MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We recently mourned the death of the poet and writer Maya Angelou. She was known for many things, but perhaps most for mining the details of her life to tell the bigger story of being born black, female and poor in America and the story of how she came, not just to survive, but thrive and love all those parts of herself. Now comes a story in a similar vein from someone of a very different background. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon immigrated from the Philippines as a boy. His parents, like so many, came for a better life. But at some point he realized that so much of what he saw and heard around him told him that what he was, an Asian man, was shameful, weak and at the bottom of the manhood hierarchy. But after many years of thinking about his own story and writing those of others, Tizon found a new narrative, and in his new memoir he tells that story. His book is titled "Big Little Man: In Search Of My Asian Self." And Alex Tizon is with us now from member station KLCC which is in Eugene, Oregon. Alex, thanks so much for joining us. Welcome.
ALEX TIZON: Thanks for having me, Michel. It's a pleasure.
MARTIN: I want to start with the fireplace story. You know, your family...
TIZON: Oh my.
MARTIN: Yeah. Your family left the Philippines, you moved to LA and then - tell me about the fireplace story.
TIZON: We came to a country with fireplaces. And we came from a country, in the Philippines, where indoor fireplaces didn't exist so we didn't know how they worked. So our very first house in Seattle - we moved in. My father loved that fireplace, and he built this roaring fire on a Christmas night. We all went to bed that night, and he closed the vent in the fireplace, not knowing that the logs that were burning in there had been omitting these carbon monoxide fumes, The long story - excuse me, the short story is that on that Christmas Eve night, actually, we all came close to dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. It was profound in that we were having our very first purely American moment. We were trying to have a Christmas. But we didn't make it through - or we almost didn't make it through that night.
MARTIN: It almost killed you. And it became kind of a metaphor for all of you in the family as the years went on. And what you say in the book - quote, our early years in America were marked by relentless self-annihilation, though of course we did not see it that way at the time.
The drama of your lives and your family - the families like yours, is that you were pulled here but then what you found here, in a way, required you to kind of erase yourself.
TIZON: That's absolutely right. I think that that is common to many, many immigrants and too many minority groups. I think that part of the process of assimilating into the larger, mainstream white culture entails annihilating parts of ourselves. But that - of course that word, annihilation, wasn't the way we saw it as it was happening.
MARTIN: One of the big themes of your book is that the fundamental fact of life - of your life as a young Asian man, particularly, was shame. Let me read from the book. (Reading) In the America that I grew up in, men of Asia placed last in the hierarchy of manhood. They were invisible in the high-testosterone arenas of politics and big business and sports. On television and in the movies they were worse than invisible, they were embarrassing. We were embarrassing. The Asian male in cinema was synonymous with nebbish. They made great extras. In crowd scenes that required running away, Asian men excelled. They certainly did not play strong, male, lead-roles because apparently there were no strong Asian males with sex appeal. On the public sex appeal scale the Asian man did not even register.
How did experiencing that - I mean, going back, you know, to early when you first got here.
TIZON: Television and movies were our biggest teachers. When we came to the United States, the Vietnam War was just ratcheting up. And so the Asian faces that I saw on the news, they were the face of the enemy. Asian men, particularly, were either small, ineffective or they were evil. And those messages were deeply, deeply embedded in me for many years.
MARTIN: You know, growing up you kept this file in the garage of your family's house and whenever you found something - what? Tell me about the file that you kept.
TIZON: Well, you know, in retrospect I see that I inherited that habit from my mother who was a great filer. Anytime she found something that she wanted to remember, she'd put it in a file. And I just started doing the same thing when I was about 13 or 14. I started cutting out articles that had to do with Asia or Asians. They were called - we were called Orientals at the time. I started putting them in files, and after some time these files started getting fatter and fatter. I still have those files, and now they occupy several large, tall filing cabinets. Looking back on it, I see that I was trying to find something. I was trying to find my own worth as a man and as an Asian man.
MARTIN: Did you feel very alone in that quest?
TIZON: I felt very alone, only because I didn't know. I didn't know what I was going through and I - so I didn't know how to reach out to other people. But it turns out that many, many, many Asian men go through this very same thing growing up. The Internet has changed everything because a lot of these men are now connecting with each other and communicating with each other and - it's a common theme among Asian men in the West, particularly immigrant Asian men. The home-grown Asians, they're a different story.
MARTIN: OK well, we'll talk about that in a minute. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Alex Tizon. We're talking about his new memoir, "Big Little Man: In Search Of My Asian Self."
What do you think started to change your perception of yourself as an Asian man? It was - what going - was it what was going on around you and seeing other people who look like you making their mark, or was it something within you where you started to make your mark in your field, in journalism?
TIZON: The answer to that is that they were both happening at the same time. I was finding my own way. Started figuring out who I was and what I was good at. Found a thing that I could be good at and make a living at, which was being a journalist. And that really helped me become a more solid person with a solid identity. At the same time that was happening to me in the '80s, the world did start to begin to change and there were these Asian and Asian-American men and women who were starting to excel. I was finding value in me, and seeing Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners meeting the two governors from Hawaii, Ben Cayetano and Gary Locke in Washington, and seeing these new Asian athletes excel - Yao Ming from the Houston Rockets, Jeremy Lin with the New York Knicks, Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines all - seeing these Asian men exude strength helped me corroborate what I longed for my whole life, which was this sense that, yes, Asian men, given the opportunity, can compete at the highest levels in those high-testosterone arenas.
MARTIN: There are more and more stories like this - like yours coming out. I think yours - where people are saying no, this is - you don't really know me. This is what it's like to be me. Why do you feel this is happening now?
TIZON: The first big wave of Asians coming to America in the modern era just began in the '60s. And like me, a lot of the students - or excuse me, a lot of the people who are writing about this and speaking about it now are people who were children in the '60s and '70s and '80s. So we're just coming into our own. And so, part of it is just a timing thing. We started coming in the '60s and '70s. Now we're grown up people with things to say.
MARTIN: How do you feel now that you got it out?
TIZON: Well, you know, I read this wonderful quote by Maya Angelou - actually the day that she died. All these wonderful quotes came up. I'm going to paraphrase it, but basically what she said was that there's no worse agony than keeping an untold story inside you. And that really struck me as pertinent - relevant to me because that's what I had. I had an untold story that I kept inside me. And it was contained and bottled up and it didn't feel so good. That's the kind of stuff that grows like cancer inside you, I think. So getting it out feels better than good. It's almost like a cosmic release for me. The best part of this is the sense of not feeling so alone. Connecting with other people who have felt similarly - other people from other groups - very, very different kinds of people who connect with that loneliness and that isolation and that sense of being on the outside. You know what? We're all in the same boat.
MARTIN: Alex Tizon is author of the new memoir "Big Little Man: In Search Of My Asian Self." He was a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times and a longtime staffer at The Seattle Times, and he's currently teaching at the University of Oregon. Alex, thanks so much for speaking with us.
TIZON: Thank you, Michel.