DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.
My guest today, Grace M. Cho, has a compelling new memoir about her relationship with her mother, who emigrated from Korea with her American husband when Cho was a baby.
Grace Cho grew up in a small town in rural Washington. Her mother would eventually be diagnosed with schizophrenia. Cho has spent much of her life as a scholar looking into the trauma Korean women of her mother's generation faced losing family members to the Japanese occupation in World War II and the savage fighting of the Korean War and struggling to survive in a devastated postwar Korea. As Cho learned more about her mother's life, secrets emerged which were disturbing, but Cho believes her mother's experience may well have contributed to her mental illness. Her mother died in 2008.
Grace Cho is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She's the author of an earlier book, "Haunting The Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, And The Forgotten War." Her new memoir is titled "Tastes Like War."
Well, Grace Cho, welcome to FRESH AIR.
GRACE M CHO: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: You were born in South Korea in 1971 - right? - and as a baby emigrated with your family to the United States. Tell us where you settled and grew up, what kind of place it was.
CHO: Yeah. Well, we initially moved to Seattle, but I think we were only there for a few months and then relocated to my father's hometown of Chehalis, Wash. So it's a small town that's about halfway between Seattle and Portland on I-5. The population at the time that we moved there was about 5,000 or a little bit more. And as far as I knew, we were the first immigrants who had arrived for a very long time. And also as far as I knew, we were the only Koreans to live there during that era of the early to mid-'70s.
DAVIES: Right. Your dad was in the merchant marine. That's - he met your mom when he was stationed in Korea when he was traveling there.
DAVIES: You mention there were very few Asian Americans, if any, in Chehalis. How were you and your family treated by the locals?
CHO: Well, you know, I didn't have that much of a sense of it at first because my early childhood memories were really pretty much enveloped in this world of my mother - that I sort of went with her everywhere and I was a bit sheltered from others. But I do remember sort of having the sense of being isolated a little bit.
And then once I started kindergarten, I - you know, that was when I first had the experience of feeling like an other because I was introduced to racial slurs like chink and Jap. You know, and children used to tease me and bully me for being Asian. And then 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.
But I think that, you know, as a mother, she probably wanted to protect me from a lot of that. So she didn't talk about it a whole lot, but there were moments when I witnessed it. You know, for example, there's a scene in my memoir where some teenage boys follow us home, follow us in a car. And then when they get out of the car, there's this confrontation between her and the boys. And they, you know, they make fun of her for being Asian. And so experiences like this sort of accumulated over the time that I grew up in Chehalis. And especially as I got older, when I was a teenager, some of the racial violence sort of merged with sexual violence and being sort of sexualized for being Asian and things of that nature.
DAVIES: Maybe you should describe the incident at the tennis court, yeah?
CHO: Yes. So when I was 15 - it was shortly before the beginning of my sophomore year of high school - I was sexually assaulted by a boy that I had a crush on. And so I was really, you know, not dealing very well with that. I didn't have the language to talk about it. I think at the time, I didn't even really know how to conceive of it as sexual assault because this was 1986.
And a few weeks later, three of the boys - three of that boy's friends approached me on the tennis court and, you know, jeered at me, pinned me down to the ground, pretended to rape me with the tennis racket and said some things to me like, is it true what they say about Asian girls? Right? And so it was this moment of enormous racial and sexualized violence that I was very ashamed of and didn't really know how to talk about. And it took a long time for me to be able to verbalize this incident at the tennis court.
DAVIES: And so many girls, when things like this happen, don't tell people because of this fear and confusion and shame. Did you talk to your parents about it at all?
CHO: Well, I did tell them about the first sexual assault. And that is also written into the book that in just sort of in a moment of sudden rage, I just sort of spit it all out that, you know, that this boy had assaulted me and that I went and grabbed the knife from the kitchen - the knife block in the kitchen and said that I was going to kill myself. So it was this very impulsive, overly emotional moment. They were quite shocked, but I didn't really get any support from them around it. I think that they didn't really know what to do.
