Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
This week on The Cut, host Avery Trufelman talks to Michelle Zauner, an indie musician known from her solo musical project Japanese Breakfast, about the loss of her mother and using Korean food to feel closer to her throughout her life and following her death. She also reads an excerpt from her New York Times best-selling memoir, Crying in H Mart.
To hear more about Michelle’s childhood and why her memoir will make you want to call your mom, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.
AVERY: Okay, we’re going to play a game. I’m actually playing a game with you, the listener. So, just play along here.
MICHELLE ZAUNER: So you’re going on a trip. You have five animals: a cow, a horse, a lion, a lamb, and a monkey.
AVERY: Really picture each one. A cow, a horse, a lion, a lamb, and a monkey. All right? Now, on this journey you’re on, you have to give one of those animals away.
MICHELLE: Which one do you get rid of first?
AVERY: All right. You got which one you’re giving away? Now, get rid of another animal.
MICHELLE: And then the next one. And then the next one. And then, which one do you keep?
AVERY: That last remaining animal, just hold it in your mind’s eye for a minute. That’s the animal that represents what you value most in life.
MICHELLE: Each of these animals are representative of the priorities in your life. The lion is your pride, the horse is your job, the cow is wealth, the lamb is your significant other, and the monkey is a child.
AVERY: Michelle learned this game from her aunt, back when she was a teenager. The way she thought about it was like, If the premise is going on a trip, I need to pack really light.
MICHELLE: I was like, “It’s going to be a real pain in the ass to cart a lion around, so, that’s going to go first, and then the cow is also this really large, stubborn animal. So, I can get rid of that.”
AVERY: Looking back, it makes sense that Michelle would first give up her pride and her hope of striking it rich. You have to, if you’re going to grow up to be a touring musician.
MICHELLE: My name is Michelle Zauner, and I also play in a band called Japanese Breakfast.
AVERY: But before Japanese Breakfast was playing venues around the world, back when Michelle was a teenager playing this game with her aunt, the third animal she gave up was the horse.
MICHELLE: And then it was a real toss-up between the lamb and the monkey.
AVERY: When Michelle played this game with her aunt, Michelle was like, “Wait, have you played this game with my mom? What animal did she pick?”
MICHELLE: Since, you know, choosing your child is an option, you’re like, She better have picked the monkey.
AVERY: Although Michelle wasn’t 100 percent sure that her mom would choose the monkey.
MICHELLE: I very much felt I very much was my mother’s priority. But she was also somewhat of an enigma to me. I think that was why this type of game was so enticing to me, because she could be very private and somewhat withholding.
AVERY: As Michelle writes in her new memoir, Crying in H Mart, her mother wasn’t what she calls a “mommy-mom.”
MICHELLE: My mom was by no means coddling in any way. She was very present, and very involved in my childhood, but she was not easy on me in a lot of ways. Every time I got injured, my mom would be very upset. Instead of rushing to my aid, taking me to the doctor and telling me, “It’s going to be okay,” she would get very angry and start yelling at me, because she was just so angry that it happened and didn’t know how to trash that energy.
AVERY: Even as Michelle grew up, her mom was always a source of tough love.
MICHELLE: I remember when I got fired from my job waitressing at a Mexican-fusion restaurant, I was so upset because I worked really hard. I’ve seen other moms be like, “It’s their loss, honey, you’ll find another job,” or whatever. And my mom’s like, “Well, Michelle, anyone can carry a tray.” She just had this very cruel reality that she would hit me with.
AVERY: In Michelle’s mother’s defense, Michelle was a handful.
MICHELLE: I was such a rowdy tomboy, I didn’t take care of my things very well, and that drove my mother crazy. My mom was someone who had a 12-step skin-care regimen and could own a piece of clothing for 20 years and it looked like it had never been worn. She took such great pride in self-care and her appearance and fashion and designer handbags. I was like a little punk kid that wore Daniel Johnston T-shirts and patched overalls and wanted to play rock music for a living. I was very angry and perplexed by my mom’s decision to settle for being a parent and a homemaker. I think I looked down on my mom for not having that type of ambition, and there were two personalities that were very at odds with one another.
