Alternative Forms of Therapy

Speaking with Michelle Zauner about her new memoir, Crying in H Mart
April 23, 2021

Back in 2018, Michelle Zauner, also known as the writer Japanese Breakfast, published an essay in The New Yorker titled “Crying in H Mart.” It touched a nerve in the Asian American hive mind, because soon many Asian Americans seemed to be reading it or asking friends if they’d read it, passing the link and a New Yorker account password so they could whisper to each other, “Yes! I can relate to its sadness and the beauty!”

Zauner’s new memoir of the same name excavates how she got to these moments of crying in H Mart — from her childhood in Eugene, Oregon, to her struggles as a young artist; through her mother’s cancer diagnosis and death; and the grief that forced her to re-examine her Korean identity.

Our conversation took place in March, just days after the shootings in Atlanta that took the lives of six women of Asian descent.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

WZ: I want to start off with what’s on my mind and might be on your mind too — the shootings in Atlanta. How have you been feeling? 

MZ: I don’t know exactly how I feel, and I think it should be okay to say that. I feel upset and tired and unsure of exactly how to move forward. It’s really sad that this incredible violence has come as a kind of culmination of these other attacks we’ve seen on Asian Americans. But then, now more than ever, there have been a lot of prominent Asian figures who are having their voices recognized and appreciated for the first time. Maybe the only good that can come of it is that some of these conversations are ones we’ve never really had before as a community.

I’m still trying to process it. 

WZ: I want to talk about your essay, “Crying in H Mart,” which was published in The New Yorker in 2018. When it came out, my Asian American friends and I were all emailing it to each other, texting about it. It really seemed to strike a nerve with a lot of Asian Americans — was that something that you anticipated? 

MZ: I was blown away, really. I definitely didn’t anticipate the type of reaction I got, and it honestly changed my life. I think for a lot of artists and writers, you just try to present authentic and honest accounts of your experience, or the parts of life that are interesting to you, and hope that others see it too. I felt so lucky and surprised to see how many people were touched by this experience that felt so incredibly specific to me.

WZ: Where did the seed for the essay first come from? Was there something specific about your relationship with Korean food that you knew it would be your way in to talking about your relationship with your mom?

MZ: It was a very organic process. I wrote an essay in 2016 called “Love, Loss and Kimchi,” which was about my relationship with [Korean Youtube personality] Maangchi and how she really helped me process my grief. I was really frustrated with traditional types of therapy. But then I found Maangchi’s videos, and they acted as an alternative form of therapy of cooking Korean food. And because I was so comforted, cooking with Maangchi, I needed to get these groceries to cook with, so I was spending a lot of time driving out to Flushing and buying groceries at H Mart. 

When I was taking care of my mom, I blocked off crying in front of her because it felt like an admission of defeat, so it was really hard for me to engage with my raw emotions for some time afterwards. But going to H Mart, it felt like this really safe space. It became a really prominent part of my life, and I was engaging with these emotions that I hadn’t engaged with for a long time. It progressed to thinking about, why food? Why was food such a big part of the caretaking process and grieving process — what led me here? 

WZ: Yes, there’s something so elemental about food, especially when it’s food that’s been cooked for hundreds or thousands of years in your culture. And then you think, Oh! I’m making that same recipe. I noticed that you and Maangchi interact with each other on Twitter — do you guys have a relationship now? 

MZ: Actually, for my 30th birthday, she [Maangchi] invited my husband and best friend over and made us dinner. She’s been so generous and open and loving with me. And supportive. I have a number of friends whose parents passed away, who want to connect with their culture or their partners are Korean and they want to share the culture with their children, and they all have this really personal attachment to Maangchi. There can be a lot of secrecy around family recipes in Asian culture, and she’s really demystified things for a lot of people.

I don’t think she anticipated how many people she’d touch, but she’s really risen to the occasion and accepted it as part of her role, which is really special and beautiful. 

WZ: It sounds like she’s become this way home for a lot of people while they cook her recipes. What was the process like of taking the original essay and expanding it out into a memoir?

MZ: There were a couple different threads that I was interested in writing about. First was the opportunity to relive my childhood, which was a very happy childhood spent mostly with my mother. So much of my memory of my mom for so long was clouded over with the trauma and memory of her as a sick person, so I wanted to relive what our lives were like before. 

And then there was my mom’s friend Kye, who was also part of the caretaking process. I wanted to investigate how she might have impacted the way I turned to food as a way of healing. As an only daughter, I wanted to step up and be able to care for my mom the way she’d cared for me. But then I had a lot of feelings of shame that I couldn’t feed her the way this woman Kye could. 

