Trigger warning for disordered eating and brief domestic violence.
When we think of war literature, we generally think of stories—either memoirs or works of fiction—about soldiers. There are innumerable accounts of soldiers on fields, trenches, planes, and ships stretching back centuries. Stories about civilians are rarer. Even rarer are stories about the children of civilian survivors, although there is a growing body of literature by and about children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Grace M. Cho’s memoir, Tastes Like War, joins that expanding genre. Cho’s mother was a child during the Korean War. She lost several family members and nearly starved to death during and after the war. Her experiences haunted Cho’s mother for the rest of her life. This means that those experiences also haunted Cho, her brother, and her father for much of their lives.
Cho’s mother, Koonja, didn’t talk much about what happened to her before she married Cho’s father and emigrated to the United States. After Koonja developed schizophrenia, she talked even less about the war. Cho writes that her lack of information about her mother and her Korean family led her to her research topic: the experiences of sex workers and biracial Korean American children after the Korean War. If Koonja won’t talk about her life, Cho will learn everything she can about other Koreans who survived. This makes Taste Like War sounds a lot more academic than it actually is. While Cho brings in a lot of her academic knowledge, most of this book sweeps back and forth through her life. She talks about the racism she faced as a child in Chehalis, Washington. She talks about how Koonja pushed her to aim for academia. She also talks about Koonja’s decline into schizophrenia and her semi-recovery later in life.
Most of all, Cho talks about food. When she was young, Koonja was always cooking. For a time, Koonja also foraged in the forests around Chehalis, bringing in gallons of blackberries, fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms, and dandelion leaves. Years of hunger drove Koonja to feed everyone, although she wasn’t always able to keep herself fed. The voice in Koonja’s often led her to stop eating. Later in her life, after she recovered enough to be out of psychiatric facilities, she would only eat ramen, kimchi, and the meals Cho would prepare for her. Koonja would mention dishes she remembered from childhood. Cho would find the ingredients (much easier in contemporary New York than they were in 1970s and 1980s rural Washington). Tasting them again helped Koonja reconnect to a past before all the bad things. It also helped Cho reconnect to her Korean heritage on the sly as Koonja let things slip in between bites.
Tastes like War, even though it touched on a lot of challenging topics, fascinated me. Everything I know about the Korean War comes (to my shame) from M*A*S*H*. As an American, I never learned much about the Korean War. I certainly never learned about the long aftermath of the war. Cho’s point of view shifts from her personal, generational aftermath, to what she’s managed to glean about her mother’s history, to the huge societal forces that made life in post-war South Korea so harrowing for anyone who found themselves caught between their families and the American soldiers on the bases. Cho’s intelligence and thoughtfulness shine on every page, as well as her emotional honesty as she puts her memories on the page. This is an extraordinary memoir.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.