AVERY: But the overlap in the Venn diagram of Michelle and her mother was their shared love of food.
MICHELLE: I felt like I could never please my mother with good behavior. I could be sort of courageous in small ways that impressed her. And pretty early on, I was validated by my interest in food and my eagerness to try certain things.
AVERY: Especially Korean food.
MICHELLE: I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, which is a small town in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a college town. She was from Seoul, Korea, and we moved to Eugene and we could visit every other summer, which was a real luxury. But later on, I realized she was very homesick. I think a lot of the times when she saw me enjoying the same kind of food that she grew up eating, she really had this moment where she was like, That kid is mine.
AVERY: But this is especially adventurous eating, especially for an American kid.
MICHELLE: My most adventurous thing was eating sannakji, this live, small octopus. I remember they cut the tentacles from a live octopus. It’s so fresh that the pulse is still present, they present it to you and it’s still moving. That was one of the first things that I remember eating and feeling proud of, and impressing my relatives. My relatives would say to me, if I ate a big bite or something or finished my meal, “Neomu yeppuda,” which means “so pretty, good job.” I was really validated from an early age that eating well, and specifically Korean food, was something to be celebrated.
My dad is also a pretty adventurous eater. If you’re not raised that way, it’s like never your full comfort food, you know what I mean? He loved Korean food, but he would get tired of it if he ate it every single day in the same way that my mom could eat American food. She just didn’t like it as much. It didn’t make her feel full or settled. My mom would always make a Korean dish and then she would make something really simple for my dad, typically, like salmon with asparagus or some very Caucasian thing. Sometimes it would be steaks and my mom would have a Korean dish and I’d be like, “Oh, I want to eat steak today,” or I would eat both.
AVERY: On her dinner plate, and in her life, Michelle was caught in between these two cultures.
MICHELLE: I’ve always felt really ashamed and stunted when it comes to speaking Korean. My mom didn’t speak it very often at home, because she didn’t want my dad to feel excluded. But it was also largely my fault. I went to Korean school every Friday and I hated it, because who wants to go to extra school? I never became fluent.
AVERY: But when Michelle and her mom would touch down in Seoul, the language they shared was food.
MICHELLE: We would be so jet-lagged and really tired and my aunt would call for this Chinese Korean fusion. It’s like black-bean noodles that are so delicious and extremely salty and savory. That was one of my favorite dishes growing up, jajangmyeon, and eating that really quickly, like a rabid animal, and crunching into the crispy, sweet pickled radish. And then we would get tangsuyuk, which is a sweet and sour pork that’s battered and fried and has this delicious sweet and sour sauce that comes with it. Sometimes my mom would get jjamppong, which is a spicy seafood noodle soup. That being our first meal every time we walked through the door was something that was really special to me.
AVERY: But when Michelle was in her early 20s, her mother started to complain about a stomachache.
MICHELLE: She’s like, “I’m going to the doctor.” And my mom didn’t usually go to the doctor very often. She also was of the opinion that most things figured themselves out in a week or so.
AVERY: Michelle had a feeling something was up. But at the time, her mom was back in Eugene, and Michelle was on the East Coast trying to start her life as a musician. And she was on a trip to New York.
MICHELLE: My bass player had just quit the band. My old band was called Little Big League, and he had been offered a spot in this band, a much more popular band than I was at the time. I was so devastated. Your band is like a family, you know? It was just like my brother leaving. There was a shame that I felt that our band was never going to make it. This might fall apart.
I went to go meet up with a friend who worked at The Fader, he was an editor and writer at The Fader. I was trying to come up with a backup plan because I was 25 years old and I was like, Maybe I need to start thinking about getting into music journalism or some other backup plan in case this music thing doesn’t work out.
My mom had gotten a colonoscopy. I was texting her and she wasn’t responding. I called her and I could tell. She was like, “Oh, you’re in New York. I want to wait till you’re back in Philadelphia,” because I was living in Philadelphia at the time. I really pushed her, I was like, “I want to know, this isn’t fair that you’re withholding information from me.” And then she told me. I was on the street in the Lower East Side. I found out that my mom had cancer.