The last thread was that when my mom was dying, I was just so horrified by what was happening. I felt like, oh my god, no one has warned me that this is what death looks like. It’s not just someone closing their eyes and peacefully drifting away; it’s horrifying and very ugly. I hadn’t read anything that would have better prepared me for handling this, so I wanted to impart some of that information. 

WZ: There’s such a visceral quality to the way you write about lying in bed with your mom, wearing matching pajamas as she’s sick and dying. As you were accessing memories about your childhood, did you have diaries that you drew upon? 

MZ: No, but the things I wrote about from my childhood were such strong memories that they have stuck with me. I would just start writing about whatever memories were at the forefront of my brain — like I wrote a huge chapter about chess club and all these extracurriculars my mom forced me to do that I ended up cutting out. But then it unlocked other memories like how on the way to ballet my mom would pull over and buy a scratch card whenever she had a dream about poop. 

WZ: This woman Kye was really central to the caretaking process. There’s a tension in the way that you write about what she brings out in you. On one hand, you’re your mother’s daughter, and daughters always feel like they have a strong claim to their mothers. But on the other hand, there’s this old friend of your mom’s, cooking for her, whispering to her in Korean that you can’t understand. Did her presence force you to see your mom in a different light? 

MZ: Yes definitely. My mom always told me to keep 10 percent of myself from other people, and I didn’t realize that meant she kept 10 percent of herself from me as well. I always thought we had full access to each other. Over time, as you become an adult, you realize your parents are so much more than your parents. They’re their own human beings. There was this 10 percent of her that she could relate with people like her sisters or Kye. 

When I was younger, I didn’t really identify with my ethnic identity. I always identified first and foremost as an artist. But during this experience with Kye, it was my first time wanting to be accepted as a Korean person and being shut out. I was realizing there was a lot I didn’t know about Korean culture — I had assumed I knew everything just because I was born into it. 

WZ: Right! The shock of realizing you might have been looking in the wrong direction this whole time, where you wanted to assimilate into white America rather than embrace Korean culture. It’s something that a lot of other Asian Americans can relate to, I think. 

One question that seemed to run throughout the entire book: How can I hold on to being Korean when my mother is gone? It’s been a couple years now — are there things that you’ve learned or been surprised by in your ability to hold on?

MZ: Now I’ve lost so much of my Korean family that being Korean is something that I feel like I have to actively pursue in a way that I never had to before. Things like taking Korean language lessons or making sure I visit Korea as much as I can. Staying in contact with my aunt and cooking Korean food. I never put much stock into those things before because I never questioned that it was part of my life. Now, I’ll be like, I haven’t eaten kimchi in more than two weeks, I’m really fucking this up! It’s something I have to nurture. Luckily, with the internet and the nature of my job, I have met so many different people and have way more Asian friends than I ever had before. It’s something I really appreciate. 

WZ: It’s inspiring to be surrounded by others who are working through similar questions! Are you taking Korean lessons now? 

MZ: I was a couple years ago, but then as I got busy, I kind of fell off. It’s something that I’m thinking about starting again. I’ve had the thought that I’d like to write a book that’s more rooted in the present and document my experience learning this language that’s always felt at arm’s length for me. 

WZ: I’m ready to read that! A couple weeks ago, I was inspired to see a good friend taking Chinese lessons, so I also signed up for lessons. 

MZ: I think there’s something so beautiful about adult learning. I’m sure you had this experience as a kid, but I went to Korean school every Friday and fucking hated it. I thought it was worthless. Now that I pay for it, I actually really care! I get why my mom was so pissed at me. 

WZ: I had the same experience with Saturday Chinese school! But hopefully, what I’m learning is that you can have a period of alienation from your language and your culture and still find your way back.

Finally, was there any resonance that you found between writing music for your albums and writing this memoir?

MZ: There are definitely a lot of easter eggs in the book that are moments of inspiration for song lyrics in my albums. I think the thing they have in common is that I tend to write about really ordinary details and put them under a magnifying glass to try to make them feel extraordinary, in a way. As an artist, that’s what really interests me — seeing depth in what might otherwise seem ordinary. 

 

Contributor: 

Willa Zhang

Willa Zhang is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her short story “Shenzhen” was a finalist in The Masters Review’s 2019 Fall Fiction Contest and her essays have been published in The Rumpus and The Sun Magazine.

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