypes of Asian men – not “manly” enough, not big enough, socially awkward and distant is making my dating life miserable. Granted I don’t partake in activities that I consider stereotypically Asian and I’m not a engineer or a scientist even though I work in IT. And many of my friends are white. While my social life has improved in adulthood, I still wear my battle scars from growing up. I’ve been on a few dates but it’s just so difficult.

    I will also add parental expectations too place a burden on self-identity – my mom wanted me to be “smart”, have Asian friends, get a degree from Cal or Stanford, basically the “model kid”. I was a troublemaker back in grade school and I grew up in the East Bay suburbs 20 minutes north of Oakland. There wasn’t too much of an Asian influence until I hit high school and I tried my hardest to fit in with the “smart Asian” crowd but failed. I floundered in math until I went to DVC in Pleasant Hill and I didn’t go to Cal or Stanford, I ended up graduating from SFSU. I look back at this and I wouldn’t want to imagine life the way my parents wanted me to be.

  • milodunlop

    With all respect, the relatively uninformed level of discourse in these comments reinforces my impression that this topic is VERY poorly-understood even in one of the most liberal culturally-diverse parts of the country.
    -Asians and Asian-Americans are way different. Mainly cos Asians are culturally dominant, but only back in Asia.
    -Liking 1 Asian male doesn’t mean you are fighting the massive cultural preference for White male dudes. The rare exception proves the rule. Treating Asian-American dudes with respect would count as fighting the hegemony.
    -“Asians” is a flexible description, and kind of besides the point, right? Some Russians are Asian, too, no?
    -Asian females and White males is the most okay interracial relationship in the world. Asian-American males and anyone are the most abhorrent, culturally, to America.
    -Asian-American men and African-American women do have the most difficult dating/relationship challenges in America, for complex and varied reasons. It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t mean our ethnic groups can simply “match up” to fill the void, but it should be cause for solidarity. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • StCredZero

      “With all respect, the relatively uninformed level of discourse in these comments reinforces my impression that this topic is VERY poorly-understood even in one of the most liberal culturally-diverse parts of the country.” If you’re talking about the Bay Area, I had a revelation today. When I’ve been various places in the “flyover” states, I was basically in the same category as “white” people. Now that I’m in the Bay Area, I’m definitely “non-white” now. Around SF, there are big Asian ethnic communities, and that means you get a distinct “us and them” dynamic, whereas being somewhere you just look different though you are a native English speaker, you can get this status that’s somewhat like being an educated foreigner.

      “Asian-American men and African-American women do have the most difficult dating/relationship challenges in America” — Definitely!

  • jean

    Great and much needed discussion. Joshua Johnson was an ideal interviewer and added interesting comments and insight.

  • Rick Tan

    I’m gay and totally not the stereo typical “Asian”. I get discriminated sometime by other gay guys who only date Asian saying that I’m not what they are looking for… these “rice queens” or even “sticky rice queens” say that I’m too tall or has “white features” despite me being half Mongolian and half Chinese, and telling me that I’m not Asian enough. Is there such a thing as “not Asian enough”? All I can do sometime is LOL

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