Small Man in a Big Country

Native language is just the first thing an immigrant family abandons in order to become American.

Tizon family photo, circa 1965 (l. to r.): the author; father, Francisco; mother, Leticia; older brother, Arthur, with younger brother, Albert, on his lap; Eudocia Tomas Pulido, with the author's younger sister Leticia Jr. on her lap.

Our early years in America were marked by relentless self-annihilation, though of course we did not see it that way at the time. Everything was done in the name of love, for the cause of fitting in, making friends, making the grade, landing the job, providing for the future, being good citizens of paradise—all so necessary and proper.

First was the abandonment of our native language and our unquestioned embrace of English, even though for my parents that abandonment meant cutting themselves off from a fluency they would never have again. Possessing a language meant possessing the world expressed in its words. Dispossessing it meant nothing less than the loss of a world and the beginning of bewilderment forever. “Language is the only homeland,” said poet Czeslaw Milosz. My parents left the world that created them and now would be beginners for the rest of their lives, mumblers searching for the right word, the proper phrase that approximated what they felt inside. I wonder at the eloquence that must have lived inside them that never found a way out. How much was missed on all sides.

We left behind José Rizal and picked up Mark Twain. We gave up Freddie Aguilar for Frank Sinatra and the Beatles, “Bayan Ko” for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

My parents' adulation of all things white and Western and their open derision of all things brown or native or Asian was the engine of their self-annihilation. Was it purely coincidence that our first car, first house, first dog in America were white? That our culminating moment in America was a white Christmas? White was the apex of humanity, the farthest point on the evolutionary arc, and therefore the closest earthly representation of ultimate truth and beauty.

 

Americans did seem to me at times like a different species, one that had evolved over generations into supreme beings. Kings in overalls

I grew up hearing my parents' offhanded comments about how strong and capable the Americans were, how worthy of admiration, and conversely how weak and incapable and deserving of mockery their own countrymen were: “They can't do it on their own; they need help.” I heard it in their breathless admiration for mestizos—persons of mixed European and Asian blood—how elegant and commanding they were, and the more European the better. To be called “mestizo” was the ultimate flattery. White spouses were prizes; mestizo babies, blessings; they represented an instant elevation, an infusion of royal blood, the promise of a more gifted life.

 

One late evening at the White House I was playing on the floor of my parents' bedroom closet, behind a row of shirts, when the door opened. It was my father. Instead of revealing myself, I just sat there watching him in silence, cloaked by a wall of sleeves. He changed into his house clothes and stood at a small mirror appearing to massage his nose, running an index finger and thumb along the bridge, pinching and pulling it as if to make his nose narrower and longer. He stood there doing that for a short time and then left, shutting the door behind him. I thought it curious but did not think about it again until a few months later, when I saw him do it again as he absently watched television. He didn't know I was in the room.

“What are you doing, Papa?”

It startled him. “Nothing, son. Just massaging.”

“Does your nose hurt?”

He looked at me, deciding what to do next, and then he seemed to relax. “Halika dito, anak. Come here, son. You should do this,” he said to me. He showed me how to use my fingers to pinch the bridge of my nose and then tug on it in a sustained pull, holding it in place for twenty seconds at a time and then repeating. “You should do this every day. If you do, your nose will become more tangus. Sharper. Narrower. You'll look more mestizo. Your nose is so round! And so flat! Talagang Pilipino! So Filipino!”

“What's wrong with flat?”

“Nothing is wrong with flat. Pero, sharper, is better. People will treat you better. They'll think you come from a better family. They'll think you're smarter and mas guapo, more handsome. Talaga, anak. This is true. See my nose? The other day a woman, a puti, a white, talked to me in Spanish because she thought I was from Spain. That happens to me. I massage every day. Don't you think I look Castilian?” He turned to show his profile. “Ay anak. My son. Believe me.”

I did believe him. Just as he had believed his father when the lesson was taught to him decades earlier. These were the givens: Aquiline was better than flat. Long better than wide. Light skin better than dark. Round eyes better than chinky. Blue eyes better than brown. Thin lips better than full. Blond better than black. Tall better than short. Big better than small. The formula fated us to lose. We had landed on a continent of Big Everything.

One sunny afternoon, my father and I walked to a hardware store a few blocks from our house. As we were about to go inside, three American men in overalls and T-shirts walked out, filling the doorway and inadvertently blocking our path. They were enormous, all of them well over six feet tall, with beards and beefy arms and legs. My father and I stood looking up at this wall of denim and hair. The Americans appeared ready to scoot over. “Excuse us,” my father said, and we moved to the side.