DAVIES: You know, your mother came from a tough life, and we'll talk more of that in a bit. Not somebody with a lot of formal education, but quite a formidable and hardworking person. Just tell us a bit about what she did, the work she did, how she fit into the town.
CHO: So the first job that I remember her having was as a maid for this logging tycoon who lived in the next town over. So I have some very vivid memories of that because she used to take me to work with her. And she had a workplace accident where she fell off the ladder, so that's when she stopped working for him.
And then a couple of years later, I think, she began working at a juvenile detention center. She worked the graveyard shift, so it was 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. And I didn't really know a lot about what she was doing there. She said she was a counselor, but that never really made sense to me because it was in the middle of the night, so I didn't understand why anybody would need a counselor in the middle of the night. But she worked that job I think from about the time I was 4 or 5 until I was 15, which was when she started to develop some of the symptoms of schizophrenia.
But then her other source of income was that she became a forager. And initially, she went out into the woods to just look for things to cook and eat. You know, and I think because wild edibles are an important part of Korean cuisine, she was looking for things that she could use in this landscape in which there was not a lot of access to Korean food. But once she went out into the woods, she discovered sort of a gold mine of wild blackberries and wild mushrooms. And she got this idea that she was going to start selling them. And very quickly, our house sort of became this business center for the sale of wild blackberries, and all of these people would come into our house, you know, when I got home after school to buy her wild blackberries. And this was something she did for many years and very successfully. It was quite remarkable.
DAVIES: Your mom's mental illness presented itself in your teen years. How did you become aware of that? What did you see?
CHO: You know, it's hard for me to remember exactly the order in which I started to notice things, but there were a few things that sort of happened around the same time. And one was that she stopped foraging very suddenly. And that was something she did with such great passion, and it seemed to be one of her favorite activities. So when she stopped doing that, I guess I didn't think that much about it at the time 'cause I figured she was probably just tired because she worked a lot, and she didn't get a lot of sleep.
But then I started to notice these other things. And I think what really frightened me was that I noticed that she was sometimes talking to herself in a way that didn't seem typical. Like, it sounded like she was arguing with somebody who wasn't in the room. And more and more things like that started to happen. She exhibited some signs of what Western psychiatry would describe as paranoia, you know, where she thought people were following her. And, in fact, things like that had happened.
So again, even though my alarm bells were going on - going off, rather - I told myself that this was not something to - you know, to panic about because, you know, people had followed her in the past. There was that incident of the teenage boys following us in the car. But then she started to say things like, well, Ronald Reagan has our phones tapped, you know, that she was going to meet with the governor of Washington state at that time, things like that. So once it started to involve these high-level politicians, I really began to worry.
DAVIES: And you took it on yourself to try and figure this out. I mean, you looked up the symptoms of schizophrenia. And that correlated pretty well with what you were observing. And you tried to get her some help. Tell us about that.
CHO: Yeah. Well, you know, I was afraid to talk about it with anybody at first just because it's so stigmatized. And I was really scared. I didn't know what to make of it or, you know, 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, you know, her symptoms - if we're going to call them symptoms - match 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. My - 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 also had - you know, he 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, you know, I wished that that were true, that I was lying about it. And I wasn't. So because they didn't have any way of helping me or even processing the information, I went to the local community mental health center to speak with a counselor.
So when I got into the - you know, I went into the man's office, he was probably in his mid- to late 20s. And, you know, I told him, I think that my mom is paranoid schizophrenic. I explained some of her symptoms. And he said, Yes, that does sound a lot like schizophrenia. And then there was this long pause. I was waiting for him to say more. And then he just said, I'm sorry, but I don't think there's anything we can do to help your mom. And I was really confused.
DAVIES: What was - why did he say that?
CHO: Yeah, well, it was very confusing to me at the time. The only explanation he gave me was that because of her age, it was too late to do anything about it, which then, again, really confused me. And it wasn't until a few years ago when I was doing research on schizophrenia for this book that I had encountered the work of Lisa Miller, as well as some others, looking at how all of the conventional wisdom around schizophrenia was based on men's experience. And typically, men have - they experience the onset of schizophrenia in their teens or early 20s, whereas women experience the onset of it either in their mid-20s or in their mid-40s because there's a secondary peak for women that coincides with the drop of estrogen leading up to menopause.
