Michelle Zauner—the musician who performs as Japanese Breakfast, now also a published author—tells me she is most excited and nervous to hear what other Koreans will think of her memoir, Crying in H Mart. “I think it’s because there’s this instant camaraderie with other Korean artists, but [they’re going to] be the most judgmental, you know what I mean?” she says. “I know when I see something romanticized in a way that I don’t like, it bothers me.”
Zauner has nothing to worry about. Crying in H Mart is a distinctly Korean-American story that plunges into the complexities and nuances of a young woman straddling two cultures. As a Korean-American myself, I related to Zauner’s constant self-examination of her identity, including the early-life shame she felt for being Asian in a predominantly white neighborhood. (Zauner is mixed-race, born in Seoul and raised in Eugene, Oregon, to a Korean mother and a white father.)
The book, which is an extension of Zauner’s 2018 essay that appeared in The New Yorker, honors the life and memory of her late cancer-stricken mother, with whom Zauner had a complicated relationship during her younger years. In the aftermath of her mom’s passing, Zauner recounts working through her immense grief by learning to cook the Korean dishes that her mother had loved and shared when she was alive. (Zauner also surrenders to grief in her two Japanese Breakfast albums, 2016’s Psychopomp and 2017’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet. Her forthcoming album, Jubilee, out June 2021, is decidedly about joy.) As an only child with a distant father and her Korean family living overseas, Zauner captures what it’s been like to mourn, in many ways, alone. Making motherland food not only helps Zauner cope but also deepens the connection to her Korean heritage with every homemade meal.
There are instances where Crying in H Mart will likely leave you simultaneously weepy and hungry—a strangely cathartic sensation if you just roll with it. That said, I’m a bit embarrassed to be a Korean person who doesn’t know how to cook Korean food (yet), so I spoke to Zauner about what to buy, who to follow, and how anyone can get comfortable in the Korean kitchen.