Sunday, March 15, 2015
Jiayang Fan's "Searching for America with General Tso"
"Spit Cake," The New Yorker, November 23, 2009). And I enjoy autobiographical criticism. Both genres combine in Jiayang Fan’s superb "Searching for America with General Tso" (“Cultural Comment,” newyorker.com, March 12, 2015). It’s a review of Ian Cheney’s The Search for General Tso, which, Fan says, is “a jovial feature-length documentary that probes the origins of this iconic poultry dish.” She calls it “a detective story devoted to the art of un-blurring and disentangling: the ‘t’ from the ‘so,’ the meat from the myth.” On further consideration, she says it is “really a quest narrative in which the chicken is a Trojan horse for America’s history of complicated and choleric relationships with those deemed suspicious or disquietingly ‘exotic.’ ” But Fan's piece is more than a review. The film prompts her to consider an aspect of her cultural identity. She says that the name “General Tso” is “simultaneously so evidently Chinese and not-Chinese that its very pronunciation presents, at least to this neurotic immigrant, a paralyzing problem of cultural fidelity and perfidy.” She asks, “Is it a sense of belonging that I momentarily gain (even if it’s only in my head) when I say ‘Sichuan’ or ‘mapo’ in a way that signals my knack at convincingly feigning a non-Chinese?” In “Searching for America with General Tso,” Fan does more than describe Cheney’s film; she extracts personal meaning from it. The result is absorbing and memorable.