And so back in 1986, no one had this knowledge. It hadn't been researched. And it didn't make it into the mainstream until I started researching it. Even then, websites like WebMD were saying that it is extremely rare for anyone to experience the onset of schizophrenia after the age of 40 because they still had not caught up to the research that was done on women.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Grace Cho. Her new memoir is "Tastes Like War." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. and we're speaking with writer Grace Cho. She has a new memoir about her experiences with her mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when Grace was a teenager. The book is called "Tastes Like War."
You were accepted to Brown University after high school and traveled across the country, I mean, from rural Washington, where you live, to Providence, R.I., Island, where Brown is. And you write that as you were introduced to new ideas, you began to think in different ways about your mother's mental illness and what might have affected it. And there was a lot there because I think it's now accepted that a lot of things can affect the onset of these kinds of serious - these serious issues, including environmental factors. You want to just mention what some of those typically are?
CHO: So I reference this book called "Our Most Troubling Madness" that looks at the social risk factors for schizophrenia. And some of those are risk factors that we tend to hear about now, things such as, you know, child sexual abuse, poverty, adversity and social adversity during childhood. But then there were some others that I think are less common, such as being a person of color in a white neighborhood and immigration. And so out of all of the social risk factors that were studied in this book, my mother's case ticked off five out of six boxes. And I really sort of, you know, thought a lot about the last two that I mentioned, immigration and being a person of color in a white neighborhood, because I think previously I had tried to look to her past in Korea more as the source of her trauma that may have triggered the schizophrenia. But once I had learned about these other risk factors, then it made so much sense that also her experiences in my hometown were also precipitating factors.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about some of her past in Korea because it was a hard life. I mean, she was born in 1941 when Korea was occupied by the Japanese army. What do you know of what she and her family might have experienced then?
CHO: So what I do know is that she was born in Osaka in 1941. I don't know the conditions under which her mother or the rest of my family - I'm not exactly sure who was in Osaka at that time. I'm not really sure...
DAVIES: That's in Japan, right?
CHO: That's in Japan. Yeah.
DAVIES: Even though she was Korean. Yeah.
CHO: Right. So I'm not sure the exact conditions under which they were taken to Japan. But I do know from my research that the province where my mother's family is from, Gyeongsang province, is the closest to Japan. And so because of the proximity, they took a lot of the laborers from there. And more specifically, they took a lot of young women and girls to work as, quote-unquote, "comfort women" doing forced sexual labor for the Japanese imperial troops. And so, you know, my best guess is that my mother's parents or maybe just her mother were forced laborers for the Japanese. And I'm not - you know, it's not clear to me whether or not my grandmother was a sexual laborer or not. But the - you know, the history suggests that there's a good chance that that was true.
DAVIES: So after World War II ended, you know, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, the communist regime to the North, the U.S.-backed anti-communist government in the South. And then five years later, the Korean War erupts and lasts for nearly three years. And, you know, few Americans know much about the Korean War. Give us a sense of the consequences of the savage fighting in there for the civilian population of Korea.
CHO: The civilian death toll was really staggering during the Korean War, where 3 million civilians were killed. I mean, there are varying estimates of that number, but that's one of the less conservative numbers. But up to 3 million civilians were killed during the war, and that is about 10% of the civilian population of the peninsula. There were another 2 million that were categorized as missing or wounded. And then if you factor in all of the families that were separated - because at the end of the fighting - not the end of the war because the war technically never ended. But at the end of fighting in 1953, when the armistice agreement was signed, the border between North and South was permanently sealed so that 10 million families were separated. So that is a staggering number when you consider that the entire population of the peninsula was 30 million.
DAVIES: And what about your mom's family? What was the toll it took on them?
