By Naomi Tidball
In the last few years, there has been a surge of musicians sharing their personal stories, framed, of course, as heroic journeys in the documentary form. For instance, the new Britney Spears documentary was released, or rock documentaries like, It Might Get Loud (Guggenheim, 2008). But musicians setting their stories to paper are fewer and far between, so it came as a complete surprise to discover a memoir written by Michelle Zauner, lead singer of one of my favourite bands, Japanese Breakfast. Despite the Indie-rock band’s name, the Oregon/Pennsylvania lead singer, Michelle Zauner, is a biracial Korean American.
In August 2018, in The New Yorker’s section Personal History, Zauner published an emotional piece titled “Crying in H Mart”. In 2021, Zauner’s reflective story on being biracial and dealing with heartbreak over the loss of her mother (due to cancer) had expanded into a book-length memoir under the same title.
As the term ‘expanded memoir’ evidently suggests, Zauner’s book begins with the piece previously written for The New Yorker. Following this, Zauner delves even deeper; she invites us into various life experiences up until the death of her mother. What I discern from Zauner’s biography is an overarching theme on the struggles and the empowerment of being biracial. However, if her book had a distinct thesis, it could be contextualised as the following: Food serves as a powerful tool in making meaningful connections to our heritage and identity.
Zauner offers two definitive themes regarding identity and food. On the one hand, she reflects on the positive connections to family and culture, when she encounters eating specific Korean dishes. Zauner reflects:
The first dish to arrive was sannakji—live long-armed octopus. A plate full of gray-and-white tentacles wriggled before me, freshly severed from their head, every suction cup still pulsing. [my mother] looked at me and smiled, seeing my mouth agape. “Try it,” she said […] Eager to please her and impress my aunts, I balanced the liveliest leg I could find between my chopsticks, dipped it into the sauce as my mother had, and slipped it into my mouth. It was briny, tart, and sweet with just a hint of spice from the sauce […] I gnashed the tentacle between my teeth as many times as I could before swallowing, afraid it would suction itself into my tonsils on the way down. “Good job baby!” “Aigo yeppeu!” my aunts exclaimed. “That’s our pretty girl!” My family lauded my bravery, I radiated with pride. (22-23)
On the other hand, food and the act of eating are heart-wrenchingly reiterated in moments where Zauner recollects herself and her mother in conflict. Specifically, clashes occur within Zauner’s honest excerpts on eating and participating in North American culture/viewpoints to fit in with a predominantly white suburb in Oregon. In turn, a later chapter shows the pivotal moment where she attempts to re-establish her Korean roots. However, the sadness of this moment is that her motives for re-establishing her connection to Korea come with the discovery that her mother’s test results show an invasive tumor in her stomach. As Zauner expresses on learning to cook Korean food:
I wonder if I should explain how important it was to me. That cooking my mother’s food had come to represent an absolute role reversal, a role I was meant to fill. That food was an unspoken language between us, that it had come to symbolise our return to each other, our bonding, our common ground. (98)
Ergo, Zauner’s re-discovery of her Korean heritage occurs amid her mother’s taxing illness, and the ever-growing fear of loss. Although repetitive in moments, Zauner’s use of narrative is situated around food eloquently illustrates the often-difficult moments in maintaining a biracial identity – specifically, the pressures of living with two different cultural expectations. As Zauner expresses in her opening chapter, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” (5) This particular sentiment occupies much of her memoir: the feeling that losing individuals (family) from one part of her culture leads to emotional insecurities about her racial identity. Thus, the imbrication of food, cultural heritage, and trauma paint a seamless triptych.
Another worthy mention is Zauner’s reflections on parental upbringing. She outlines her struggles on balancing expectations from two opposite cultures, and the connections she makes with her parents. Through blatant honesty, we become aware of a sort of resentment Zauner feels towards her father. Initially, she paints a picture of her father as this favourable figure, one who provides for the family. As she reveals, “[as] a kid I was enthralled with the stories of his past, his machismo and grit” (74). However, in later chapters, Zauner punches back at her father’s distant attitudes, reckless behaviour, and marital indiscretions with the following statement:
I should be feeling sympathy or empathy, camaraderie, or compassion, but I only feel resentment […] He was my father, and I wanted him to soberly reassure me, not try to goad me into navigating this disheartening path alone. (89)
Again, Zauner seems to reflect in her later entries a resentment towards her father, and a sense of coolness or indifference: a painted figure of a father, and her North American culture that remains distant or unwanted.
