The first time I had General Tso’s Chicken was in college. Before that, I hadn’t ever heard of it. It was served at Grace’s Café, a mom and pop Chinese restaurant located on Duke University’s central campus that has since closed shop. It was battered, fried, and glazed—in other words, it was something my mom would have never ordered on the rare occasions we actually dined out. Thus, I never crossed paths with the General until college. At Duke, however, I quickly learned that General Tso’s was a popular, if not iconic, dish. While I was not yet attuned to the dish’s history, I assumed it was a creation that catered to the sweet and savory preferences of the western palate. I ordered it frequently.
“Do you know who General Tso is?”
My attending (or supervising) surgeon shot me a knowing smile. We were seeing patients in his clinic, and had just stepped out of a room in which I had directed an interview with a Mandarin-speaking patient. He seemed intrigued and asked me where my family was from. Nanchang. It’s a big city in the Jiangxi province in Southern China. I was actually born there and immigrated with my family to the States when I was one. Yeah, I mostly speak Mandarin at home with my folks—especially my mom. It’s a stock response I’ve honed over the years. I’ve learned to emphasize the right syllables, pause between phrases, and add an improvised flourish here and there so that it doesn’t sound overly rehearsed. After digesting that I was Chinese-American, my attending quizzed me about General Tso.
At first, my only response was a puzzled look paired with a raised eyebrow. “You’re talking about the chicken dish?” I had no clue what he was getting at.
My attending chuckled. “No. I’m talking about the famous general that the dish was named after. You know he was a real person, right?” Nope. I had no idea. But I smiled back and offered my best guess. “So he must’ve retired from the battlefield to become a famous take-out chef?”
He shook his head, still chuckling. “You’re telling me you are Chinese, but you don’t know who General Tso is? You should know who General Tso is. Even I know who he is! Maybe that means I’m more Chinese than you!” In our banter he had awkwardly nudged his way over a line, but I laughed it off. I went to see our next patient. This one spoke English.
For the remainder of the morning, my attending found opportunities to gently prod me about not knowing the apparently-famous general, teasing me with barbs like, “Are you sure you are Chinese?” I just smiled and told him I would have to consult Wikipedia when I got home.
I actually like and respect this surgeon. I know there is an obvious difference between malicious and clumsy. And in many ways, I’ve learned to adopt a no-harm-no-foul approach. Sure, in a few playful digs, he had conveniently rearranged the framework of my cultural identity to elevate his own familiarity of a semi-famous war hero above my family’s living, breathing history. But, of course, he could not have known how much of my childhood and adolescence was spent hoping I could fit my Asian-American story into an All-American mold, to hell with the baggage of history and hyphens. That growing up, white friends and classmates often branded me as “not really Asian,” a badge of honor to indicate I had been accepted—and a twisted compliment that I had neither the tools nor the desire to challenge, as it reinforced biases I had long ago internalized. Yet, with time and examination I did eventually begin to deconstruct these notions of racial hierarchy, unconsciously adopted. Why do some wield the power to model while others only the privilege to assimilate? And within these shadowy paradigms, how do some ascend to become arbiters of another’s ethnic authenticity?
Of course, none of this is part of my stock response about where I come from or who I am. You’d likely have to circumvent the famous General to pick at something deeper, rawer. And even then you might not get an authentic response. Because I’ve found that the truth can be quite difficult to prepare and sometimes even more difficult to palate. Depending on who’s dining.
So how can we address clumsy aggression coming from a place of power, but without malice? Let me know if you have a good answer. Much of my own response has become unconscious and reflexive. It’s like learning to play-wrestle a bigger, heavier opponent. Certainly, it’s no fun when someone wielding professional weight awkwardly steps on your ankle, or carelessly swings an elbow—even among friends, and even when it’s all in supposed good fun. Yet bringing attention to the casual misstep often feels as awkward as the blunder itself; while evading always feels frustratingly passive. Within the hierarchies of profession and career, can there be grace in ignoring the casual relapse into racial hierarchies? Or maybe there is no good counter, so we are only left with these conveniently subdued options: stay flexible, keep calm, bend to the clumsy misstep, and slip the inadvertent elbow. No harm, no foul, right?
General Tso (or General Zuo Zongtang) was an accomplished military commander who hailed from the Hunan Province. By all accounts, he was as ruthless as he was successful, having established his military prowess by stomping out the Taiping Rebellion in one of history’s bloodiest civil wars. In fact, one version of the culinary origin story states that General Zuo earned his eponymous distinction by the way he would slice up his enemies like chicken. Regardless, Zuo would go on to crush a whole slew of 19th century rebellions before being appointed to the Grand Council of the Qing Empire, China’s last imperial dynasty.
So in short, Zuo Zongtang secured the territory and unity of a nation at the cost of individual lives and freedoms. And for his fierce commitment, he is remembered mostly in caricature, as a moniker to Chinese-American take-out. It’s a peculiar piece of history, perhaps a reminder that assimilation is rarely achieved without conflict. Maybe the best we can do is to discern carefully, both when choosing the company with which we dine, and when staking the hills on which we die.