Julie McDonald Commentary: Memoir Delves Into Schizophrenia, Portrays Chehalis as Racist


A well-received book published last year propelled Chehalis onto a national stage but left it with a black eye.

“Tastes Like War,” a 296-page memoir written by Grace M. Cho, a Korean-American, focuses on her struggle to understand her mother’s schizophrenia but also recounts bullying, racism and sexual assault she suffered growing up in Chehalis during the 1970s and early 1980s.

The book, published by the Feminist Press, was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Time magazine and NPR dubbed it among the Best Books of the Year in 2021, and it won the 2022 Asian/Pacific American Award in Literature.

“Cho hauntingly captures the fragility of life in its most painful and beautiful moments,” Publishers Weekly wrote. “This heartfelt and nuanced tribute is remarkable.”

The memoir, a fascinating look at schizophrenia and its causes, tends to paint Chehalis with a broad negative brush, condemning the entire town for the actions of racists and bullies.

“The racism in Chehalis was not of the colorblind variety,” Cho wrote. “All colors but white were highly visible. You could count the nonwhite people on two hands, a few fingers each of Black, Brown, and Yellow.”

Although I’m sure minorities were just that in the 1970s — a tiny fraction of the town’s population of 5,700 — we probably had more than 10 people of color.

“I remember a time of being the only Asian kid in my elementary school, and my mother’s extreme sense of isolation,” Cho said in an interview. “My parents always made a big deal whenever a new immigrant family arrived.”

Cho’s brother disagreed with her perception of Lewis County. In fact, in December he posted a negative review about what he called his sister’s “questionable memoir.”

“I’m the author’s brother, and my wife and I are the ones who actually took care of my mother for many years,” he wrote. “We were surprised to hear of this memoir as we were not consulted to see whether our memories matched hers. After reading, I can see why we were ignored, as I can attest that many substantial portions of this memoir are simply not accurate and goes beyond differing perspectives.”

He noted the community had 37 Asian people in town when they arrived, not three.

“I cannot recommend this book, and we are saddened beyond words.”

Cho acknowledged their differing perspectives. “When I was in my early 20s, he told me that he didn’t think Chehalis was as bad as I made it out to be,” she wrote.

Although bullied by children, Cho found positives thanks to teaching staff.

“Especially in elementary school, the classroom felt like a safe space for me,” Cho said in response to my question about what, if anything, she liked about Chehalis.

In addition to the Northwest’s natural beauty, she loved her educators, especially her second-grade teacher, and her high school French instructor spoke to her about finding strength to carry on while facing adversity.

Growing up in “the friendly city” of Chehalis, Cho said she faced racial slurs, discrimination and bullying.

During elementary school recesses, children — primarily boys — nearly daily mocked the author with overtly racist chants about Chinese, Japanese and dirty knees.

“Over time my response evolves, ‘I’m half Korean,’” she wrote in the memoir. “I want to distance myself from the words that make slanted eyes and women’s breasts seem shameful, but it’s too late. The shame is already inside of me.”

She insisted she was half American, noting, “With enough time I learn to make my mother disappear.”

A neighborhood blond bully — a girl — threatened Cho with a rusty hammer dipped in fresh dog feces while a boy from the bus stop tackled her to the ground. As Cho fled, the girl hollered, “Dog eater!”

On high school tennis courts, two boys pinned Cho to the ground while a third grabbed her racket. “The boy with the racket hits me between the legs with the handle, pumps it up and down, to simulate rape,” she wrote.

Nobody helped her.

“I wonder if they’re choosing not to see, because that’s the kind of thing that happens in Chehalis,” she wrote.

Traumatized by the sexual violence, she nearly attempted suicide at 15 after a fight with her parents.

“I release my anguish with a loud guttural cry and run across the kitchen toward the knife block,’’ she wrote. “‘I’m going to kill myself!’ I yell as I grab the chef’s knife. My father wrests it out of my hand, my mother stands back and gasps. I collapse on the floor in tears. ‘I hate this town!’ I scream at my father. ‘Why did you bring me here?’”

Her father, an American sailor, met her mother in Korea when she worked as a bar hostess, or as the author later surmised, a sex worker for American military men. Her father was more than two decades older than her mother when they married in 1971. Her mother immigrated to Chehalis in 1972 when her son was eight and Grace a year old.

“As hostile as the environment was for me, it was more so for my mother, who for years had to navigate unfriendly waters by herself while my father was at sea,” Cho wrote.

Her mother, alone with two children, missed Korean cuisine but mastered American cooking to fit in, her daughter said. Although an excellent cook, she wanted more for her daughter — a college education.

Her father’s friends and family, schoolteachers and neighbors treated them kindly, Cho wrote, but “at the outer limits of Chehalis’s six square miles were the hicks, the rednecks, the shitkickers, as the kids in my high school called them.”

To protect her living family members, Cho published under a pseudonym that she has since adopted as her legal name.