In stark contrast, her descriptive retelling of her relationship with her mother is moving and often overwhelming. At the start of Zauner’s memoir, she reflects on the tensions between her mother and the volatile fights that ensue due to Zauner’s attempts to assimilate with her North American peers. In doing so, Zauner highlights the cold and hostile environment, tensions, and the air full of passive-aggressive encounters, leading to an explosive battle. For instance, Zauner recaptures the following:
In one fell swoop, my mother gripped me by the hip and spun me around to strike my backside with her palm. It was not the first time my mother had hit me, and the strike hardly hurt, aside from the embarrassment of feeling much too old for this practice […] ‘Why are you doing this to us? After everything we have given you, how can you treat us this way?’ [her mother] yelled […] ‘I had an abortion after you because you were such a terrible child!’ There it was. Almost comical how could have withheld a secret so impressive my entire life, only to hurl it at such a moment. I knew there was no way I was truly to blame for the abortion. That she had said it just to hurt me as I hurt her in so many monstrous configurations. (64-66)
Masterfully, there is a purpose to this build-up. She later discloses and reconciles with the recognition that similarities between her and her mother are based on culture and innate or mutual feelings. Where Zauner writes:
It made me feel close to her, an admission of awkwardness from someone I’d always perceived as the paragon of poise and authority […] She was not always grace personified, that she once possessed the very same tomboyish defiance and restlessness with formality for which she’d often scolded me, and that her time away from Seoul had maybe exacerbated the estrangement she felt from certain traditions, traditions I had never learned. (113)
These moments of comparing, contrasting, and further reflecting on the parental relations during the growing pains of adolescence, hosts a decisive and perspicuous move in relaying her vision of being biracial.
This leads me to my second point. Such a personal topic in someone’s life requires the use of compelling and relatable imagery and language. Crying in H Mart resonates with me profoundly. Aside from the surface similarities of being half-Asian and growing up in the Pacific Northwest (I am not half-white/half-Korean, but I am half-white/half-Japanese), Zauner’s words resonate with my understanding of being half-Asian. Coming from a biracial background (half-Japanese and half-Canadian), I, in some way, connect or relate to the experiences discussed in Zauner’s passages on growing up in a culturally divided household. In particular, I identified with Zauner’s accurate retelling of her struggles to fit into the standards of beauty imposed by her Korean mother and her North American environment. By comparison, my experience with the cultural divisions on tattooing resonates profoundly. In Japan, tattooing is recognised as a Yakuza branding. Whereas, in North America, tattooing is far more accepted as a form of expression, and of beauty.
Recently, I started to reflect on the growing pains or the inevitable difficulties of being biracial—and specifically half-Asian. On countless occasions, I felt displaced, only feeling welcomed in a superficial or touristic form. This leads me to think about Zauner’s reflection on her Asian identity and space. In several moments, Zauner discusses her displacement when it comes to her appearance. Through bold imagery, she conveys the experiences of her identity and space with comments such as:
Such was puberty, one big masochistic joke set in the halfway house of middle school, where kids endure the three most confusing years of their lives […] a girl from class confronted me in the bathroom with what would become a familiar line of questioning […] “Well, what are you then?” […] There was something in my face that other people deciphered as a thing displaced from its origin, like I was some kind of alien or exotic fruit. (95)
These moments truly touched me. For a long time, the only positive affirmation of my identity were comments on my “exotic” looks, with such comments as “half-Asians are so beautiful, like unicorns.” To this day, I still encounter the ever-so tiring questions of “where are you from? Because you don’t look fully white,” or “what kind of Asian are you?”
I guess the takeaway from this is that being biracial is something that I am proud of. However, the experience is often emotionally exhausting. I often find myself in a liminal state of being. What I discern, and what Zauner points to is a conflict of ambiguity; where I often float between two cultures, trying to reason with the idea of belonging. It’s important to stress, that it is not just my white/Canadian side which makes me feel displaced, but also my Asian side. Similarly, Zauner states a similar experience on studying at a Korean school in America:
I didn’t have any Korean friends outside of Hangul Hakkyo […] Most of the kids were full Korean, and I struggled to relate to the obedience that seemed to possess them, inculcated by the united force of two immigrant parents. (81)
When I think about the retelling of a musician’s life, often, there is a consistent focus on the artist’s connection to music. In the case of Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart, I notice a retelling of her musical journey that is gradual. Instead, Zauner conveys her insecurities of success in the music industry, and once again, her challenges with the cultural pressure enforced by her mother’s expectations. For this reason, two moments significantly stand out for me. The first being her lengthy excerpt between, and again, the tensions of cultural expectations; her mother stringent in her attitudes towards getting a post-secondary degree, and music being merely a hobby than a profession. The second example is when Zauner discovers New York City’s indie-rock bank, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and specifically lead singer Karen O (Karen Lee Orzolek). Zauner confesses: “My first thought being how do I get to do that, and my second, if there’s already one Asian girl doing this, then there’s no longer space for me” (55). This particular remark both reiterates the theme of identity and of occupying space. It also rings a valid or one poignant truth about the internal struggles of being biracial. Many times, in my youth, I had to endure the pressure of standing out, comparing myself with my other half-Asian friends in areas of sports, academics, and simply existing. Obviously, times are progressively shifting, and the space is more open to diversity. Still, however, that sense of establishing yourself and the fear of rejection lingers.
Naomi Tibdall is a research master’s student in the Media, Art, and Performances Studies programme at Utrecht University. She is writing her thesis on Indigenous Cinema, and is interested in research topics such as eco-media.
- Zauner, Michelle. Crying in H Mart. Picador, 2021.