Alex Tizon and Auntie Lola: Rereading ‘Big Little Man’
Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self
261 pp, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – I met Alex Tizon very briefly in 1996 when I was a special correspondent of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It was at a press conference of a Washington congresswoman with only about 5 media people around; a few questions and it was over. My mentor, Ingbert Mathee, casually mentioned after we got coffee: “That Asian guy with the glasses. That’s Alex from the other paper.”
The people in Seattle PI called Seattle Times as “the other paper.” It was, like love, a bit complicated. Both Times and PI came out separately, except on weekends when they shared the Sunday Pages. Of course, Seattle PI would later become a casualty of the newspaper massacre that hit the US in 2007 up to now.
When I left PI, Tizon won a Pulitzer for his articles about Native Americans and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He visited the Philippines after becoming the Seattle bureau chief of LA Times but I never got to see him here.
A year ago, I got a copy of Big Little Man, which Tizon wrote in his search of his Asian self. It came out in 2014 when he was already teaching at the University of Oregon. His memoir started when he was 29, when he came to Cebu to cover a boxing match. It was his first time back in the Philippines after he left the country when he was 4. He lived in Seattle and the South Bronx and then Oregon. He recalled how he befriended his class bully in the Bronx to become his protector.
The book goes back and forth like a thrilling ping-pong game about the myths and stereotypes not only of Filipino-Americans but all Asian-Americans, and his own experience as the observer and the other.
His family’s first experience of White Christmas almost ended in tragedy when they “were nearly overcome by carbon-monoxide fumes from smoldering sawdust logs” as a news story would later describe it.
“My parents risked everything to cross the ocean and live the dreamed-of-life, and in their earliest attempt for the perfect moment almost extinguished us all in the process. We have been, unconsciously or not, extinguishing ourselves ever since.”
In his youth, he wrote about being lumped with the other Asians as Orientals and model minority. In his recollection of his youth, he talked about the My Lai massacre, Vincent Chin murder, and yet he refused to wear Asian clothes.
It was a brave book for Alex to write. Throughout the book, he compared himself with his American classmates and friends, and to his father who left them when he was a teenager and whom he would continue to see even after they both had their own families. He saw himself turning invisible as he became assimilated to the American Dream.
“Here’s what I’m getting at. My own lifelong sense of feeling invisible, and living with others like my father who experienced the same, somehow became useful. I developed the sensory apparatus to apprehend fellow invisibles,” he said when he started his career as a journalist.
“I had already concluded that being Asian did not play in one’s favor as a man, not in this land of giants,” he wrote.
"I had no abiding interest in news, that is, events unfolding right now. I never cared about getting a story first or covering the latest mishap or disaster. But I resigned myself to having to pay my dues by covering the Sturm und Drang of routine events before being granted the privilege to work on more ambitious pieces. In short order, I began writing features, and my editors found I had a knack for the in-depth stuff, what newspapers call 'enterprise.'"
All throughout the book, Tizon wove all these impressions and conundrums of being Asian. “We all, to some degree, absorb the mythologies around us, our vision refracted by the prisms of our particular time and place,” he wrote. He discussed basketball, movies, small penises, and the desire to be big in other ways.
In the last chapter, we learn why he came to Cebu: to cover the “big little fighter in the world.” Yes, Pacquiao. Despite his shortcomings today as a senator, his victory was an apt finale for Tizon’s book.
And then Tizon, at age 57, was found dead on March 23, 2017, in his home in Eugene, Oregon. So I had to reread the book again.
I’m not prepared for his cover essay, “My Family’s Slave,” in Atlantic Monthly. (READ: Slave story of Pulitzer-prize winning Fil-Am writer sparks online debate)
I went back to read his memoir. Where is Eudocia Tomas Pulido? There she was in the acknowledgments, the last to be thanked. “And to Lola, whom I miss every day – I Say Salamat.” (READ: Finding Eudocia Pulido in her hometown in Tarlac)
Tizon hardly used any Filipino words in his memoir, most of them in reference to his father, whom he saw regularly after his parents got divorced.
“My father thought he had failed as a man. He would not accept what I’m trying to teach myself to accept: that he was just a man, the same as most other men. Fearful. Vain. Deeply flawed. Constantly wanting. Chronically anxious. Born on the outside edge of the Garden, and living always with a suspicion of unworthiness. I’ve thought about him more often than I did when he was alive. I’ve thought about our last conversations in those months before his presence diminished to mere breath and bone, and he could no longer hear me. I wish I had told him that the circumstances of his life and much of what he felt were not entirely his fault. Bahala na. Mahal kita. He did the best he could. In the ways that really mattered, he was enough,” he wrote.
Like Pulido, Tizon’s father was cremated and in the publication of the book, he still had his ashes in his house, awaiting its final home in Mindanao. The Atlantic essay opened with the journey of Lola’s ashes to her Tarlac hometown.
Other than the acknowledgment, Lola was hardly present in Big Little Man. She was only cited as stuffing chicken, scurrying around the kitchen and in their near-death fireplace incident, gasping for breath.
He considered her an aunt. “The very next morning, my parents, four kids, and an aunt, Lola, who had crossed the ocean with us, packed ourselves into the Valiant, an open roadmap on the dash,” he wrote early in the book.
Other than that, Lola has become like the invisible people that Tizon loved to write about. His wife, Melissa, was quoted as saying that Alex struggled to write Lola’s story for 5 to 6 years. His Big Little Man came out 3 years ago. He could have added this essay there but it would violate the emotional arc of the memoir.
In negating her presence, he was like his mother who wrote relentlessly, even bequeathing him with two steamer trunks of her journal entries. He wrote, “She noted every time she and my father had sex, and rated her orgasm with a star system.”
In his Atlantic essay, he wrote: “Mom wrote in great detail about each of her kids, and how she felt about us on a given day – proud or loving or resentful. And she devoted volumes to her husbands, trying to grasp them as complex characters in her story. We were all persons of consequence. Lola was incidental. When she was mentioned at all, she was a bit character in someone else’s story. 'Lola walked my beloved Alex to his new school this morning. I hope he makes new friends quickly so he doesn’t feel so sad about moving again....' There might be two more pages about me, and no other mention of Lola.”
Compelling personal story
What made Big Little Man compelling is Alex’s personal story, so much that his style to include all Asian males using historical, scientific, and cultural standpoints gets in the way. “Slave,” for example, was mentioned only in reference to Homerian and African slaves and Japanese sex slaves.
His use of the word “slave” in reference to Lola shocked Americans who had long buried that term in their minds and like Alex, only used for classical references. It definitely shook Filipinos who thought “utusan (servant)” would have been the better word. Alex knew the meaning of slavery in both context and I believed he anticipated all these reactions.
At the start of his journalism career, Alex wrote: “Writing was really the only thing I seemed proficient at, although it always came harder for me than for others, for whom writing seemed to come as naturally as exhaling. I knew an accomplished writer who used to whistle in birdsong as he typed. For me, it was always hard labor involving quiet despair. Sometimes weeping occurred. But I always got it done and would earn mostly favorable assessments.”
He let another person write Lola’s obituary in the Seattle Times and he knew it wasn’t enough. There was betrayal, even the obituary writer said. There definitely is weeping involved in writing Lola’s story but the favorable assessment may not come this time. – Rappler.com