The Puzzle of Manhood: “Big Little Man” by Alex Tizon

Alex Tizon’s Little Big Man: In Search of My Asian Self, a blend of memoir and cultural criticism, explores the question of how to be(come) an Asian-American man when Western ideals of masculinity and stereotypes of Asians are so often opposed.

The book caught my eye when I was browsing my library’s e-collection. What pushed me to borrow it was reading Lia Silver’s Prisonerwhose werewolf hero DJ isn’t the usual alpha (stereo)type, and is also, like Tizon, a Filipino-American man. I’m not sure that’s a coincidence. I thought Silver was deliberately playing with/against romance’s alpha hero archetype, and writing an Asian hero (rarely seen in genre romance) might have been part of that. Reading Tizon’s thoughtful account of his struggle to define himself as a man in a culture whose ideal of “manliness” often makes him feel excluded, I thought a lot about genre romance’s own narrow vision of what it takes to “be a man.” 

Tizon’s book can be meandering, circling back topics he’s discussed earlier, and I didn’t always feel there was a clear point to his chapters. But this is partly deliberate, as he explains in his author’s note:

The intent was to chronicle a mostly interior journey while staying true to exterior events, a tricky endeavor given the way most transformative experiences happen with no clear beginning and ending. . . . The truest story I could tell in relation to the grand themes of this book was my own. I do identify patterns and occasionally make statements that sweep broadly, but I don’t speak for anyone else.

Many of the broader observations here are pretty familiar: for instance, the way that Asian men in film and TV are either servants or villains–small, weak, devious, subservient, definitely not sexy (the opposite of “manly,” in other words). What made the book engaging for me were Tizon’s reflections on his personal experience of this cultural image.

He’s very good at making meaning out of his personal history, like the time his family almost died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a Christmas fire in their fireplace:

Unlikely that a newspaper story would say that a . . . family [was] almost killed by carbon monoxide fumes caused by centuries of colonial oppression and the subsequent cumulative yearning for an equal share of paradise. But the metaphor has worked for me on another level. 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 and not, extinguishing ourselves ever since.

At the same time, he is aware that the metaphorical narratives he constructs to make sense of his life might be false and constraining: is it really true that he’s struggled to “become a man” because he’s never American enough? Or is that the place he’s put frustration and self-doubt experienced by many young people?

I thought that Tizon effectively tackled the question of whether Asian women have it worse or better than Asian men: both, he concludes. If Asian men are despised because they are “feminized,” Asian women are often prized for the same reasons. This has its benefits, in Tizon’s view: he points out that there have been women Asian-American news anchors but no men, and describes how his mother, often helped by white male superiors, forged ahead in America, while his father struggled. As an Asian-American female friend tells him, it might be better to be wanted than to be ignored, even if you’re wanted for stereotypical reasons. At the same time, Tizon is well aware that Asian women are doubly oppressed, and he talks about things like sex tourism and the cost of not living up to the submissive, subservient feminine stereotype.

Although I admired a lot in these intersectional chapters, I also found the focus on sexual desirability became wearisome. Did the book need a chapter on penis size anxieties? (On the other hand, who am I, a woman, to tell any man what the contours of his definition of masculinity should be?). There was a potential whiff of Nice Guy™ syndrome about Tizon’s discussions about how white men want Asian women, but no one wants an Asian guy. On the other hand, there’s some truth to it–and he’s aware that maybe he’s using this as an excuse.

Despite all I found to like and interest me here, I was disappointed that Tizon didn’t use his own story more to challenge or broaden the narrow idea of “Western masculinity” presented at the book’s start: the strong Alpha male; socially and sexually dominant and desired; the boss who’s the biggest and loudest in the room. My favorite chapters were those near the end where he does begin to question this definition as he gets older. He talks about the Confucian ideal of wen wu, for instance, the man who is both scholar and warrior (and whose wisdom is prized above his physical skills). And as he gets older, he finds men he admires for their compassion, like those working with the youth gang members he reports on–although he comments that such men “enact their compassion in a distinctly masculine way: venturing into dangerous territory, exposing themselves to high risk.” How much broader is this vision of manhood, really?

