Books

“Is This Too Much? Is This Too Far?”

Why Michelle Zauner, aka Japanese Breakfast, didn’t shy away from “shame and embarrassment” in her memoir about losing her mother and finding her heritage.

Collage of Crying in H Mart book cover, which features two pairs of chopsticks holding noodles between them
Illustration by Slate. Image by Knopf.

“I’ve just posted my most complicated TikTok yet,” Michelle Zauner cheerily informs me when she picks up the phone. “Everyone I work with is like, ‘You should make a TikTok, it’s really important to help promote your stuff.’ And I just spent, like, an hour figuring out how to add text.”

In the video, Zauner shows us step by step how to make dongchimi, a Korean radish dish served cold in a brine. “Add some rice and some ice cubes, sesame oil, red pepper flakes, sesame seeds, and it’s like my favorite thing to eat in the summertime,” she says.

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Even the musician’s moniker, Japanese Breakfast, denotes a longtime passion for food and all things delicious. At 32, Zauner has released two full-length studio albums, with her third, Jubilee, coming out in June. She’s driven and almost compulsively busy, whether it’s working on a collaborative side project during the pandemic, directing music videos, or composing a soundtrack for an upcoming indie game. The subject of our call, however, is not her musical endeavors, but her food-rich memoir, Crying in H Mart.

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Zauner, like me, is half Asian, half white. Also like me, Zauner gained early membership to the inevitable Dead Parent Club; she lost her mother to cancer in 2014, when she was 25, while my father passed just after I turned 26. Much of her discography reflects the evolution of her grief, but Zauner’s book—which takes its title from an essay she wrote for the New Yorker in 2018—chronicles how embracing Korean food helped her come to terms with her cultural heritage and connect with the memory and legacy of her mother.

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Crying in H Mart is as bold, self-aware, and sharp as Zauner is herself. She writes meticulously about her experience with loss, a narrative that is punctuated throughout by lavish, almost pornographic descriptions of food and the complicated viscera of mixed-race identity. Upon finishing it, I felt like I had finally read a book that was actually for me. I spoke to Zauner about putting difficult details on the page, reckoning with an imperfect parent, and feeling torn between two cultures. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Shasha Léonard: Your first two albums were very much focused on your mother’s passing and the grief from it. It’s wonderful to hear the joy in Jubilee, your third studio album. How does the music-writing process differ from writing a memoir like Crying in H Mart?

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Michelle Zauner: One thing that’s really different and wonderful about writing songs is that you get to write in fragments. While writing Crying in H Mart, there was a lot more butting my head against “I want this to be beautiful” and “I don’t know how to get it there.” It felt less intuitive and more of a struggle than music making. And that might just be because I’ve written more albums at this point than books.

It was also very lonely. My records have a lot of collaborators on them, and when you’re writing a book, it’s a very insular process that’s very confusing and dark. It’s a lot of writing and rewriting in a way that I don’t do so much when I’m writing songs. It’s very “first thought, best thought” a lot of times in songwriting.

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There are so many different meanings infused [in songs], whereas there’s so much less to hide behind in book writing. If you wrote a crummy line or maybe didn’t sing to the best of your ability, there’s layers of 10 different instruments all working to convey something. In writing prose for the memoir, if it’s not working, it’s just not working. It’s harder to figure out how to fix it.

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Speaking of not being able to hide behind anything, there are a lot of moments in the book that feel raw in their honesty. Were there any parts that were hard to relive—and did writing about them change your perspective at all? 

It was really, really hard for me to write the chapter where my parents and I go back to Korea. We go to Seoul after we found out that her cancer was terminal, and instead of having this beautiful vacation where she gets to live a few moments of her life to the fullest and we eat seafood in Jeju-do and all the stuff, we just ended up in the hospital for three weeks. It was a nightmare watching her health deteriorate, the blisters on her mouth—it was just a horrifying experience. Writing about it was really hard because I wanted there to be some joy in these last moments of her life. I felt like I had to show it, but there were a lot of parts that I was like, is this too much? Is this too far?

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I was definitely very nervous about it. But ultimately I felt like it was that kind of shame and embarrassment that might have made it so haunting and powerful. I remember reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and there’s a moment where she eats some of her mom’s ashes. And I was like, whoa, that’s fucking dark and gross and intense as hell, but I’ll always remember that book because of that moment. I feel like sharing the most private, sometimes grotesque moments are what make something feel so wildly human. I just felt like I had to go there or at least had to write it out and decide later if I was going to cut it.

