“Am I still Korean if there’s no one to call to ask which brand of seaweed to buy?” “Writes Michelle Zauner in the first paragraph of her memoir,”Crying in H Mart. “Zauner, who records music under the name Japanese breakfast, remembers growing up in the Pacific Northwest with two summer visits to Seoul, her mother’s battle with stage four cancer, and reconnecting with her roots by learning to cook Korean dishes.
KCRW: Your mother was working at a hotel front desk when she met your father, an American who ended up in Seoul selling used cars to the US military. They returned to the United States shortly after you were born. What was your childhood like growing up biracial in Eugene, Oregon?
Michelle Zauner: âAs a kid, that was something that made me really special. It was before the differences … from your peers started to look like a trademark, which I think is something. something that starts to happen more in my teenage years. But even growing up in Eugene, where the population is maybe 95% Caucasian, when I was young, I really enjoyed my biracial upbringing, and I really enjoyed my biracial upbringing. had the incredible privilege of visiting Seoul every other summer so I really felt like I had the best of both worlds for a while.
What was the reaction when you returned to Korea on your semester trips to visit your family?
âIt’s interesting because I’ve always felt extremely pampered. I grew up in a very small family. It was just my mom and dad who grew up in Eugene, and when I went to Seoul to visit my mom’s family, I was surrounded by relatives. My grandma’s apartment was a three bedroom apartment with my two aunts, and my cousin lived in this little closet-sized room, and my grandma is over there. My mom and I slept on a futon on the floor in the living room. At that age, I was so used to growing up alone, without siblings, in the woods. And it was kind of a lonely childhood. Going to Seoul and being kind of pampered by all these Korean women was a real treat for me as a kid.
Could you describe the role food played in these tours and some of the cooking or dining experiences that remain indelibly imprinted with you?
âWhen I was a kid I was a tomboy and really struggled to be good. My mom constantly scolded me because I was very reckless, rowdy, and impatient. At a young age, I started to realize that while I couldn’t be well-behaved or good, I was excellent at being brave. And I’ve always been really rewarded for being a brave eater, especially in Korea. I remember that all of my relatives always called me somehow “yeppeun” which meant “pretty”, whenever I ate well, so it was always something that was really celebrated in my house.
I think I just didn’t realize my mom really didn’t talk about her homesickness. She was sort of protecting me from that part of her that she kept hidden from my father and me. And every time we visited Korea, she would really light up to eat the kind of food she was lacking. Ultimately, it was a big part of my childhood that she really wanted to share with me. I think, in a way, seeing myself truly enjoying the foods that she grew up with made her think “this one’s mine”.
How old were you when your mom was diagnosed with cancer and where in your life have you been?
“I was 25 when we found out my mom had stage four GI [gastrointestinal] Cancer. I was sort of wading, in all the ways my mom warned me I was going to wade. By then, I had lived away from home for seven years. And I guess she had sort of accepted that playing music wasn’t something I was going to grow up on. At one point she said something really sweet to me, where she said, “I realized I had never met someone like you before.” And I kind of understood that to mean, ‘I understand. It is not something that will go away. And I hadn’t understood that before. And now I’m going to give you the space to go do it.
But things weren’t going particularly well. I was in a very underrated group called Little Big League. I lived in Philadelphia and we did a lot of DIY tours, slept on the floor, paid our dues, played shows in the basement in front of 10 people, we got paid in cigarette butts and cans of soup.
And I got the call when I was in New York. I think I was starting to wonder if this lifestyle was really going to work for me. I hit 25, and it was kind of like, “Well, maybe if I haven’t made it so far, I should start coming up with a backup plan.” I was in New York trying to put this backup plan in place. I was hanging out with a friend who worked at a music magazine called The Fader, thinking maybe I could get involved in music journalism, when I got the call that my mom was sick.
At that point, the women in your mother’s life took turns looking after her. Food must have been a very heavy and important part of this care. How did the food find its way into the way you took care of your mother, and then later, reconnecting with the memories of her?
âBeyond the general idea that food is this language of love for a lot of parents and their children or families, I think there was also this feeling of shame that I was trying to undo that I was trying to undo. had failed as a guard. I really struggled. There were the first six weeks my mother had her first chemotherapy treatment, and I had flown to Eugene to live there as a caretaker. And I knew, especially as an only child, that I had this responsibility, that this great role reversal was going to happen. And that I had always feared this moment. And it had arrived much sooner than I had expected. But I really wanted to take on this responsibility of taking care of my mom and nurturing my mom.
And I discoveredâ¦ this undisputed part of my identity. I am Korean. I know that. I know Korean cuisine. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t know it as well as I thought. What I love about Korean cuisine is that it really shows the extremes. Our seafood is freshly killed and still moves often. And the hot food is hot and still bubbling in those little earthenware pots. And cold dishes are served in ice bowls or on rocks. It’s really red. It’s really spicy. It is really tasty.
When you are undergoing chemotherapy and have constant nausea and sores on your tongue, you cannot eat this kind of food. I was really lost like, ‘What can I do with my mom? I don’t know what kind of food you eat as a Korean when you are sick because why would I have eaten these things growing up? ‘ So I really struggled. There is a section of the book where I list a number of failures, not for lack of trying, in trying to figure out how to feed my mother. And it was just extremely difficult. There was this woman who came to live with us called Kay, who really took charge of that.
And I think after my mom passed away, a big part of the reason I started cooking Korean food was this sort of psychological destruction from that shame of failure that I felt during the process. of not knowing how to help.
âI think one thing about Korean culture is that it can be very private. I think a lot of East Asian cultures don’t use measurements or write recipes. It is that kind of private thing that is passed on within families. So when this woman came to live with us, this kind of education which was mysterious to me and which was forbidden to me. I asked him several times: “Let me help you prepare these dishes”. And it wasn’t really something that was easily shared with me. I think a lot of Korean families have this kind of coveted information.
So Maangchi was one of the few people I found who taught you how to cook Korean food in English and willingly share this information which seems very private to other women. She is such an effervescent presence. It is completely magnetic. And such a calming woman. And I remember her pronouncing zucchini like “zukweeny” and I had such a wonderful memory of how my mother said “zukweeny”. I just had such comfort from her. And I started to follow her videos religiously and found that it was the only real joy, week after week, to cook with her. She has become so important to me. This YouTube vlogger that I had never met really saved me in so many ways, really brought joy back into my life and in a very calm way.