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[Eye interview] Food as the great connector

Singer, author, director Michelle Zauner talks about how she found connection to her mother, Korean culture through cooking her mom’s dishes

June 10, 2022 - 09:00 By Kim Hoo-ran
Michelle Zauner speaks during a Zoom interview with The Korea Herald, April 28.
A young woman, born to a Korean mother and white father, stands in a Korean supermarket chain crying as she looks at the side dishes on display that her late mother used to make for her. It’s the scene that opens Michelle Zauner’s bestselling memoir, “Crying in H Mart,” and one that many Korean Americans will have no difficulty imagining.

For Zauner, food formed an unbreakable bond between her and her mother. Her mother made Korean dishes for her Korean-born daughter who moved to Eugene, Oregon, with her parents when she was 9-months-old. When her mother fell ill with pancreatic cancer, Zauner tried to make Korean dishes for her mother.

When her mother’s close Korean friend rejects Zauner’s attempts to cook for her mother, it feels as if the friend is refusing to acknowledge Zauner’s Korean side.

This feeling of being unseen, or of being refused to be seen, is one that presses heavily on Zauner. She feels this when she is visiting her mother’s side of the family in Korea, or living in a college town in Oregon. In Seoul, Koreans comment on her foreignness -- her face is not Korean enough. In Oregon, she is seen as a foreigner and people ask, “Where are you really from?”

It is a topic that Zauner explores through food in her memoir, also available in Korean from Munhakdongne.

The year 2021 was a big year for Zauner, an author, musician and director. “Crying in H Mart” debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and her third album with the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast, “Jubilee,” released that year went on to be nominated for best alternative music album and best new artist at this year’s Grammy Awards.

“I feel like I sort of planted a lot of seeds and they all kind of started sprouting and flourishing at the same time,” said Zauner about her recent successes during an interview with The Korea Herald via Zoom on April 28. “I spent many years working on this record and this book, and I think it was just the right time,” she said.

The book is also available as an audiobook narrated by the author herself. It works wonderfully for the memoir, her voice rendering an immediacy and intimacy to a very personal story.

When Zauner pronounces Korean words and expressions -- mostly food and often-used everyday Korean expressions -- the tone of her voice shifts ever so slightly. Her smoky, low voice takes on a softer, almost girlish quality as she pronounces “eomma,” which is “mother” in Korean.

“That makes sense,” Zauner said, when this was pointed out. “Probably frozen in the Korean I learned in my youth,” she said. The baby of her family, she spoke to her family in that way, too, she explained.

“Crying in H Mart” is a story of a fraught mother-daughter relationship that evolves through time and through changes in circumstances.

“I think my mom and I had a very tumultuous relationship. We were, I think, simultaneously so close and devoted to one another, but also always at odds,” she said. “That’s so much of what the book is about. We really struggled to understand each other across a different generation and a different culture and a different language,” she said.

The struggle is an often-told one -- an independent daughter and a protective mother who only wants the best for her daughter. “So we fought a lot, especially in my teenage years,” said Zauner. “Our relationship was just beginning to change and we were beginning to really appreciate each other as adults and friends for the first time in my early 20s. And that’s when she got sick,” she said. Her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away six months later, in 2014.

Her memoir started out as a “cuter, lighthearted essay” that was focused on her experience cooking with Maangchi, a well-known Korean cooking YouTuber.

“I was working my first day job in an office and I was very creatively unfulfilled. And I had just finished this record and it felt like I had so much to work through with my grief and making sense of what had happened,” said Zauner, recalling how her writing started. “And in the process of writing this essay about Maangchi, I realized there was so much more there that needed to be said, because, you have to understand, my whole life changed. At 25, I just was very close to illness and death,” she said.

“My nuclear family fell apart. I had no siblings to relate to. I had no peers to relate to. It felt like no one could understand the extent of this great tragedy in my life,” she explained. “I felt like no one knew what I saw and what I had gone through. And I desperately needed to explain to people what I was feeling.”

The resulting essay, “Love, Loss and Kimchi,” won Glamour magazine’s essay contest in 2016. Literary agents began reaching out, but her music career was taking off and she went on tour with Japanese Breakfast for the next two years.

Michelle Zauner performs with Japanese Breakfast (Michelle Zauner)
Her band performed in Seoul for the first time in 2017, and she stayed on in the city for six weeks from December 2017 to January 2018. It was during this time that she began writing the first six chapters of her book.

“The first chapter was ‘Crying in H-Mart,’” she said.

When the New Yorker magazine said they were interested in publishing some of her writings, she edited the first chapter and sent it in. “And it just exploded,” she said.

Alfred A. Knopf bought the rights to publish the book in an auction, and when the book came out in 2021, it immediately became a bestseller. Zauner had not expected such a response. “I really wrote this book for myself in the same way that I think I kind of have always written albums. My literary career took off in a way that my music career didn’t get to, so I was really, really taken aback,” she said.

What explains the runaway success of a memoir by a 33-year-old?

“I think that it’s maybe just the right time. I think that there hasn’t been a book written by someone kind of straddling two cultures and, more and more, that kind of upbringing is very common,” she said. Growing up biracial in a small town, her parents said that she would meet more people like her when she grew up; in the meanwhile, she grew up feeling isolated and lonely. “That kind of experience is shared by a lot of people who haven’t gotten to read any kind of story from that point of view before,” she said.

The universality of the topics dealt with in the book -- loss and grief, connection between food and culture, a love-hate relationship between mother and daughter -- account for the wide appeal of the book. “That hit a sweet spot of all these very universal things presented in kind of a new way. And just got really lucky, I guess,” she said.

With her mother and many of the relatives on her mother’s side having passed away, Zauner finds comfort in hearing the Korean language in music or in films, or just seeing older women on Korean reality TV making certain gestures that remind her of her mother.

For her second book, which she plans to work on for the next couple of years, Zauner would like to live in Korea for a year and study the language. “I think that I’ll never feel truly Korean without speaking the language fluently. And I don’t know if I’ll ever learn Korean unless I turn it into a kind of project and I live there,” she said.

“But I’m sure that in the process of doing that project, I’ll learn that I’ll never feel truly Korean.”

“Crying in H Mart” is being made into a movie by Orion Pictures and Zauner is keen on casting her favorite Korean actor, Kim Su-mi, a veteran actor known for her home cooking. Zauner happened upon the actor while watching “Two Days, One Night,” a reality show, at her cousin’s recommendation.

Watching her cooking videos, Zauner learned that the actor connected to her parents who died when she was very young, by learning how to cook the dishes her mother used to make.

“I really, really hope that she will consider maybe playing a role in ‘Crying in H Mart’ the film,” she said.

As for herself playing a character in the film, “Absolutely not,” Zauner said.

“I would love the opportunity to write at least one original song to try to, you know, get my Oscar nomination,” she said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Zauner will be in Korea this summer with Japanese Breakfast, performing at Incheon Pentaport Rock Festival.