The Trauma of Surviving: Tastes Like War by Grace M. Cho

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“For all of my mothers, each of whom fed me in her own way, and for everyone whose voices have gone unheard.” – Grace M. Cho

In her lifetime, writer and academic Grace M. Cho has had three mothers. First is the pre-schizophrenia mother of Cho’s childhood, a new immigrant to Chehalis, Washington from war-torn Korea, a force of nature who is social and glamorous and fearless. Second is the mentally deteriorating mother of Cho’s adolescence, a mother trapped by internal voices and fears, a mother withdrawn from society. Third is the mother of Cho’s adulthood, a mother who found a way back home through food, a mother who was cared for and loved and encouraged to tell her story.

Cho’s memoir, Tastes Like War, follows the life cycle of each of these mothers. By intricately weaving motifs of food, identity, movement, and mental illness into scenes from her childhood, and through deeply researched sections on mental illness, the immigrant experience, and mid-twentieth-century Korea, Cho illustrates the complex and often tragic picture of immigrant life in America.

Cho’s book could not have come at a more appropriate time: in the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings committed earlier this year. Since Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels, Elsias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, Hyun Jung Grant, Soon Chung Park, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue were shot by yet another white man with a gun, article after article has highlighted racism against Asian Americans in the United States. Cho’s book reminds readers that anti-Asian sentiment is not new, even if the conversation is only just beginning.

Tastes Like War’s opening scene is one Cho remembers from her childhood. It is July 4, 1976, and Cho and her family are at an Independence Day celebration in Chehalis. Cho describes her mother:

Her waist-length black hair betrays her effort to style herself like a Western woman in a halter top, shorts, and platform sandals. Her sun-kissed skin is noticeably brown against the backdrop of an all-white crowd. My mother stands out because she’s the Oriental.

Then, for a moment, she pulls away from the celebration and grimaces slightly from the noise or the glare of the sun. Though I do not yet understand what it means to be an alien, even at the age of five, I can see that she’s on the outside, that maybe she doesn’t feel like she belongs at this party.

Right away, readers are introduced to the concept of otherness. Like five-year-old Cho, we may not understand what it means to be alien either, but we will learn as best we can.

And learn we do. Cho paints pictures of life in Chehalis in stunning detail to get us as close as we can to every moment:

Most people in Chehalis had never come face-to-face with a real live immigrant until my mother moved to town. If they had looked beyond the surface, they might have seen that she was not one of those immigrants who clung to their foreign ways, spread them like a pestilence, and took everything from the rightful Americans. Those immigrants didn’t actually exist in our town; they were a mere abstraction, a composite of right-wing media images: The Yellow Peril. The Alien Invasion. The fabric of American society come unraveled at the hands of foreigners.

No, my mother wanted to be American. She tried to be American, conforming to every new custom she learned. She took nothing except the jobs that other people didn’t want, working subminimum wage or in the middle of the night. Even after the immigrant haters came face-to-face with her, they still couldn’t see her, and so she became their flesh-and-bones straw woman.

Cho’s mother “was a Korean born in imperial Japan under conditions of forced labor, who returned to a divided, occupied, and war-torn Korea and was later exiled for her transgression of sleeping with [Cho’s] American father.” Facing discrimination on both sides, she immigrated to Chehalis in 1972, after giving birth to Cho in 1970 and marrying Cho’s father in 1971. “The town to which we migrated,” Cho writes, “was not a refuge but another place of imperial violence, where the rescued must continuously pay a psychic price for their purported salvation. The town in which she became an American was the same place in which she became schizophrenic.”

Chapter seven is titled “Schizophrenogenesis.” Cho writes the following under the title:

SCHIZOPHRENOGENESIS = schizophrenic + genesis: the production of schizophrenia. Sometimes refers to the onset of schizophrenia, sometimes to the causes. The story of the mind’s cleaving. The story of being on the wrong side of power.

Cho invites readers to forget everything they think they know about schizophrenia. She brings the reader up close to the mother of her childhood, mother number one, before the onset of her diagnosis. We see Cho’s mother foraging for blackberries and mushrooms in the woods close to the house and making jams and pies and sauces. We see her host a cocktail party for Cho’s kindergarten classmates’ parents and teacher as a way to establish herself in a new American community. We see her raise Cho and her brother during Cho’s father’s months-long absences due to his career as a merchant marine captain. We see her care for her husband after three heart attacks. We see her surviving after years of trauma. Perhaps most importantly, we see her before her diagnosis. We understand her as much more than her illness.

Then we witness the fall, together with the narrator. Cho does such an expert job of showing the mother of her childhood that when this first mother begins to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia—suspecting others of spreading rumors about her, retreating to the television for hours on end, believing the television is sending her messages—readers are devastated alongside fifteen-year-old Cho, who is the first one to notice at the time. There is one scene in particular I will never forget: Cho speaks to a counselor, who tells her that the only way she can get her mother committed is if she physically hurts someone. Then:

… my mother and I got into a fight. It was probably sparked by one of our usual conflicts, that she thought I wasn’t studying enough or that one of my friends was a spy, and I seized it as an opportunity to help her. The voices were still screaming at me, this time telling me I needed to escalate the fight so that I could prove that my mother was a danger. I said something to provoke her into hitting me, something that she couldn’t possibly have seen coming. She slapped me hard enough to leave a red mark on my face, and I picked up the phone and called the police. The only way you can have her committed is if she hurts someone.

The police came to arrest her, but somehow I didn’t think it would come to that. I thought I could just explain to them that I wanted her to get psychiatric help, and they would tell her that she had to do it.

In this moment we—Cho, Cho’s mother, and the reader—are heartbroken.

As Cho’s story moves forward, she incorporates her findings on the connections between the immigrant experience and mental illness. Drawing from a case study about mental illness across cultures, she writes, “people who are humiliated and abused and bullied are more likely to fall ill. People who are born poor or live poor are more likely to fall ill. People with dark skins are more likely to fall ill in white-skinned neighborhoods… when life beats people up, they are at more risk for developing psychosis.” Her mother, she suggests, likely developed schizophrenia as a result of her turbulent past: surviving the war and having to work as a prostitute, surviving leaving Korea for small-town America, surviving racism—surviving, surviving, surviving.

Amid all this survival, Cho carries the reader through with the comfort of food. Alongside Cho and her mother, readers smell kimchi and galbi, sogogi soup, gochujang, miyeok-guk, and japchae, as well as cheeseburgers and blackberry pie and homemade soy milk. Near the conclusion of the memoir, Cho cooks traditional Korean meals for her mother, who is now completely shut away from society in an apartment above her son’s house. It is while eating traditional Korean dishes that Cho’s mother begins to tell stories of her life. She starts to find a way back to the Korea she was forced to leave.

Tastes Like War reminds readers of the extremes of the human condition. There is trauma and hate and bigotry and ignorance, but there is also hope and light and the importance of small pleasures—like finding the perfect cabbage for a batch of kimchi, or ripe blackberries in the brambles of the Washington forest. At the end of the book, Cho brings us back to what holds her story together: food. Cho leaves us with the following reflection on her mother’s life:

For six good years she consistently enjoyed the dinners we shared, the food she taught me how to cook. Little by little, meal by meal, she traced her legacy.

It was the most magnificent gift.

Sonja Flancher is pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School in New York. She's previously published essays and poetry in the Blue Marble Review and Polaris Literary Magazine. Though originally from Minnesota, Sonja is currently based out of Brooklyn, NY with her partner and tabby cat, Suki. More from this author →