One of the men said, “Thanks.” Another snickered as they passed.

My father leaned down and whispered in my ear, “Land of the Giants.” It was the name of a television show my family had started watching, a science-fiction series about a space crew marooned on a planet of gargantuan humans. The crew members were always being picked up by enormous hands and toyed with. The show's tagline: “Mini-people—Playthings in a World of Giant Tormentors.” My family was captivated by the show. I think we related to the mini-people who in every episode were confronted by impossibly large humanoids.

Americans did seem to me at times like a different species, one that had evolved over generations into supreme behemoths. Kings in overalls. They were living proof of a basic law of conquest: victors ate better. The first time I sat as a guest at an American dinner table, I could scarcely believe the bounty: a whole huge potato for each of us, a separate plate of vegetables, my own steak. A separate slab of meat just for me! At home, that single slab would have fed my entire family.

 

So I worked on becoming an American, to be in some ways more American than my American friends. But I learned, eventually, that I could never reach the ideal of the beloved.

The size of American bodies came to represent American capacities in everything we desired: they were smarter, stronger, richer; they lived in comfort and had the surplus to be generous. They knew the way to beauty and bounty because they were already there, filling the entryway with their meaty limbs and boulder heads and big, toothy grins like searchlights, imploring us with their booming voices to come on in. Have a seat at the table! Americans spoke a few decibels louder than we were used to.

 

We were small in everything. We were poor. I mean pockets-out immigrant poor. We were undernourished and scrawny, our genetics revealing not-so-distant struggles with famine and disease and war. We were inarticulate, our most deeply felt thoughts expressed in halting, heavily accented English, which might have sounded like grunts to Americans, given how frequently we heard “Excuse me?” or “Come again?” or “What?” The quizzical look on their faces as they tried to decipher the alien sounds.

My father, who was a funny, dynamic conversationalist in his own language, a man about Manila, would never be quite so funny or dynamic or quick-witted or agile or confident again. He would always be a small man in America. My mother was small, too, but it was acceptable, even desirable, for women to be small. American men found my mother attractive. She never lacked attention or employment. My father was the one most demoted in the great new land. He was supposed to be the man of the family, and he did not know which levers to pull or push, and he didn't have the luxury of a lifetime, like his children, to learn them.

I'm convinced it was because of a gnawing awareness of his limitations in the land of the giants that he was a dangerous man to belittle. Gentle and gregarious in the company of friends, he was a different person in the larger world of strangers: wary, opaque, tightly coiled. My father stood all of five feet six inches and 150 pounds, every ounce of which could turn maniacal in an instant. He took offense easily and let his fists fly quickly. He was not deterred by mass. He recognized it, yes, but became blind with fury when it trespassed on him or his family. I once watched him scold a man twice his size, an auto mechanic he thought was taking advantage of him, and threaten to leap over the counter to teach him a lesson. “You kick a man in the balls and he's not so big anymore,” he once told me. Actually, he told me more than once.

My mother corroborated the stories of my father challenging other men over perceived slights, losing as many fights as he won and getting downright clobbered on a few occasions, once landing in the hospital for a week. My mother was present at some of those fights; she was the cause of at least one, in which an unfortunate young man ogled her and ended up laid out on the sidewalk.

I got another glimpse of his inner maniac once at a park in New Jersey when I was about twelve. A big red-haired kid on a bike spit on me and rode away laughing and making faces. My father followed him all the way back to where his family was picnicking and confronted the three men in the group, all Americans, one of whom was presumably the kid's father. They all appeared startled. I heard only part of the conversation that followed. “We could take care of it right now, right here,” my father told the men in a low, threatening voice, his fists clenched into hard knots. He stood leaning forward, unblinking. The men averted their gaze and kept silent. On the walk back to our spot, my father said, “Tell me if that boy comes near you again.” I was speechless. His mettle astonished me. But it was something more than bravery on display that day. His fury was outsized, reckless, as if something larger was at stake, and of course now I know there was.

Unlike my father, I worked hard to get along with strangers. We moved so much in those early years that I got used to strangers as companions as we passed from place to place. I learned American English, trained out whatever accent I had inherited, picked up colloquial mannerisms. I kept a confident front, not in a loudmouthed way but in a reserved, alert manner, and I got more surefooted in my interactions as I got better at English. If I had to guess, I'd say my classmates would have described me as a little shy but smart and likable. I brooded in private. How could someone be ashamed and capable at the same time? I was fated to have a secret life.

So I worked on becoming an American, to be in some ways more American than my American friends. But I learned, eventually, that I could never reach the ideal of the beloved. And when the realization came, it seemed to land all at once, blunt force trauma, and I felt embarrassed to have been a believer.

