A new book explores one Asian-American man’s path from alienation to understanding
Beyond stereotypes and shame, an Asian immigrant’s search for self-worth leads him back to his father.
Special to The Seattle Times
Author to read
Alex Tizon will read from “Big Little Man” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 18, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle.
ABOUT THIS STORY
Today’s story is excerpted from “Big Little Man” by Alex Tizon. Copyright © 2014 by Alex Tizon. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
MY FATHER died apologizing. He was sorry for everything. He still had so much to do, so much to prove. He had scraps of paper, with lists and plans for businesses he wanted to start, tucked away in drawers, books, briefcases that he hadn’t opened in ages. If only his body could hold it together for five more years, he told me. Just five. He’d change things.
I’d heard the litany before. His contrition in those last months was just a concentrated version of sentiments he’d shared with me for many years: he wasn’t rich enough, educated enough, fluent enough, Americanized enough. He didn’t provide enough. He wasn’t mindful enough, moral enough, disciplined enough, persistent enough, powerful enough. He didn’t do what men are supposed to do.
He never seemed to hear me when I told him none of that counted in the end. I’d remind him that if it weren’t for him, our whole family would be dead. He had saved our lives one night many years ago. But, of course, he remembered it differently. He remembered it as the night he almost killed us all.
My family arrived stateside in 1964, the beginning of a turbulent time in the land of dreams. A handsome and charismatic president had been killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas five months earlier. Images of war in a faraway place called Vietnam flickered across the television screen. Soon there would be riots in the cities, armies of angry people clashing in the streets over issues we did not understand. Civil rights? What are those?
“You people,” I remember my father telling the television. “You have everything. What reason do you have to be unhappy?” It was a sentiment he would repeat often during our first years here. He was referring to Americans, in particular white Americans.
We had nothing. We had crossed the Pacific on a Pan Am jet with all our belongings in cardboard boxes, and landed in a strange and beautiful place called Los Angeles. We stayed eight months.
One evening my father announced over a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken that we were moving north, to a city none of us had heard of. He had landed a job there. The very next morning, my parents, four kids and an aunt, Lola, who had crossed the ocean with us, crammed into our Plymouth Valiant and headed up Interstate 5. I watched drowsily as the flatlands turned hilly and the mounds turned ocher and the meadows turned mountainous. I shut my eyes near Tacoma and opened them near Seattle. My parents pronounced it Shia-tel.
They made airplanes here, my father told us.
My parents secured a small house, a $90-a-month rental in the Roosevelt Way area. It had a sagging roof, walls that leaned, floors and stairs that creaked under layers of linoleum and carpet. We all marveled at the fireplace. None of us had ever seen an indoor fireplace before. It was the deal-sealer for my father. I hold an image of him gazing at it, dreaming up all the scenes of family happiness that would play out in front of a blazing fire. A hearth of our own in America.
It took days of frantic phone-calling for my parents to come up with the deposit and first month’s rent. How they would pay for the second month, they didn’t know.
My father worked two jobs. During the days he worked at the Philippine consulate. His official title was assistant commercial attaché but mostly he played host and tour guide for visiting Filipino dignitaries. His night job was cleaning trailers at a trailer park in Snohomish County. My mother got a part-time job dissecting and analyzing rat brains at a local medical lab. She rode two buses to work. They came home exhausted every night. Their combined incomes never seemed enough.
Somehow the ghost of Saint Rita, patron saint of impossible dreams, to whom my mother prayed, would come to the rescue: a loan would come through, an advance would be approved, a rich relative would take pity. And so we made it to Christmas that year, clinging to a wisp.
Two days before Christmas, snow fell. Our neighborhood turned into a postcard scene before our eyes. Early on Christmas Eve, my father came home from the trailer park, looking disheveled but with a broad smile and a bag of groceries. “How are my beautiful children?” he said. The evening proceeded dreamlike, Sinatra on the phonograph, all of us inebriated with gratitude, my father enhancing his gratitude with Budweisers. He started a fire in the fireplace, but it kept going out. He fed it with anything that looked combustible, and soon the rest of us joined in. Nothing worked.
Finally, my father went out and returned with what looked like a package of giant vienna sausages. “Pres-to-Logs!” he announced triumphantly. He put all four in the fireplace, lit them, and before long we had a roaring fire. We ate dinner in front of a blaring television, the room brimming with chatter. We opened presents — my younger brother and I got toy Winchester rifles, just like Lucas McCain’s in “The Rifleman” — and hooted and hollered and shot each other to death until 2 a.m., my brother and I falling asleep in our closet-turned fort, still clutching our weapons.
AROUND 4 A.M., my father heard Ling crying. He got out of bed and immediately tipped over face-first onto the floor, struck timber. He gasped for air, struggled to his feet and called out for my mother. She jumped out of bed and immediately toppled to the floor. Papa stumbled to the next room and found Lola and Ling on the floor. When he could not rouse them, he ran to wake up Arthur, who took a couple of steps before his legs gave and he slumped against a chair. My father saw a window and kicked it open and then ran to find my brother and me in the closet, our gaping mouths contracting in grotesque rhythm — “like perch in a bucket,” he said later. He opened another window and another until every window in the house was swung wide. He got on the phone, his body now wracked with convulsions. “Something’s happened. Please come,” he said.