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I just read my audiobook last week, and it was the first time that I reread the book since I turned it in. I only cried one time, and it was right in that same chapter which will always be a very tough, traumatic memory for me, where my mom loses her hair. You know, my mom was really kind of a vain person; she was very beautiful and stylish and she liked to look good. She would always do her skin care regimen in that mirror, and when she would buy a new coat she would runway walk in that mirror. To see her really lose it in front of that same mirror and look at this person that didn’t feel beautiful to her anymore was just so heartbreaking.

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In the book you write about trying therapy and after a few sessions deciding you’d be better off just treating yourself to a nice lunch twice a week. In deciding that cooking is a more effective method of working out your grief, you discover Maangchi, the Korean American YouTuber known for her instructional cooking videos. What can you tell me about that relationship?

She kind of becomes this little digital guardian for me. I got to meet her a few times now and we’ve been in contact. For my 30th birthday, she actually made dinner for me. She’s a very generous and warm person that I’m very lucky that I got to know. I think a lot of people actually feel this way about her and she knows it and really steps up to the role.

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Zauner seated at an event. She is speaking into a mic she holds in one hand as she gestures with the other hand.
Michelle Zauner in Philadelphia on Oct. 10, 2019. Lisa Lake/Getty Images for the Recording Academy

That reminds me of—have you heard of @YourKoreanDad

Yeah, he’s really sweet, but I don’t really get it. Maybe because I never really had a great relationship with my dad. It’s interesting what brings comfort to people. For me, I don’t need that in my life, and he doesn’t bring the same kind of joy that Maangchi has, but I’ve seen his videos talking to people who never had a dad like him, or he reminds them of their Korean dad that died. I’ve seen TikTok duets where people are crying while watching his video, but when I watch his videos, I’m like, “Oh, that’s so cute.”

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I guess I kind of feel that way about Maangchi. Some people watch Maangchi, they’re like, “Oh, she’s just like this really cute cooking woman.” For me she’s so much more than that.

You and I both grew up with white dads and Asian mothers. In my experience, growing up in a mixed household gives a lot of the potential gender-fraught parental issues a complicated racial element as well. In the book, when you discover your father is having affairs with women online, and when confronted with the idea that he would probably marry another Asian woman after your mother passed, you talk about the concept of yellow fever.

I had similar experiences growing up, but my father passed away and I can’t ask him the things I’d like to now. What was it like for you to confront these issues of race in your own upbringing for the book? Have you talked to him about it?

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That was an extremely tough thing for me to figure out how to navigate. [The book] skims the surface of what my relationship is like with my father and what his relationship was like with my mom, but I also just felt like it was so important to put in there because I had this hunch that a lot of girls have had that experience with their dad. I wish that I had someone talk about it and just acknowledge what’s there.

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My dad and I actually don’t speak anymore. It’s still something that I’m trying to figure out and I definitely don’t have all of the answers to. I mean, in some ways, I do feel like I was very lucky to have a dad and was provided for by this person. But I think it’s just complicated.

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You write about, after your mom passes, having to pick your father up after he totaled his car driving drunk with grief, and you thought for a second you were going to be an orphan. Even your mother mentions to you that he doesn’t sit with her in the hospital or know how to care for her.

When my mom was sick and in the hospital, I did for the first time feel really bad that a lot of men aren’t taught how to take care of other people very well. It’s not as important of a skill for them as other things, in the same way that I really resent not being given a toolbox when I was younger. We should be going forth giving a very balanced skill set to both genders or to all genders. That’s a societal thing that needs to be worked on.

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And, you know, he was also a child of abuse. His mom was largely absent, and he never knew his father. He never had a role model of what a father actually does because he never had one. I admire him in many ways and I think the fact that my dad was not abusive is amazing because the odds were really stacked against him for him to be. For the most part he became a very well-adjusted and successful guy. He’s a self-made man and took so much crap in his life and really worked his ass off.

A shared narrative between a lot of mixed-race folks, including myself, is wanting to fit in, not having to “pick a side” or, rather, not to be constantly othered. What is being half Asian like for you, or did you always just kind of feel like it didn’t play much of a role in your life?

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I don’t feel like I was really interested in my Korean heritage until my mom passed away. Obviously it was a part of my life naturally, growing up with a Korean mother and going to Seoul every other summer and having Korean relatives, but it wasn’t something I thought about very much until she passed away, honestly.

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I was definitely really embarrassed at times. I went through a phase, especially in middle school, when you’re just, like, so embarrassed of everything. One thing that was really important to me was my mom always referred to herself in the third person as “Mommy,” which is such a Korean thing. That drove me crazy because I would be at the mall and bump into a friend or something and she’d say, “Mommy is going to be over there.” And I’d be like, “Mom, just say ‘I.’ ” Stuff like that. Now it’s like, “Oh, that’s so cute! What a little bitch I was being!” But at the time it was just mortifying, like, so, so mortifying.