Surgery was not an option. She was going to have to go through chemotherapy. Being an only child, I always knew that this moment was going to come where I was going to be there for her, the way that she had always been there for me. There was this major role reversal and it was going to be on me to prove that I really loved my mother.
Within a month of when she found out, I quit my jobs — I had three jobs at the time. I put the band on hiatus. I actually flew there the day that she had gotten her infusion and for the first three days, she was totally fine. She was just a little weak. Like, “I’m just tired.” And I was like, Okay, we could deal with this. This is fine. Then, the fourth or fifth day, it was like all hell broke loose. They hit her with a real Molotov cocktail of chemotherapy drugs, and it was a pretty hefty dosage. I think that just knocked her out. [She was] throwing up, couldn’t keep anything down. And like, if you throw up for like three straight days and can’t keep anything down, you start to lose it.
AVERY: Michelle badly wanted to feed her mother. But she didn’t really know how.
MICHELLE: You know, I realized that for all of my love of Korean food and how much I grew up eating it, there was a lot that I didn’t know about Korean culture, and a lot I didn’t know about Korean food that I wasn’t able to provide for my mom, because why would I know the kind of foods that older people with illness eat? That wasn’t what we ate in my house. We ate really spicy kimchee, we ate scalding stews and seafood. Those are not things that you want to eat when you’re on chemotherapy.
AVERY: Michelle knew the right foods were out there.
MICHELLE: Jatjuk was something I’d eaten before. It’s a pine-nut porridge, but it’s not something that I knew how to make. I had it maybe once or twice when I was sick or something, but I didn’t know how to make it. There’s not a lot of texts available in English about how to cook Korean food. Now there are, but even eight years ago, it wasn’t as popular of a thing. I remember having a phone call and asking my mom how do I cook her short-rib kalbi recipe and it was like, “Just add sesame oil until it tastes like Mom’s” and you’re like, Fuck you.
It was the shame that I experienced not being able to nurture and nourish my mother the way I wanted to. It was also this preservation of culture that I felt was at risk for the first time.
AVERY: Her mother’s friend came. And she knew exactly what to cook.
MICHELLE: Just really plain food. She made kong-guksu, which is this cold soybean broth, and I never had that before and I was like, Am I bad Korean? I had no idea that this was a thing. And that was something that it was like the first thing that she made for my mom that she ate all of and I was like, Wow, I feel like a real failure that I can’t give that to my mom.
Food was no longer an enjoyable thing. It was like so much stress and agony of just trying to keep her alive. I was trying to get her to … I think 1,200 calories was our goal. When you think about food, instead of this joyful thing to delight in, and it becomes like a math equation, it really takes the joy out of eating. At one point, they had hooked her up to a milky substance bag that provided her with the nutrition that she needed so she didn’t have to eat and [she was] just slowly losing all functions.
AVERY: Michelle’s mom passed away on October 18, 2014.
MICHELLE: It wasn’t until my aunt and my cousin came for the funeral that I was really compelled to make them a Korean dish to make them feel at home and comforted in some way. I made doenjang jjigae, which is this fermented soybean stew that is a real staple in Korean food. It gave me such a sense of accomplishment when I was able to make something for my aunt and cousin, because I never cooked for them. I think that afterwards I felt really drawn to cooking Korean food. I needed to undo that sense of shame that I felt by cooking a lot of the things that I didn’t know.
AVERY: Michelle knew that her mom hadn’t always known how to cook. This is something that her mom had to learn too.
MICHELLE: There’s been a number of stories where my mom didn’t even know how to make rice when she left the house. I think it was a slow process, and probably a lot of phone calls getting recipes from other Korean friends and trying things out. For me, I was really lucky because the internet is a thing.
MAANGCHI: If you have never made kimchee before, this is the perfect chance for you to learn how to make traditional kimchee.
MICHELLE: I was really lucky. I found Maangchi, who is this Korean YouTube blogger, who I’m obsessed with. She was a huge key in figuring out how to make a lot of these recipes.
MAANGCHI: Cut it in half, just to give it a little slick. Like this.
MICHELLE: I would follow her kimchee stew recipe, and I would remember, Oh, but my mom didn’t use anchovy stock, she used pork. I would substitute these types of things based on memory and taste in some ways to make it more like how I grew up eating.