I don’t remember anything of the incident or immediate aftermath. What I do remember is our house appearing as if an army had marched through. The Seattle Times ran a six-paragraph story on the front page of the local section. The most interesting line came at the end of the third paragraph, which stated that, before going to bed, my father had closed the fireplace draft.
“Suonog ang ay patay na. The fire was dead,” my father would say. “I looked inside and saw this lever. I pulled it and something closed. I thought, ‘Better closed to keep the cold out.’ The flames were out anyway. I didn’t know. How could I know?”
It was a reasonable question. How could a man from a tropical country, who’d never lived in a house with a fireplace, know anything about chimney vents? Or about paraffin logs that smolder with invisible noxious fumes long after the flames go out?
Our family story really could have ended that night. Our American tale could have reached its zenith at the end of six paragraphs on the front page of the local news.
My parents woke up to a frightening truth, and even my older brother and I seemed to come into a new awareness of how much we did not know. This new land held unseen dangers. You could go to sleep with your Winchester and never wake again. You could pull a lever and lose everything.
MY FATHER gave me more than he could know. For a lot of years after I left home, I sought to be as different from him as possible. Whenever I determined that he’d gone in one direction, I resolved to go in the other, and to travel as far as I could so that I could someday confront him with my utter oppositeness. But in searching out what kind of man I wanted to be, what kind of man I could be, I have lived out T.S. Eliot’s line about ending my explorations where I began.
I have become a lot like my father. Biology contributed to it. His disposition and mine are identical, our talent for melancholy hard-wired and set. Our egos match. Our vanities correspond. I’m drawn to the same vices, among them the occasional and unpredictable urge to carouse and philander. I share some of his underlying tenderness, and the secret embarrassment about it.
I want to think that I could be as courageous as him. Not just brave in the moment, as in pushing back when someone pushes you. But deeply and solemnly courageous, as he was in leaving everything familiar behind in midlife and starting over in a strange new land where he would not have the years necessary to become fluent enough, or culturally adept enough, ever to feel truly capable again. He took the risk so his children could experience that fluency, could feel that capability and promise.
I want to think I could be as playful as he was. My siblings and I remember those early Sunday mornings when he would tickle and kiss us awake, acting silly and bellowing in his cartoonish baritone. I act silly in the same way. I reach the same low notes.
I know I can dream like him. He was a big-time dreamer. It was his dream that transported us to America. My mother used to say that dreaming was what he did best. When she was mad at him, which was often, she’d say it was all he did. He never seemed to understand that most of us have to adjust our dreams continually and let go of the most fanciful of them eventually. I have to remind myself of this. The letting-go part I have a hard time with, too.
I’d like to think that I could be as generous, although not to the absurd degree that he sometimes was, giving away not only his last dollar but his wife’s and children’s as well.
He was generous in one way that I do try to emulate. Some of my fondest memories are of times when we did distinctly unimportant things together, like picking blackberries or walking 10 blocks to the hardware store or staying up late tying fishing hooks, and we did these things while feeling quietly connected. Our fishing trips were like that. Those days when we did not catch anything were almost as good as the days when we did. He made it a point to have these moments with me, and I try to have them with my two daughters.
One is in college, the other in middle school. On a recent typical day, the older daughter and I went to a Euro-Japanese cafe down the street and talked about her sociology class over tempura udon. She’s learning about “gender construction in media,” and fortunately, I actually knew what she was talking about. A little while later, the younger daughter and I went to Baskin-Robbins for cotton candy ice cream, and then we took the dog to a vacant field to play fetch for a half hour. In between tosses, we talked about “The Walking Dead,” a show we weirdly both like. The field is just behind the dance studio where they both belong to competitive hip-hop teams. Late in the afternoon, I drove them to dance practice. We talked in the car about an upcoming competition in Vancouver, B.C. Later, over dinner, we talked about the logistics of the Vancouver trip, and they showed me a couple of new moves in their dance numbers. I showed them some of my dance moves from the 1980s, which made them wince. It also made them laugh. That’s it. That’s all we did, and it was a good day.
I can’t afford to take my girls on many exotic vacations or shower them with expensive gifts. I don’t have any spectacular talents they can brag about to their friends. I work too much, detach too often, and can sustain a cranky mood for much too long. Despite all of this, my girls seem to like my company. They’re at ease with me. They laugh a lot, cry some, whine some, and tell me ridiculous stories that no one else would find interesting. They can be utterly themselves. My gut tells me that they find me acceptable. Occasionally, they say they love me.
I felt the same about my father.
The other day I opened his urn, which sits on a cabinet in my dining room. The plan was to spread his ashes in the village in Mindanao where he was born as soon as the region stabilizes (there’s been a violent and long-running insurgency). Inside the urn is a clear zip-sealed bag containing my father’s ashes. He once started a fire and almost killed us all, and then he saved us.
I opened the bag, and a puff of gray dust escaped. Maybe someday my own ashes will sit on a mantel, and my daughters will occasionally stop to gaze at everything that I was. The thought might occur to them, as it did to me, that no matter what we do or don’t do in life, we all end up insubstantial enough to fit in a sandwich bag.
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.
Alex Tizon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a longtime staff writer for The Seattle Times. He teaches at the University of Oregon.