CHO: When I was in fourth grade and I was doing a family tree, that's when I found out that she had had two other siblings because I only knew, you know, her sister in Korea. But she said that she had two other siblings that either died or disappeared and her father also died. And, you know, interestingly, the deaths were not directly as a result of the war but, you know, related to the devastation caused by the war. My mother's brother, who was - I believe he was 20 years older than her - he disappeared during the war, and no one knows what happened to him. So it's possible that he died or it's possible that he ended up on the other side of the 38th parallel and lived the rest of his life in North Korea.
DAVIES: When you spoke to your mom about that, was it painful? How did she describe the impact of it?
CHO: She didn't exactly describe anything. She told me what happened to them, and then she took a deep sigh, and she said (speaking Korean) which is an expression in Korean that means - I mean, literally it means something like, you know, I'm suffocating or I'm stifling that refers to the sadness being so heavy that you just can't speak.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Grace Cho. Her new memoir is "Tastes Like War." We'll be back to talk more about her mother's life after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Grace M. Cho. Her new memoir is about her experiences growing up with an American father and Korean mother and about her mother's struggles with mental illness. Cho believes the trauma her mother experienced in the Korean War and afterward was a factor in her deteriorating mental condition. She was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia in 1994. She died in 2008. Grace Cho is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the College of Staten Island City University of New York. Her new memoir is titled "Tastes Like War."
After the Korean War ended, I mean, the economy was pretty devastated, and you write that, you know, young Korean women could either work in a factory or they could work - go to one of these U.S. military bases because there was a heavy U.S. military presence there where there were various kinds of employment. Your family moved to Busan. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
DAVIES: Yeah, which is where there was a military base. What do you know about what they did there, what your mom did?
CHO: Well, you know, growing up, she never told me what she did in Korea. I often asked her, but she either would not answer me - she would just sort of stare at the wall and act as if I wasn't speaking to her. There was one occasion when she dissuaded me from taking a job waiting tables because she said that, you know, service work is something that's very difficult and, you know, that she really didn't want me to do it. And I asked her - I said, 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, you know, it was quite a devastating moment for me to learn that. And I spent then 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.
DAVIES: So you heard this from your sister-in-law that your mother had been a sex worker. She, I think later in the book, says, well, she may have just been a cocktail waitress. But what did you hear from - you talk to your father about this at one point. What did he say?
CHO: Yeah. So interestingly, I had conversations with my father and my brother about it. But, you know, the word prostitute or the word sex work, you know, those were such taboo words that no one repeated them. So we sort of talked about it without actually talking about it, if you know what I mean. But when I first confronted my father about it, he said, well - you know, he was almost in tears, and he said, I didn't have anything to do with her being there. I got her out of there. And my response was, but of course you had something to do with her being there because of supply and demand. And so he - I think he was very shocked by my response - by the question and also my response.
DAVIES: And what you meant by that was that she was - you were a client - your father was a client of hers. That's how their relationship began.
CHO: Yes, that's what I meant. And, you know, he did not deny it. He just said that he had saved her from that situation, which he may in fact have done because there are plenty of stories of sex workers in Korea who marry their clients because the clients pay off their debt and allow them to leave.
DAVIES: So, you know, when you look at your mother's experience, I mean, losing family members to war - I mean, experiencing the war in itself must have been horribly traumatic - and then, you know, becoming a sex worker for who knows how long and then enduring the condemnation of other Koreans for having, you know, consorting with the Americans - I don't know. I don't know. How do you assess that in terms of its effect on her mental health?
CHO: Well, I mean, I have more questions about it than I do answers because there's so much that I don't know, and I also don't want to make too many assumptions because I don't know that being a sex worker in itself is psychologically damaging. But I do know that she did that work under - you know, under oppressive conditions, right? So the - she didn't really have a lot of say in her work conditions or, you know, rather, I should say that women who worked in these settings didn't have a lot of agency in terms of their work conditions, right? So they may have made a choice to enter the sex industry, but they didn't agree to the abuse and violence that they encountered once they were there. So that has got to have a toll on someone's psyche.
