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In 'Tastes Like War,' a daughter reckons with her mother's schizophrenia

Grace M. Cho is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the CUNY College of Staten Island.
Patrick Bower
The Feminist Press at CUNY
Grace M. Cho is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the CUNY College of Staten Island.

Grace M. Cho emigrated to the U.S. as a baby, with her Korean mother and her father, a white American who served in the Merchant Marines. They settled in a small, rural town in Washington state, where they were among the only immigrants in the community.

"Children used to tease me and bully me for being Asian," Cho says. "I also started to notice that these kinds of things also happened to my mother, sometimes in ways that were even more dramatic than what I had experienced."

In those early years, Cho's mother, Koonja, turned to the kitchen as a way to cope. She cooked elaborate meals for their white neighbors and for Cho's teachers, and she began foraging the nearby forests for wild mushrooms and blackberries.

But when Cho was a teenager, Koonja suddenly stopped foraging — which Cho found surprising, since that had been one of her mother's favorite activities. Cho also noticed that her mother began talking to herself.

"It sounded like she was arguing with somebody who wasn't in the room. ... She started to say things like, 'Well, Ronald Reagan has our phones tapped,'" Cho says. "She thought people were following her."

Years passed, and Koonja stopped cooking and refused to leave the house. Eventually, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In the new memoir, Tastes Like War, Cho chronicles her efforts to reconnect with her mother as an adult. She details the hardships Koonja faced as a child both during the Korean War and later, in a shattered Korean economy. Cho says that after the war, her mother was likely a sex worker catering to American personnel stationed in Korea. Her traumas, Cho believes, may have contributed to her mental illness.

"I have more questions about it than I do answers because there's so much that I don't know," she says of her mother's past. "Growing up, she never told me what she did in Korea. I often asked her, but she would not answer me. She would just sort of stare at the wall and act as if I wasn't speaking to her."

Interview highlights

/ The Feminist Press at CUNY
The Feminist Press at CUNY

On trying as a teenager to get help for her mother

I was really scared. I didn't know what to make of it or what was going to happen to her. But I sort of snuck away during my lunch recess in high school to check out some books in the library about mental illness. And so I noticed that her symptoms, if we're going to call them "symptoms," matched what I found in the DSM under schizophrenia, under paranoid schizophrenia, specifically. And so I took this information first to my father and my brother. I think my brother was home visiting for the holidays because at that time he didn't live with us, so he didn't witness any of this himself. And my father was traveling a lot, so he also didn't spend as much time with my mom as I did. And so when I presented the information, they both denied it or accused me of lying about it, which was really heartbreaking to me that they thought that of me. But more than anything, I wished that that were true, that I was lying about it, and I wasn't.

On learning a secret from her mother's past

There was one occasion when she dissuaded me from taking a job waiting tables because she said that service work is something that's very difficult and that she really didn't want me to do it, and I asked her, "Were you a waitress in Korea?" And she just said, "Something like that." So I knew that she worked in the service industry. I didn't know exactly what it was. And then there was a moment when my sister-in-law revealed to me that my mother had been a sex worker at the U.S. naval base in Korea. And it was quite a devastating moment for me to learn that. And then I spent the rest of my adult life trying to process it in various ways, one of which was through research and writing. And so it sort of set me on this path to do the work that I do today.

On trying to understand her mother's trauma

My father ... said she hated doing [sex work] and she did it as seldom as possible. So that also tells me that it was extremely difficult for her to even make that leap into the sex industry. And, of course, her experiences with the war, the fact that she said so little about it over the years, I think, is an indication of the trauma. I mean, she did tell me one story about having been a refugee separated from her family at the age of 9. And after doing my research for my first book, which really focused on civilian experiences, I just thought she must have witnessed so many horrific things, because I saw it there in the archives and I saw it in the stories of the other survivors. They routinely saw dead bodies and really grisly, gruesome things as they were on the run searching for safety.

On how cooking for her mother helped her feel close to her and get glimmers of her mother before her mental illness

[The book is] motivated by my love for my mother and my desire to honor her by trying to understand her history and to really denounce the shame and the stigma that damaged her psyche — and to do the same for other people who might be attached to some label, like 'schizophrenic' or 'sex worker.'

The first few times that I went there to cook for her, she did not want me to do it. She did not accept my cooking. We argued over it. She refused to eat it. ... Eventually it became like, this really amazing thing where she taught me how to cook the dishes that my grandmother had taught her, that I myself had never eaten in my life. And so it was this amazing experience of giving me access to the family history that I had been craving for so much of my life, in the most intimate way through the cooking and sharing of food. ...

There were definitely moments when I started to cook for her and I saw that mother of my childhood come out and I saw these glimpses of her because she loved food. She loved to cook. She loved to eat. She loved to feed people. She loved to forage. And so if I cooked the right meal, then that mother would come out. It was some of these Korean meals, but it was also whenever I cooked cheeseburgers for her because that was her favorite food.

On her brother's online criticism that she didn't interview family members for the book

First of all, I want to say that I think it is a good idea to interview family members for your memoir if you have the kind of relationship with those family members that would allow for that kind of dialogue. In this case, I do not. I think that my family members have been trying to keep the family secrets so that if they have a sister who wants to be public about it, if I go to them saying, "Do your memories match mine?" they're just going to try to shut down the writing completely.

It's not a salacious tell-all memoir. It is really just something that's motivated by my love for my mother and my desire to honor her, by trying to understand her history and to really denounce the shame and the stigma that damaged her psyche — and to do the same for other people who might be attached to some label like "schizophrenic" or "sex worker." [I want] to let them know that we can see them in their humanity and that that those labels do not have to define them. And so that was my intention behind it.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.