In a way, I feel like my mom really lives on in me. I’m very like her in some ways, and I think that’s just how I have become close to her, doing things that she would do. Or reacting to things in the way that she would react.
I used to hate it when my mom would scold me for different habits, and now I’m exactly the same way. If my husband wipes grease on his pants, I’m like, “We just bought those pants, why would you do that?” Or if he spills something, I get very angry in the same way that she would get angry at me. There’s part of me that hates that I am like that, but I also relish it in a way.
She was an artist. She would have never called herself an artist, or maybe even a creative person, but I think that there were parts of her that were creative and artistic that we don’t often credit in that way. Maybe my mom didn’t have the same kind of support to pursue her interests when she was growing up, and if she had gotten the same kind of care that had been provided to me, she might have gone on that path herself.
AVERY: In her grief, Michelle turned to her mother’s art of cooking. But she also turned to her own form of expression.
MICHELLE: I wrote this album in this little cottage at the bottom of my parents’ property that my dad had named the “Man Cave” at some point but never actually went down into. I just went there for privacy and to record little demos to communicate the very complicated feelings I was experiencing. I wrote the record in Eugene and finished it in New York and then sent it to some small record labels and told them very explicitly, I wasn’t interested in touring because I was ready to take on a real job and needed to focus on that. And of course, that was the record that got me artistic recognition for the first time.
AVERY: The first release from Japanese Breakfast came out in 2016. It’s called Psychopomp. On the album cover is a picture of Michelle’s mom.
MICHELLE: It’s a picture of my mom when she was probably in her early 20s. My mom is reaching towards the camera in this very captivating, compelling way.
AVERY: If you read Michelle’s memoir, Crying in H Mart, it’s like this decoder ring for a lot of Japanese Breakfast songs. You can see where so many of the songs have sprung from in Michelle’s life. A lot of them do come from this period of loss and discovery that she spent caring for her mom.
MICHELLE: There’s a lot of Easter eggs in there for sure.
AVERY: So, in this way that we’re all, in some way or another, destined to become our mothers. Do you want to be an actual mother?
MICHELLE: I do, yeah, I do. I don’t think that was something I thought much about until I got married and I had that feeling, very strongly, for the first time after my mom passed away. I want to have a child in a way, because I’m no longer a daughter.
AVERY: Although, even back when Michelle was a teenager, playing that game with her aunt — after she had given away the lion, the cow, the horse, and the lamb — she was left with the monkey. Which is the animal her mother had chosen too.
After the break, Michelle reads from Crying in H Mart. It is a gorgeous book that made me a massive fan of Japanese Breakfast, it made me very hungry for Korean food, and made me call my mom a lot. You’ll hear why.
Michelle Zauner reading an excerpt from Crying in H Mart:
My mother died on October 18, 2014, a date I’m always forgetting. I don’t know why exactly, if it’s because I don’t want to remember or if the actual date seems so unimportant in the grand scheme of what we endured. She was fifty-six years old. I was twenty-five, an age my mother had assured me for years would be special. It was the same age my mother had been when she met my father. The year they got married, the year she left her home country, her mother, and two sisters and embarked on a pivotal chapter of her adult life. The year she began the family that would come to define her. For me, it was the year things were supposed to fall into place. It was the year her life ended and mine fell apart.
Sometimes I feel guilty about misremembering when it happened. Every fall I have to scroll through the photos I’ve taken of her gravestone to reconfirm the date engraved, half obscured by the multicolored bouquets I’ve left these past years, or I resort to Googling the obituary I neglected to write so I can prepare to willfully feel something that never quite feels like the thing I’m supposed to be feeling.
My father is obsessed with dates. Some sort of internal clock whirs without fail around every impending birthday, death day, anniversary, and holiday. His psyche intuitively darkens the week before and soon enough he’ll inundate me with Facebook messages about how unfair it all is and how I’ll never know what it’s like to lose your best friend. Then he’ll go back to riding his motorcycle around Phuket, where he retired a year after she died, filling the void with warm beaches and street-vended seafood and young girls who can’t spell the word problem.