And I think that according to what my father had told me when we had that conversation, he said she hated doing it and she did it as seldom as possible. So that also tells me that it was extremely difficult for her to even, you know, make that leap into the sex industry. And of course, you know, 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, that they, you know, they routinely saw dead bodies and really, you know, grisly, gruesome things as they were on the run searching for safety.
DAVIES: Did she go hungry at times? Did she ever talk about that?
CHO: You know, she alluded to it. She never put it so plainly as that. But during the time that she was separated from her family, she lived off of a jar of kimchi and some rice, and she made it last for, you know, I think it was about nine months until she was able to find her family again. And she also talked about how they would hunt small animals in the woods, things like spiders and little birds. You know, they were things that I never would have imagined eating.
DAVIES: You want to explain the title of the book, "Tastes Like War"?
CHO: Yeah, so that's a quote from my mom. At one point, when she was living in the apartment that was above my brother's garage, I went to visit her. And she - I asked her if she was getting enough to eat. And she said, yes. And then she mentioned that there was some powdered milk there. But she wasn't eating it. And I asked her why, and she said, I can't stand the taste of it. Tastes like war.
And so it really stayed with me that she had said that because at the time, I was also researching the experiences of Korean civilians who received American food aid. And there was one testimony that stood out about a woman who said that her whole town, they're - or her whole village was just drooling at the thought of the American food aid, and they were hoping for rice or barley, but when they opened up the barrels, it was powdered milk - and that they all used the powdered milk and drank it, regardless of whether or not that was what they wanted to eat. But because so many Koreans are lactose intolerant, they all suffered for days with diarrhea from it. And so I felt that that expression, tastes like war, sort of was a perfect encapsulation of how some of her food experiences spoke to this history of having survived the war.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Grace Cho. Her new memoir is "Tastes Like War." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Grace M. Cho. She has a new memoir about her mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The book is called "Tastes Like War."
Your mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1994, although she'd had symptoms for many years. And over the next 14 years before her death, she'd lived in a lot of different places. I mean, your parents separated and reunited and then divorced and remarried. And your dad was a good bit older than your mom, and he'd had heart attacks. And at times, your mom lived with your brother and his wife and at times in an apartment in Manhattan that your brother kind of stayed in part-time. And she lived with you in Queens and then eventually settled at an apartment that your brother and his wife set up for her over your brother's garage. And she was there, I guess, the last six years of her life. She heard voices. They had a name at one point - right? - Oakie.
CHO: They - yeah, they had a name throughout - throughout - Oakie. And originally, I thought that that name was a reference to their origin, which was that they had come out of the oak tree in our front yard in our house in Chehalis. But then, several years later, I had a colleague and a good friend in graduate school who said - you know, when I told her about my mom's voices being named Oakie, she said, oh, that sounds just like Ok-hee, which is an old-fashioned Korean girl's name. And so then it just sort of opened up this whole thought experiment that may be Oakie was a reference to somebody else in my family history. Like, maybe it could've been another sister that she didn't talk about that she lost. Or it could've been a child that she had that she relinquished - you know, any number of possibilities. And so it sort of became this very mysterious - this mysterious name. But for me, I sort of, like, invested this meaning in it that this was a voice from my family history.
And so it sort of changed my relationship to the voices because I used to be afraid of them, you know, when I was younger because I didn't understand. And I think that most people who don't have the experience of hearing voices are afraid when they encounter someone who hears voices, you know, because of the way that it is stigmatized and misrepresented in our culture. But, you know, then once I started to imagine Oakie as a message about my family history, I invited those voices to sort of, you know, sit with us at the table when we had these meals.
DAVIES: And would they join in some way? Did your mom talk about what Oakie was saying?
CHO: Well, you know, sometimes she would talk about them. I didn't want to pry, you know, so I was really careful not to be intrusive about them. But sometimes she did say that Oakies were - Oakie was talking to her. Sometimes she felt angry at Oakie because she felt that they were, you know, bothering her too much.
