“Am I Korean if there is no one left to call and ask what brand of seaweed to buy?” Michelle Zauner writes in the first paragraph of her memoirs, “Crying at H Mart. “Zauner, who records music with the name Japanese breakfast, recalls her childhood in the Pacific Northwest with visits to Seoul every other summer, 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 reception when she met your father, an American who was in Seoul selling used cars to the US military. They moved to the states shortly after you were born. What was your childhood like when you grew up biracial in Eugene, Oregon?
Michelle Zauner: “When I was a kid, that was something that I felt made me really special. It was before the differences … with your peers started to feel like a mark of smallpox, which I feel is something that starts to happen more in adolescence. But even growing up in Eugene, where the population is perhaps 95% Caucasian, as a child, I really enjoyed my biracial upbringing, and I was privileged to be able to visit Seoul every other summer. So I really felt like I had the best of both worlds for a while. “
What was the response for you when you returned to Korea on your semester trips to visit your family?
“It’s interesting because I always felt extremely pampered. I grew up in a very small family. Only my mom and dad grew up in Eugene, and when I went to Seoul to visit my mom’s family, I was surrounded by relatives. My grandmother’s apartment was a three-room apartment with my two aunts, and my cousin lived in this little closet-sized room, and my grandmother is there. My mother and I slept on a futon on the living room floor. At that age, she was so used to growing up alone without siblings, in the woods. And it was a lonely childhood. Going to Seoul and being pampered by all these Korean women was a real treat for me as a child. “
Could you describe the role that food played in these visits, and some of the experiences cooking or being fed that are indelibly etched on you?
“When I was a kid, I was a tomboy and I really struggled to be good. My mom would constantly scold me because I was so reckless, loud, and impatient. At a young age, I began to realize that while I couldn’t be good or good, I was great at being brave. And I was always really rewarded for being a courageous eater, particularly in Korea. I remember all my relatives would always call me ‘yeppeun’, which meant ‘pretty’, whenever I ate well, so it was always something that was really celebrated in my house.
I don’t think I realized either that my mother was really holding back on her homesickness. She was protecting me from that part of her that she kept hidden from both my father and me. And every time we visited Korea, he really went on to eat the kind of food that he had missed. In the end, that was a big part of my childhood that he really wanted to share with me. I think in a way, watching me really enjoy the foods she grew up with made her think ‘that’s mine.’
How old were you when your mother was diagnosed with cancer and where was she in your life?
“I was 25 when we found out my mother had GI stage four [gastrointestinal] Cancer. I was a little wobbly, in all the ways my mother had warned me I was going to wobble. By then, he had lived away from home for seven years. And I guess she had accepted that playing music wasn’t something she was going to stop growing from. At one point, she said something really lovely to me, where she said, ‘I realized that I’ve never met someone like you before.’ And he had taken that to mean ‘I get it’. This is not something that will go away. And I didn’t understand it before. And now I’m going to give them the space to go and do that. ‘
But things were not going particularly well. He was in a very underrated band called Little Big League. I lived in Philly and we were doing a lot of DIY tours, sleeping on the floor, paying our fees, playing shows in the basement for 10, charging on cigarette butts and soup cans.
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 like, ‘Well maybe if I haven’t made it by now, I should start coming up with a backup plan.’ I was in New York trying to start putting together that backup plan. I was dating a friend who worked at a music magazine called The Fader, thinking that 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 caring for her. Food must have been a very tense and important part of that affection. How did the food get into the way you cared for your mother and then later reconnected with the memories of her?
“Beyond the general idea that food is this love language for many parents and their children or families, I think there was also this feeling of shame that I was trying to undo and that I had failed as a caregiver. I really fought. There were the first six weeks my mother went through her first chemotherapy treatment and I had flown to Eugene to live there as a caregiver. And I knew, especially as an only child, that I had this responsibility, that this important role reversal was coming. And that he had always dreaded this moment. And it had arrived much earlier than I thought. But I really wanted to take responsibility for taking care of my mother and feeding my mother.
And I discovered … this unquestionable part of my identity. I am Korean. I know this. I know Korean food. Suddenly, I realized that I didn’t know as well as I thought. What I love about Korean food is that it really features the extremes. Our shellfish are freshly butchered and are still moved frequently. And the hot food is boiling and still bubbling in these little clay pots. And the cold food is served in bowls with ice or on the rocks. It is really red. It is very spicy. It is really tasty.
When you undergo chemotherapy, you have nausea all the time and you get sores on your tongue, you cannot eat that kind of food. I was really lost like, ‘What can I do with my mother? I don’t know what kind of dishes you eat as a Korean when you are sick, because why would I have eaten those things as a child? So I really struggled. There is a section of the book where I list a number of failures, not from lack of trying, to try to figure out how to feed my mom. And it was extremely difficult. There was a woman who came to live with us named Kay, who really took care of that.
And I think that after my mother died, a big part of the reason I started cooking Korean food was this kind of psychological undoing of this shame of failure that I felt during the process of caring for not knowing how to help her. “
You found your way to Maangchiwho is really famous Youtube Korean cooking teacher, who has now written several books. What did she have in which you found comfort and help?
“I think one thing about Korean culture is that it can be very private. I believe that many East Asian cultures do not use measurements or write recipes. It is these kinds of private things that are passed down within families. So when this woman came to live with us, this kind of education that was mysterious and forbidden to me. I asked him several times, “Please let me help you prepare these dishes.” And it wasn’t really something that was easily shared with me. I think many Korean families have this kind of coveted information.
So Maangchi was one of the few people I came across who taught you how to cook Korean food in English and she easily shared this information that seems very private to other women. She is such an effervescent presence. She is completely magnetic. And such a relaxing woman. And I remember her pronouncing zucchini as ‘zukweeny’ and I had such a wonderful memory of the way my mom said ‘zukweeny’. I just had great consolation from her. And I started to follow her videos religiously and found that it was a real joy, week after week, to cook with her. She came to mean a lot to me. This YouTube vlogger that I never met really saved me in so many ways, it really brought joy back to my life and in a very calm way. “