What I never seem to forget is what my mother ate. She was a woman of many “usuals.” Half a patty melt on rye with a side of steak fries to share at the Terrace Cafe after a day of shopping. An unsweetened iced tea with half a packet of Splenda, which she would insist she’d never use on anything else. Minestrone she’d order “steamy hot,” not “steaming hot,” with extra broth from the Olive Garden. On special occasions, half a dozen oysters on the half shell with champagne mignonnette and “steamy hot” French onion soup from Jake’s in Portland. She was maybe the only person in the world who’d request “steamy hot” fries from a McDonald’s drive-through in earnest. Jjamppong, spicy seafood noodle soup with extra vegetables from Cafe Seoul, which she always called Seoul Cafe, transposing the syntax of her native tongue. She loved roasted chestnuts in the winter though they gave her horrible gas. She liked salted peanuts with light beer. She drank two glasses of chardonnay almost every day but would get sick if she had a third. She ate spicy pickled peppers with pizza. At Mexican restaurants she ordered finely chopped jalapeños on the side. She ordered dressings on the side. She hated cilantro, avocados, and bell peppers. She was allergic to celery. She rarely ate sweets, with the exception of the occasional pint of strawberry Häagen-Dazs, a bag of tangerine jelly beans, one or two See’s chocolate truffles around Christmastime, and a blueberry cheesecake on her birthday. She rarely snacked or took breakfast. She had a salty hand.
I remember these things clearly because that was how my mother loved you, not through white lies and constant verbal affirmation, but in subtle observations of what brought you joy, pocketed away to make you feel comforted and cared for without even realizing it. She remembered if you liked your stews with extra broth, if you were sensitive to spice, if you hated tomatoes, if you didn’t eat seafood, if you had a large appetite. She remembered which banchan side dish you emptied first so the next time you were over it’d be set with a heaping double portion, served alongside the various other preferences that made you, you.
In 1983 my father flew to South Korea in response to an ad that read simply “Opportunity Abroad.” The opportunity turned out to be a training program in Seoul, selling used cars to the U.S. military. The company booked him a room at the Naija Hotel, a landmark in the Yongsan district, where my mother worked the front desk. She was, supposedly, the first Korean woman he ever met.
They dated for three months and when the training program ended, my father asked my mother to marry him. The two of them made their way through three countries during the mid-’80s, living in Misawa, Heidelberg, and Seoul again, where I was born. A year later, we immigrated to the United States.
We moved to Eugene, Oregon, a small college town in the Pacific Northwest. The city sits near the source of the Willamette River, which stretches 150 miles north, from the Calapooya Mountains outside of town to its mouth on the Columbia. Carving its way between mountains, the Cascade Range to the east and the Oregon Coast Range to the west, the river defines a fertile valley, alluvial plains fit for a vast variety of agriculture. The town itself is coated in green, hugging the banks of the river and spreading out up into the rugged hills and pine forests of central Oregon. The seasons are mild, drizzly, and gray for most of the year but give way to a lush, unspoiled summer. It rains incessantly and yet I never knew an Oregonian to carry an umbrella.
When I was ten we moved seven miles outside the city, out past the Christmas-tree farms and the hiking trails of Spencer Butte Park to a house in the woods. It sat on five acres of land, where flocks of wild turkeys roamed picking for insects in the grass and my dad could drive his riding mower in the nude if he wanted to, shielded by thousands of ponderosa pines, no neighbors for miles. Out back, there was a clearing where my mother grew rhododendrons. Beyond it the land gave way to sloping hills of stiff grass and red clay. There was a man-made pond filled with muddy water and soft silt, and salamanders and frogs to chase after. Blackberry bramble grew wild and in the early summer, during the burning season, my father would take to it with a pair of gardening shears and clear new pathways between the trees to form a circuit he could round on his dirt bike. Once a month he’d ignite the burn piles he’d gathered, letting me squeeze the lighter fluid onto their bases, and we’d admire his handiwork as the six-foot bonfires went up in flames.
I loved our new home but I also came to resent it. There were no neighborhood children to play with, no convenience stores or parks within biking distance. I was stranded and lonely, an only child with no one to talk to or turn to but my mother. I was overwhelmed by her time and attention, a devotion that I learned could both be an auspicious privilege and have smothering consequences.