But then she would also sometimes say these things - my understanding of it was that they were things that Oakie was sort of speaking through her. And, you know, they were things that corresponded to the time. So she'd look at the clock, and at 1:07, she would say my birthday over and over again - January 7, January 7, January 7. And then when it was 9:45, she would say September '45. So that was, for me, a clue about my family history because September '45 was when the U.S. occupied the southern half of Korea.
DAVIES: You know, medications for treating this disorder improved a lot over the course of your mom's illness. And I'm just wondering, as she got more effective regimens of medications, was she aware that, you know, that she had this disorder?
CHO: Yeah. So there were two times when she was hospitalized and put on medication. You know, once was in 1994, and the other was in 2002. So in '94, that was a terrible experience with the medication. It was the, you know, the older generation of antipsychotic drugs. In 2002, she was put on a different regimen, but also, she had some other therapies that sort of helped her connect to people. So I think that the combination of those things really did help her a lot.
And I asked her if she was aware that she had this diagnosis of schizophrenia, and she said yes. But then she also said, however, I am not an ordinary mentally ill person. So she saw herself as, you know, having a mental illness, but as somebody who was special.
DAVIES: You know, you write that you eventually became her cook during this period when she was living in the apartment over your brother's - brother and sister-in-law's garage. You were living in New York City. You would come regularly to cook - cook Korean dishes that she loved. You want to just describe what - you know, how that happened, what it meant for your relationship with your mom?
CHO: Yeah. Well, you know, initially, you know, 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. And I'm sure there was a lot going on behind her reasons for that. But I know one of them was that she has always been consistent in saying to me, I don't want you to waste your time cooking because you're supposed to be studying. So at the beginning, I had just started my doctoral program. And, you know, so spending the weekend traveling to New Jersey to cook for her often felt like a futile effort because it wasn't really achieving the results that I had hoped.
My sister-in-law sort of pushed me and pushed me towards doing it more. And I resisted initially because I didn't - you know, I had so many frustrations around it. And the travel was also very difficult for me. But eventually, I did sort of get into a rhythm where I was going very regularly. And it was wonderful. You know, 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 - you know, in the most intimate way through the cooking and sharing of food.
DAVIES: Would she open up and talk about herself more when you were cooking this stuff and she was enjoying it?
CHO: Yeah, she did. I mean, because these were foods of her youth and her childhood, it triggered a lot of memories, a lot of fond memories. You know, so she didn't really share with me the traumatic memories. She shared with me the good memories of her mother cooking for her, her father cooking for her, you know, fun things that she had experienced in her youth. And then eventually, she did start to say a little bit more about the war. You know, and I got a couple more stories out of her through the process of sharing these meals.
But she would also then talk about my family in Korea and sort of drop these little clues about things that I realized I need to investigate because they would lead to other aspects of my family history that I had no idea about. For example, you know, there's a scene in the book where we're eating this dish called ssam, which is a lettuce wrap. You know, you put rice and meat and sauce inside of a lettuce leaf, and you basically - the way you eat it is that you - you know, you can't take bites out of it. You have to keep pushing it into your mouth until it's all gone. So she said to me before she put the ssam in her mouth, you know that Chun-ja (ph) Imo had two boys. This was my aunt who had died when she was young. But no one knows what happened to them. They just disappeared. And so then she starts eating the ssam, and I said, what do you mean they just disappeared? But I had to wait for her to eat the whole thing before I could get an answer (laughter).
So it was like - it felt like a really long time because she just sort of dropped this - you know, this juicy piece of information that I really wanted to know more about. And then she said, well, I don't know. It's just that, you know, fathers have the rights over their children, and nobody really knows what he did with them after she died.
DAVIES: You know, it's fascinating that, I mean, you had this mom when you were young growing up who was just incredibly energetic and feeding the town with, you know, blackberries and mushrooms that she foraged and working a night job and taking care of you. And this must seem like a different person once the illness set in. Did you find yourself yearning for and finding glimpses of the mom that used to be there?