It’s not entirely fair, of course, to wish that Tizon had written a different book: his project was confronting the Western idea of manhood and finding a place for himself within or alongside it. But at the end, when he imagines a broader vision of manhood that includes Eastern values like intelligence, I kept thinking “but those have been there in Western manhood all along!” Creativity, compassion, intelligence, faith–many heroes of Western culture have these qualities. They aren’t all John Wayne and James Bond, lovers and fighters, or not just those things. To focus on recent popular culture (and only certain aspects of that) limits the view of masculinity. These are the same kind of limits I see many genre romances placing on what a man can be. In reality–and in our stories, too–men have always been more; our culture has always valued a wider array of male qualities than the strong provider/protector.

Despite some frustrations, I found this an engaging and thought-provoking book. Up next in my non-fiction queue, perhaps to counteract all that manliness: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.





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6 Responses to The Puzzle of Manhood: “Big Little Man” by Alex Tizon

  1. lawless says:

    I was interested enough in this book to check the library only to find out that someone else has it at the moment. I’m sorry it’s unfocused, but as the daughter of an Asian man I’m interested in what Tizon has to say.

    Not only do Asian men look “feminine” to Western eyes, and are perceived as such by them per recent research, pop culture doesn’t consider them suitable for romantic relationships. A notorious example is Jet Li’s failure to kiss Aaliyah in the movie Romeo Must Die because test audiences reacted badly to physical contact between them. How much that had to do with her ethnicity, I don’t know, but a movie inspired by the story of Romeo and Juliet that denies them any physical connection is a strange creature indeed. I therefore consider Tizon’s angst over not being perceived as romantic material understandable.

    Also, since Asians stereotypically have small dicks while men of African descent stereotypically have large ones, most gay porn, where the most virulent fetishization of penis size as a sign of masculinity occurs, features black men as well as white men while Asians are considered niche and work for one studio, Peter Fever. Even, currently headquarters in San Francisco, where there are plenty of Asians and gay men, to my knowledge only has one Asian star, BDSM practitioner Van Darkholme. So devoting a chapter to penis size anxiety may not be unjustified.

    Pop culture is so much more of a pervasive and mainstream influence these days that I don’t fault him for thinking as though it represents all of our culture because in his experience, it may. There is so little mainstream support for scholarship, faith (other than the most kneejerks examples of it), intelligence, or creativity not tied to financial success (think Steve Jobs, not writers or artists) that goes beyond lip service. While we may find men who have qualities other than those extolled in genre romance admirable, they don’t fit the outsized fantasies and desire for escapism these books are meant to fulfill.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      You’re absolutely right about both the romantic and sexual ways Asian men are devalued. Tizon makes many of these points and he talks about his examples in interesting ways. It isn’t that I think there’s nothing to discuss, just that these topics were not most interesting *to me* (which is why I say some of my criticisms aren’t exactly fair.

      I wanted less of him asserting that Asian men *can* be tall, athletic, have normal size penises, etc. (that they can compete on “Western” terms) and more challenging of those terms. But I understand why his project includes a lot of the former, and I know my own desire for a somewhat different book is shaped by my self-interest as a white feminist woman, and why should he serve that? His audience is more boys like the one he was than me.

      • lawless says:

        I agree with you that it would be more helpful to challenge the strictures of Western culture. There was an essay on NPR’s Code Switch on a somewhat similar topic

        While I was looking for that blog post, I noticed that John Cho will be starring in Selfie, a TV adaptation of the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady story. That’s a step forward, especially if it turns into a romantic role.

  2. victoriajanssen says:

    Sounds like it was an interesting read. The female versus male stereotypes particularly interested me, in how they both overlapped and diverged.

    (BTW, noticed your link was to a different post than the PRISONER one).

  3. Joopdeloop says:

    Ooh, I just finished Bad Feminist last month, and it was the antidote to a lot of crappy things in the news and at work! It was a book that made me want to talk to it, and when that didn’t work out, discuss it with whoever was at hand. Can’t wait to read your take on it. I think you (via Victoria Janssen?) were the one that got me to read Prisoner, which was good fun (also, my husband is Filipino and I had just hooked him on Patricia Briggs’ werewolves, a triumph since he is not really a reader.) I kinda remember advance press on Tizon’s book – going to have to track that down (maybe i’ll ‘gift’ it to my husband, then steal it back to read.)

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