The classic tale of a boy becoming a man is a popular one. Each time the settings, the conflicts, the lessons shift and change, but at its core there’s the protagonist in search of what it takes to be a man. Alex Tizon’s Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self is another retelling, this time in the lens of a Filipino boy coming to the states with his family, growing up, being able to learn what is manliness, and how it affects the relationships around him.
In case the name does not ring any bells, one of Alex Tizon’s biggest articles came months after his death. It detailed the life of his lola, a woman who was given to his family to work around the house much like a slave. This posthumous article had a lot of reactions, since it touched on a lot of aspects of Filipino family culture with the intersection of America and slavery. I related to my own memories with a lola, a family friend of ours who would watch after us when me, my brother, and sister were young and growing up. Curious for more, I picked up his book to see how he told his own story.
I was surprised to find the first half of the book a chore to read. The tales of racism in the beginning were familiar, but the powerless was frustrating to process. There’s a certain despair exuded in the childhood Alex talks about, often paired with stories of his father fighting back against the oppression he faces. It was the despair that disturbed me, symptomatic of a weak Filipino Identity. In some chapters, it was infuriating. Why would you not put faith in your Filipino identity? Our legacy as Filipinos has been coded in resisting colonizers and oppressors. Ultimately, I sympathized with Alex, since I benefited from a beneficial environment that simply wasn’t available to him.
The shift in Tizon’s book occurs when he learns about Zheng He, and discovers the concept of wen wu. I find it interesting that he chose this man to begin his discovery of masculinity and Asian identity and not a historical Filipino figure. In his defense though, Filipinos seem to be harder to find in history. It took me until college to learn about the stories where the heroes looked like me. One of the famous examples are Filipino farm workers, who would eventually begin the grape strike in Delano. Their perseverance as well as their resilience inspire me to continue in developing my identity. It appears that Alex makes an intellectual connection to Zheng He and his philosophy of masculinity, whereas I made an emotional connection to the Filipino Farm workers. The end result is the same, using history to inspire oneself to greater heights.
This inspiration manifests completely when Alex’s father is on his deathbed, and how he understands the pressures that his father had to live up to and how. It’s not really a forgiveness, I see it as an expression of empathy, to understand that he was not equipped to handle American society in the 60s. I also think of the relationship between me and my own father. We don’t exactly have long conversations about life or philosophy. They mostly stick to how my car is running. Rightfully so, he’s spent much time teaching me how to drive, and driving back and forth from college. It’s probably the defining thing we have in common. And that’s fine — Being able to accept your father’s flaws is important aspect of manhood. The fact that my dad was unable to teach me things about technology, courtship, or certain things in life does not make him any less of a man. In fact, I respect the things that he was able to accomplish in life, which includes raising me and my siblings.
Towards the end of the book, there are quite a few rays of optimism with the burst of Asian athletes, from Manny Pacquiao’s march through the boxing world, the emergence of Linsanity, even to the frenzy created by collegiate Asian athletes. Such praise felt a little too rosy, although that this was published in 2014, well before the emergence of the alt-right, and the election of Donald Trump. Tizon himself would pass shortly after the inauguration. I ponder how Tizon’s writing would change in this era of race relations. How would he have reacted to the current state of journalism and race relations? I can imagine his tone shift as he interviews the ones most affected by the aggressive climate towards Asians.
It’s also at this point in the book that Tizon also points out the implicit hierarchy between Asians. Specifically how Filipinos have been considered a servant class for the other, upper class Asians. I’ve had friends who traveled abroad for work and were mistaken for being domestic workers at the hotel. If there is to be any hint of any Pan-Asian movement, we need to take a hard look at this hierarchy and establish equality and parity among ourselves.
Tizon has a natural talent for drawing the story from others. Naturally, this extends into sharing his experiences in life. I especially recommend this book for those in search of an Asian masculine identity. He and I definitely didn’t walk the same path, but he was still able to inspire exploration in what makes an Asian man in this day, age, and society.