CHO: Yeah, I mean, I mourned the loss of my first mother for so many years. You know, up until my mom's death, I longed for her because it was - it felt like such a sudden and devastating loss, you know, once she clearly became mentally ill. But yes, so there were definitely moments that 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. You know, so it was some of these Korean meals, but it was also whenever I cooked cheeseburgers for her because that was her favorite food. And she loved cheeseburgers and got really excited about them. It was sort of a motivating force in her life, as well.
DAVIES: do you know where the affection for cheeseburgers came from?
CHO: Well, I don't know exactly. I sort of - you know, there are many moments in the book where I speculate a lot based on my research. And, you know, one of the things I learned in my research was that many Koreans after the war would go to the military bases to search for food in the garbage. And they - you know, in the oral histories of Korean War survivors, they would talk about how, well, you know, all of us Koreans are starving, but the Americans have so much food that they can throw away all these hamburgers and hot dogs. And so they would talk about digging through the trash, lifting up the used napkins and cigarette butts and finding a half-eaten hamburger and then eating that. And so I imagined that maybe my mother in a moment of hunger found one of these hamburgers, found a cheeseburger and felt like it was the most delicious thing she had ever eaten. And I know that when she was dating my father, he would take her out to an American restaurant, and the only thing she ever wanted to order was a cheeseburger.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We're speaking with Grace Cho. Her new memoir is "Tastes Like War." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Grace M. Cho. She has a new memoir about her mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The book is called "Tastes Like War."
You know, your brother, as you know, wrote something online, I guess in late October, about the book disputing many parts of it, saying that it should be regarded as fiction. But one of the things he said was that he felt that you made no effort to interview living members of the family to see if their memories were consistent with your own. What about that? How much did you talk to people in the family who - you know, I mean, I have three sisters, and whenever we talk about events in our lives, and sometimes significant ones, we remember things differently. Memory's a funny thing that way. I mean, what did you do to check your own memories of all this?
CHO: 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. You know, I think that my family members have been trying to keep the family secrets so that if they have - you know, 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.
DAVIES: Can you understand your brother and your sister-in-law's impulse to want to keep your mother's history private?
CHO: Well, I do understand their impulse, and I know that they, you know, they didn't want her history to be public. But, you know, when I learned that information about my mom, it profoundly shaped the rest of my life. I mean, it was really one of the largest forces in my life to try to understand the social context, the political context of my mother's life but also to denounce the shame and stigma that is attached to sex work. And so - I mean, I understand that they don't want it to be public, but it's also my story. It's my mother as well. And, you know, I have only the best intentions of it, which is that I want my mom to be seen.
And I don't want her to have to hide behind some whitewashed version of who she was because 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, you know, to do the same for other people who, you know, might be attached to some label like schizophrenic or sex worker to let them know that we can see them in their humanity and that, you know, those labels do not have to define them.
DAVIES: Families are complicated, and a crisis like this kind of illness certainly doesn't make things easier. You've spent a lot of years thinking about and looking into your mother's life. Are you still troubled by what you don't know?
CHO: You know, I've tried to make peace with a lot of the things that I don't know, and I've written about it quite a lot. I wrote about it in my first book around this idea of a kinship of uncertainty because I know there are so many people out there, particularly in the Korean diaspora, who don't know that much about their family histories because there have been all of these erasures of those histories, erasures of the records. And in particular, I feel a lot of kinship with Korean adoptees who have spent their whole lives doing record searches to try to find their birth families. And I think that there have been a lot of parallels between their experiences and the experiences of biracial Koreans who are sort of born out of this legacy of U.S. militarism.
DAVIES: Grace Cho, thank you so much for speaking with us.
CHO: Thank you. It's really been a pleasure.
DAVIES: Grace M. Cho is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the College of Staten Island City University of New York. Her new memoir is "Tastes Like War."
On tomorrow's show, we talk with recently retired astronaut Chris Cassidy about living in space and avoiding its many deadly hazards. He's featured in the Disney+ documentary series "Among The Stars." Cassidy has gone to space three times. The last was a six-month stay on the International Space Station as its U.S. commander. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE MCKENNA'S "SWINGING ON A STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.