Grace M. Cho, "Tastes Like War: A Memoir" (Feminist Press, 2021)

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The US military camptowns were established shortly after the Second World War in 1945, appropriating the Japanese comfort stations. The Korean government actively supported the creation of camptowns for its own economic and national security interests. Utilizing the Japanese colonial policy, the US military and the South Korean government sought to control camptown women’s bodies through vaginal examinations, isolation wards, and jails, monitoring women for potential venereal diseases. Denigrated as a “traitor” for “mixing flesh with foreigners,” camptown women and their labors were disavowed in Korean society.[1] However, the Korean government also depended on camptown women for its economic development: camptown women’s earnings accounted for 10% of Korea’s foreign currency.[2] Speaking against this silence, Grace Cho’s new memoir, Tastes Like War (Feminist Press at CUNY, 2021), brings to light not only the pain and trauma of militarized violence as experienced by her mother who worked as a camptown woman in the 1960s and 1970s, but also the beauty and poignant resilience of her life.

In Tastes Like War: A Memoir (Feminist Press, 2021), Cho explores the connection between food, war, trauma, family, and love. After marrying a merchant marine, Cho’s mother moved to a white town of Chehalis in Washington in the 1970s. Abundance, social mobility, and progress – America promised Cho’s mother what seemed beyond her grasp in Korea. However, the daily traumas of racialized violence and institutionalized abuses at her workplace furthered her fragmentation as a Third World subject whose body and subjectivity were created by complex ties between the histories of empire, militarized and sexual violence, and racialization. To understand the roots of her mother’s schizophrenia, Cho delves into this history, focusing not only on the traumas but also on hope, strength, beauty, and resilience as embodied by her mother. The everyday acts of cooking Korean meals and foraging for mushrooms and blackberries signaled her mother’s will to survive no matter the condition set by the global empire. Through the act of writing, Cho reconstructs the fragments of her mother’s life – illustrating her mother’s persistent and creative drive for life despite the historical violence that continued to condition her present and the future.

[1] First quote is from Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora, 94 and second quote is from Cho, Tastes Like War, 93.

[2] Park, Emmanuel Moonchil, dir. Podŭrapge (Comfort). 2020; Seoul, Korea: Independent, 2020. Vimeo.

Da In Ann Choi is a PhD student at UCLA in the Gender Studies department. Her research interests include care labor and migration, reproductive justice, social movement, citizenship theory, and critical empire studies. She can be reached at dainachoi@g.ucla.edu.

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