People in Chehalis knew her mother as “the Oriental” or “the Chinese Lady” — that is, until she began foraging for blackberries and wild mushrooms in nearby green forested wilderness. Then her moniker changed to “the Blackberry Lady,” fearless and gun-toting, according to her daughter. She bought freezers and, for six or seven years, sold fresh or frozen small wild blackberries, pies, jams, later mushrooms.

“In psychic terms, she had the capacity to feed the very community that had treated her as a second-class citizen, to rise above the fray and be the gracious one,” Cho wrote.

Her mother cleaned house for a logging magnate, earning a dollar an hour, half the minimum wage at the time. For 11 years, she worked graveyard shift at Green Hill School in Chehalis. After quitting her job, she volunteered with United Way and Special Olympics.

Cho recalled boys following their car, laughing and mimicking a fake Asian language. So when she was 15, her mother’s paranoia at first seemed justified. But then her mother began hallucinating.

“Twenty, 30 years later, I’ll look back on 1986 as the year my mother began to die,” Cho wrote.

Her mother obsessed about nosy people in town whom she thought spread rumors about the family. She hung up the phone when a girl from Adna called her daughter, saying people in that town wanted to hurt them. Her mother also questioned which of their neighbors belonged to the John Birch Society, a radical right-wing organization founded in 1958 that Cho said thrived in 1970s Chehalis.

Cho explores the roots of schizophrenia, including social adversity during childhood, immigration, low socioeconomic status, being a person of color in a white community, and physical or sexual trauma. Decades later, she noted, researchers discovered the drop in estrogen during menopause can trigger schizophrenia.

The author, an associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies at the City University of New York, also penned “Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War,” a 264-page book published in December 2008 by the University of Minnesota Press. It examined unequal relationships between the United States and Korea and experiences of Korean women who served as sex workers for U.S. military members.

Although I focused on her Chehalis experiences, most of the memoir explores how she dealt with her mother’s mental illness. Her mother was born in Japan, where many Koreans worked as slave laborers, and during the Korean War, scrabbled for food in G.I. garbage bins to survive.

Her mother told her, “We used to catch spiders and grasshoppers, sometimes little birds, and roast ’em over a fire. The spiders tasted pretty darn good, but those little birds hardly have any meat on ’em.”

But that’s not what led to the book’s title, “Tastes Like War.”

“The title comes from her description of powdered milk, which was part of American food aid to Koreans during the war, although it resonates with her other story of searching for food,” Cho explained in an interview.

Doing a grade school family tree project, Grace learned about an uncle who simply disappeared when the Korean War started.

“My mother’s family never found out whether he died, defected, or simply had the misfortune of being in the wrong place on July 27, 1953,” Cho wrote. That’s the day the war ended.

In South Korea, Cho wrote, the president described women who married “Yankees” and bore mixed race children as “a social crisis” and promoted adoption as a solution to the “GI baby problem.”

In 1989, when Cho was accepted into an Ivy League college, Brown University, she and her parents were proud.

“Most of all, I felt the ache of my own desires,” she wrote. “I wanted to transcend the confinement of my miserable little town and my mother’s delusions.”

Cho wrote that she left for the East Coast to escape her parents and “the narrow-minded people who hated everything that I loved, everything that I was.”

Cho suffered a falling out with her father after discovering he had contributed to the presidential campaign of David Duke, a far-right, neo-Nazi white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

“My rejection of white identity must have made him feel like a failure,” she wrote. “The very thing that he had worked so hard for — my first-class education — was also the thing that created a gulf between us so wide and deep that we could never again stand on common ground.”

Cho’s father died in 1998; her mother in 2008.

“Writing the memoir actually helped me to forgive him for the things I used to be angry about because it allowed me to see him in his social context, the same way I did with my mother,” Cho said.

The memoir focuses on her relationship with her mother who cut down trees at the command of voices in her head, adopted a stray mouse as a pet, and twice attempted suicide, which Cho described as “devastating.”

“I also felt guilty, as the children of mentally ill parents tend to feel,” she said. “I thought that maybe it was because I hadn’t shown her enough love or because I hadn’t tried hard enough to get her help when I was in high school.”

Her mother withdrew into herself, never left her home, quit cooking and baking, and listened to the voices. But Cho learned to cook Korean meals, reminding her mother of her native homeland. The two bonded over kimchi and healed old wounds.

“If food is love, how must the experience of going hungry have deprived her heart and mind?” she wrote.

I asked if she felt guilty about basically airing the family secrets in print.

“I have a strong conviction that it’s important to have public conversations about mental illness, because keeping it hidden within the family reinforces the stigma,” she said. “I’ve had so many people reach out to me to tell me that they also have loved ones with mental illness and that it was a big family secret. Acknowledging it is the first step toward finding solutions — treating it more humanely and effectively, and also preventing some of the social factors that can trigger it.”

Cho offered advice to young people living in homes with a mentally ill parent.

“Look for allies and people who are sensitive and knowledgeable about mental illness,” she said. “Don’t be ashamed about it, and if your family is in denial, talk to another adult you trust, like a teacher or guidance counselor.”


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.