It's one of the beautiful lies of the American Dream: that you can become anything, do anything, accomplish anything, if you want it badly enough and are willing to work for it. Limits are inventions of the timid mind. You've got to believe. All things are possible through properly channeled effort: work, work, work; harder, faster, more! Unleash your potential! Nothing is beyond your reach! Just do it! I believed it all, drank the elixir to the last drop and licked my lips for residue. I put in the time, learned to read and write and speak more capably than my friends and neighbors, followed the rules, did my homework, memorized the tics and slangs and idiosyncrasies of winners and heroes, but I could never be quite as American as they. The lie is a lie only if you fail, and I most certainly did.

When I ask myself now when this shame inside me began, I see that I inherited the beginnings of it from my father, and he from his father, going back in my imagination as far as the arrival of the Spanish ships almost five hundred years ago. An ancient inherited shame. It accompanied us across the ocean. We carried it into a country that told us: not reaching the summit was no one's fault but your own.

Excerpt from Big Little Man by Alex Tizon. Copyright © 2014 by Alex Tizon. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Note: In Big Little Man, Alex Tizon referred to Eudicia Tomas Pulido, who appears in the family photo above, as his aunt. Shortly after his death, in 2017, The Atlantic published a story by Tizon, "My Family's Slave," revealing Pulido was in fact not a relative but had been enslaved by his family for fifty-six years.

Comments

9 comments have been posted.

Tizon's piece is a personal essay about his family's experience as he reports it and his feelings and interpretation of that experience. It is reporting, but it falls short, very short, of illumnating immigration issues from the perspective of the humanities. A writer reporting with a knowledge of the humanities would at least acknowledge and account for different perspectives and what the history of immigration to America has to say about his personal experience. Many of the commentators who jump on Mr. Sparks also ignore the perspective of the humanities. Just for instance, we might note that many Jews came to this country speaking no English, subject to severe discrimination. We might note that in the early 1900s during the great wave of immigrants, that E. Europeans were considered inferior by many educated people including Margaret Sanger. We might note that in the north the Klu Klux Klan's major targets were Catholics and Jews, and especially Irish Catholics. We might note that even the great writer Thoreau had some disparaging descriptions of the Irish immigrants. And, of course, Tizon's essay, would have contributed more appropriately to a humanities magazine and site if it had had some perspective on what the fate of immigrants from his parents' country and region experienced 50 and 100 years ago. We need to know where we've been to know where we are. That is the great value of the humanities.

Wallace Kaufman | October 2014 | United States

I think that others have successfully refuted Mr. Sparks ignorant remarks, but I will add my voice. Not every immigrant experience is the same. It's impossible to have the same standards for a European immigrant during a time of massive European immigration, a Filipino family facing a history of exclusion and undermining on the West Coast, or a Mexican risking his life to work in the United States illegally. They are all legitimate experiences. To say that one experience is more valid than another is to re-create the "lie" that the author speaks of in his piece.

Kristy Athens | October 2014 | Enterprise, Oregon

I thought this piece was great. Made me think! Thank you.

Peter Rock | October 2014 | Portland

Alex Tizon's both deeply personal, and incredibly insightful essay pokes at the very troubling American paradox — size as a measure of value. The perception of masculine power (success) in the United States is tied to the amount of a space a man occupies; the size of his contribution; the volume he consumes; the sound of his voice. Tizon explores this with unsentimental tenderness for his father and understanding of the larger historic and social constraints at work. This piece of writing opens the door to a meaningful, inclusive conversation about masculinity in our country and the complexity of race. The writing pulls at the tensions of masculine pride, fear and anger that don't just simmer on a back burner but often explodes. It is curious to read the essay and find the first comment to be not only divisive, but an attempt to diminish Tizon’s personal and professional identity. The Land of the Giants.

Tracy Schlapp | October 2014 | Portland, Oregon

I’d agree with one of the other responders here that Mr. Sparks did miss the point, and not just slightly but by several light years. It might even be the case that he willfully missed the point in order to 1. tout his family’s triumphant assimilation, and 2. push his broader point that multiculturalism doesn’t work. Mr. Sparks' commentary doesn’t seem to leave room for the possibility that different groups of immigrants might have different experiences than his Norwegian ancestors. The unprovoked insult at the end of his note also indicates that he holds some deep-seated resentment around these issues.