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My mom’s name was Chongmi and people would call her Chow Mein sometimes.

Similar things would happen with my mom’s name too. Her maiden name and my middle name is Pang. I heard “ping pong” more times than I care to remember.

My name is Michelle Chongmi Zauner, and I used to pretend that I didn’t have a middle name, because if you see the name Michelle Zauner, you don’t know what I’m going to look like. And it felt like a power to me [because] you don’t know anything about me with a name like that. That’s what really bothered me about being half Asian, was I wanted to be in control of my narrative. Anything that isn’t like being a neutral body, like a neutral white body, makes me feel out of control of my narrative for what you assume of me.

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When I was in college, I took every single creative writing course that was available except for nonfiction, because I never thought I was going to be able to write nonfiction or even was interested in writing nonfiction because I didn’t want all my stories to be about identity and Asian culture and stuff like that. And so when I did write short fiction about losing my aunt to cancer, I changed Eunmi, which is her name, to Emmy. I made them eat dinner together and they had chicken and broccoli instead of rice and banchan or whatever, because to me it was like, this is the story. I didn’t want to spend three pages of pretext saying I grew up in Korea and I’m half white, but my aunt is Korean and she speaks English fluently and we visited—I didn’t want to write all of this stuff. The story is: A woman has cancer, her niece visits her, and they have a conversation. And you can get right into the meat of it because there’s no pretext or whatever.

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My characters could never be Asian because I’d have to explain too much or it would paint it in a certain way in my mind. I just wanted a clean slate and I felt like being mixed-race really tainted that. I couldn’t do things that other people could do.

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The U.S. is currently facing a frightening amount of anti–Asian American sentiment, with hate crimes against us spiking, most recently with the shooting in Georgia. Your book is coming out during this fraught time. How does that feel for you as a person who is also half Asian, half white?

It is really wild that that shooting happened within the same week that Minari was nominated for all of these awards. There was so much celebration and joy in the Asian American community about our voices finally being recognized. But then there’s this whole other part of the world that it feels like we’re not impacting at all, you know.

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I also feel that the victims of these hate crimes are not even seen as real human beings by their attackers, and why it impacts us so much is because when I see a photo of an old Asian woman with a contusion across her face, that looks like my grandma. I think about my mother’s mother, and I think about my mom if she had gotten older, if someone did that to her… It really rattles me to my core. The people who do these things, they don’t see their grandma. They don’t even see a person. I think people of color are still treated this way and so I would like to believe that having these very intricate stories about what makes us real people is helpful. But I also don’t want to use what’s going on to place and promote my book.

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It’s not about that.

It’s not, it’s about the humanity of a mother and a daughter, and it’s about illness. We happen to be Korean American. I hope that it just brings some joy to the Asian American community to see more stories coming out about very personal experiences and the very different experiences that we all have. I hope that we purge all of the politicians who have stoked this racist war. I think every politician that’s referred to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “kung flu” need to be held accountable for their actions. They were warned that this was going to have repercussions and just completely and carelessly stoked this fire. We need to purge every politician that has accepted NRA donations.

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You write in the book that your mom always used to say, “Save 10 percent of yourself.” My mom often said something similar. Growing up, everything was a private matter. What we ate for dinner was a private manner. For the same reasons, I am hesitant to share much online or share my writing with my mom. I wonder: What do you think your mom would say if she could read your book? 

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What I want is an Asian mom reading my book and thinking to themselves, “I hope this is how you’ll write about me someday.” I feel like if my mom read a book like this about someone else, she might say something like that. That’s my hope.

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She would have scolded me for a lot. It was definitely very hard for me to write some parts of it. I didn’t want to bring shame to my family. [laughs] And there are some really private parts that I felt like she wouldn’t have wanted me to share, but I needed to share. That’s, unfortunately, just part of what it’s like being an artist. You have to go there sometimes, even if it makes the people in your life kind of uncomfortable.

I think the book would help any mom understand or acknowledge certain truths about how daughters love their mothers, regardless of culture. It’s just difficult sometimes. You talk about the envy you had for your friend growing up who was best friends with her mom, and I remember feeling that way when I was a kid too. It was unfathomable to me. 

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Totally. You know, I envied her so much, but privately, I didn’t realize that she was having her own issues with her mom and envious of my relationship with my mom too.

Yeah. The grass is always greener, isn’t it? Last question: When we’ve all been vaccinated and the pandemic is over, where is the first restaurant you’ll go in to eat at?

Oh, I’ve been really wanting to try this place called COTE. It’s this really fancy Korean barbecue restaurant in Manhattan. I’ve been dying to try it.

In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! —Forrest Wickman, culture editor