Alex Tizon’s Brutal Honesty

Today, the Atlantic published an essay the late Alex Tizon wrote about the woman who spent her life as a slave for his family and his lifelong attempts to understand why. It’s a stunningly honest piece about something second-generation immigrants rarely address — the old world sins of their parents and the frustration, indignation and distance we feel whenever we encounter the trenchant, ugly things our parents brought with them.

Three years ago, I reviewed Tizon’s memoir Big Little Man. I mostly enjoyed the book, which was an exploration of Asian maleness with a requisite discussion about penis size stereotypes, but I recall being a bit annoyed by the style of it, which I thought was confessional in a way that felt dated, not so much in its language, which was straight forward and reportorial, but more in its lack of meta-angst. At the time, I was trying to sort through my own meta-angst and deep ambivalence about race writing — how could I write honestly about race to what I knew would be a mostly white, elite audience? And how could I use irony and a series of winks and nods to steer stories back into my own control? Tizon, I noted in my review, did none of that. I attributed it to his career as a newspaper reporter and his age. Today, after reading his essay on Lola (edit: her name was not Lola, which is more or a title), I realize I was wrong — Tizon’s straight-forward style was all in the service of brutal honesty.

That honesty transcends any of our literary or political categories. Perhaps more than anything I’ve read in recent years, it proved that any story can feel universal, even when it is about the most specific, and impossibly foreign things.

My father was raised by a servant who tended my grandfather’s orchard in Korea. He only went by ahjushi, a generic Korean title that loosely translates to “mister.” (I’ll spare everyone the lengthy discussion about the terms ahjumah and ahjushi, in part, because there are much better people to discuss them.) This fact was hidden from me and my sister when we were growing up, but when we had both graduated from college, my father flew ahjushi and my grandfather to British Columbia, where we had just bought a vacation home. The point, in part, was for my father to show both men that he had made it and to show ahjushi that he also had a stake in my father’s success. Everything was supposed to be shared and equally enjoyed — the golf cart, the fishing boat, the slow drive up to Whistler to ride the gondola. My grandfather, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time, wanted no part of it and throughout the weekend, he kept asking my father why he had brought the help over and tried to convince all of us to not talk to this nameless man who did not deserve to sit with us at the dinner table; why waste the good liquor on someone who wouldn’t be able to appreciate it? I recall hating my grandfather in that strange, half-committed way common in immigrant children, where you aren’t quite sure if you’ve missed something in translation, but you hate them anyway — the same, stultifying hate Tizon wrote about so beautifully in his story.

A couple years later, when my parents had moved to Seoul, I went with them to visit ahjushi at his home in a working class suburb of Seoul. Unlike Lola, ahjushi a family — I do not mean to conflate their situations in any way, I only want to tell you about the silent men and women that so many of us immigrant kids know, but almost never discuss. I met ahjushi’s grandson who had a bowl cut and wore a battered school uniform — blue blazer and blue shorts — and slept in a room with an open drainage ditch that smelled of rancid dish water and mold. I recall feeling a filial connection to him, one much stronger than I felt towards my cousins in Seoul, who all married into the right families and lived in modern high rises with their own ahjushis and ahjummas. But my Korean was bad and I couldn’t tell him anything and even then, I knew that our lives would always be separated by all the things my grandfather had laid out in such bare terms, so we played a card game together in silence. I would later learn that my father was sending money to ahjushi and his family and that he was trying, in his own way, to make up for something he had hoped to leave behind when he convinced my mother to immigrate to the United States.

I had forgotten about all this until I read Tizon’s story, but the clarity of his writing reminded me that “immigrant writing” happens in fits — someone divulges something in way you did not think possible and it gives the rest of us permission to be as honest, unflinching and troubling. We mostly fail, but we fail better. Tizon’s essay felt like one of those untangling moments and it’s terrible that he, who worked his entire career to help young journalists, won’t be around to see his work filter down and push everyone to be a bit more honest, unflinching and troubling in their own work.

At the very least, I wish I had talked to him more about writing when I had the chance. After my review of his book was published, Tizon reached out to me. We chatted, of course, about Jeremy Lin.

UPDATE: Talked about this a bit last night with a friend who reminded me that Chang-Rae Lee who written about a similar, silent woman in Native Speaker. Excerpt below.

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