Alex Tizon | October 2014 | Eugene, Oregon

Dear Mr. Sparks, While I have no doubt your ancestors were indeed remarkable, no matter how much an immigrant of color would choose to assimilate there are constant reminders and institutional constructs in mainstream American culture that don't allow for acceptance. There is a vast historical difference between European immigrants who were accepted through Ellis Island and Asian immigrants who were detained in prison-like conditions for up to two years at a time on Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco. There was no welcome but daily interrogations from officials who wanted to "catch" people who had little language proficiency so they could easily be deported. Another big difference between European immigrants and Asian immigrants were the numerous exclusionary laws that made it legal to limit Asian immigrations, kept them from bringing family members here and from owning land. And in some cases, as in Japanese American Internment, led to the loss of land and personal property. Also keep in mind that Asians were not allowed to bring their family members until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Previously Asians and Africans who were excluded from family reunification. The history of Asian American immigration has largely been untold in our educational system till the last decade or so. That's why I created the Crossing East series which aired on 230 public radio stations in 2006. http://crossingeast.org/ Please check it out if you want to learn more about the differences between Asian and European immigration history. Take care, Dmae

Dmae Roberts | October 2014 | Portland, OR

Hello Larry, It seems from your comment that you misread one of the main points of Tizon's essay here -- namely that white supremacy and racism shaped his family's experience as immigrants in the U.S. Though he writes at length about how hard he and his father worked to assimilate as American: to "cope and take advantage of school, job opportunities" as you write, still his experience of being a person of color in a racist society shaped his experience here. The realization that he could never reach the American dream was the 'blunt force trauma' he references here. I found Tizon's piece to be a moving, intimate, and very true depiction of how the trauma of centuries of racism and colonialism lingers in family interactions, in painful and contradictory ways. Mr. Sparks, I encourage you to re-read the piece and think more deeply about the themes Tizon discusses here. Is there anything that your Norwegian ancestors gave up, in their quest to assimilate into American culture? Are there ways that your family has benefited from being white, even if the struggles they faced to come up by their bootstraps, if you will, meant struggle and hardship at times? For example, one side of my white family is Quaker and emigrated from Wales and England at the very beginning of this country's founding to escape religious persecution. Upon arrival, we were given a parcel of land (family lore goes) from William Penn himself. From the beginning, my family was privileged to own land that had been stolen from Native peoples' here. This wealth enabled us to own more property, attend school, and gain access to networks that have continued through generations. Even though my immediate family has struggled and been poor, we still benefited from this history of white privilege -- not the least because of the way we are perceived as white, English speaking, and assimilated. Tizon's piece is a challenge -- I believe -- to those of us who are immigrants to think about what stories are told in our family about what success looks like, how we have gotten it and at what cost. It challenges us as Oregonians to think about what it means to be American, what shared experiences bind us together, and which drive us apart. Best, Jade

Jade Brooks | October 2014 | North Carolina (but raised in Eugene, OR)

Mr. Sparks. Your immigrant ancestors were white people arriving in a majority white culture. Yes they had language and cultural differences, but they were Europeans. They had no messages of inferiority from the larger culture. They would not have faced the same racial discrimination that people of color face. Mr. Tizon's family had a very different experience. You are missing the point sir.

Helen Silvis | October 2014 | United States

Subject: Small Man in Big Country Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2014 20:50:19 -0700 The article by Alex Tizon, "Small Man in Big Country" is completely contrary to 99% of most immigrants that come to the United States. Immigrants come to the United States to increase their economic opportunities and raise their families in freedom. This article reveals more about the Tizon's inability to cope and take advantage of school, job opportunities and inability to make decisions about basic life issues like; What do I want to do with my life? It is more about a list of personal excuses and just not wanting to assimilate into the culture. This is a classic example why multicultural does not work when ethnic groups refuse to accept the culture norms. My ancestors had the same cultural and economic issues as Tizon's but with a completely different attitude. After arriving at Ellis Island, they made a brief stop in Lincoln, Nebraska and then headed west and settled in Anacortes, Washington. Speaking only Norwegian, they wanted to learn English, get a job, raise a family, make a contribution to society and even serve in the military to defend and protect United States of America. All my family members,first generation Americans served in World War II. This is indeed the land of opportunity, like all successful Americans nothing replaces a good work ethic, education and plans to pursue the career of your choice. If Mr.Tizon is teaching writing or journalism at University of Oregon, I not sure if this demonstrates UO lack of standards or Mr. Tizon is just lucky to have a job....maybe both. Larry Sparks Aerospace Consultant/Author P.O. Box 805 Cannon Beach, Oregon 97110 Ho: (503) 436-0570

Larry Sparks | October 2014 | Cannon Beach, Oregon

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