Title: Tastes Like War
Author: Grace M. Cho
Genre: History, Autobiography
Tastes Like War is a powerful account of a Korean American woman’s exploration of food and family history to help her mothers schizophrenia.
I heard about this book through my local library who were promoting it as part of the Big Library Read which is a virtual book club allowing people to download books at the same time and discuss them – Find out more about this here: https://biglibraryread.com/.
Tastes Like War is Grace M. Cho’s second book and is part memoir and part societal investigation. The book details her journey of using food to understand her family history and the causes for her mothers schizophrenia in the final years before she died in 2008.
Grace is the daughter of a white American marine and a Korean bar hostess he met abroad. They lived in Chehalis outside of Washington which was a xenophobic, small American town when Grace was growing up and was politicised by everyday details, race, language, behaviour.
The book describes how her mother came to America full of hope and tried to blend in with her peers and adopt an American way of life as much as possible. However her mother did still show her daughter Korean heritage by cooking Kimchi, going foraging for food and taking new immigrants to the town under her wing.
However when Grace was 15 her mother began to develop schizophrenia which was a condition that would continue to evolve and affect her mother for the rest of her life. The book then explores Grace’s work trying to find an explanation for her mothers condition by using food and examining the cultural and societal history of Korea in the 50’s and 60’s (this was when the country was split in two by the Soviet Union and the USA after World War Two).
In her mothers later years, Grace was able to use food to reach her and learn more about the great lengths her mother went to to keep her and her brother safe and also what she did to survive.
The book is a very interesting read which raises a lot of deep questions around mental illness and how societal and economic impacts can affect it. The most interesting idea it raises is how her mother moved to Chehalis, a place where she was at best ignored and at worst vilified, where she was socially isolated from other people around her and often had very little money and how this manifested into schizophrenia.
Cho also draws a link between how America fails it’s mental health patients and how schizophrenia results in mroe violent tendencies within the west than it does in cases reported in the east. For example in India, schizophrenics report hearing voices encouraging them to continue working and can even be comforting, whereas the voices in the USA the voices drive people to more desperate and violent actions.
Grace also talks about the cultural differences she experienced as a mixed-race child in America. From being regularly mis-identified as Japanese or Chinese, to her own father drifting towards the right when she was an adult, causing friction which the two never fully recovered from.
There is also the background of the Korean War and the political decisions America and South Korea’s government made in the 50’s and 60’s – with Cho herself not being considered fully Korean either and her mother being encouraged to move to the USA by the South Korean government when she didn’t receive a much better welcome there either. There are a great deal of repercussions which are still being felt from these decisions by Korean American’s in the USA today and it is interesting to read about how this affects people in their everyday lives.
The book is part memoir and part societal investigation and Cho does a great job of presenting her thoughts and her political research in an easy to digest format for everyday readers but the book does have some very deep ideas and questions which may not hook everyone in.
However the Korean War is a piece of history which is very often not discussed in literature and this book shows that it should be so I would recommend giving this book a try.