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Musician Japanese Breakfast on imperfect mother-daughter relationships

Michelle Zauner's new memoir, "Crying in H Mart," explores the complicated relationship she had with her mother, the grief she felt after her mother died in 2014 and their bond over food.

When Michelle Zauner thinks of her mother, she often thinks about food. In one memory, she and her mother, Chongmi, spend a sleepless night going through her grandmother’s refrigerator at 3 a.m. and snacking on banchan in the dark kitchen.

While digging into sweet braised black soybeans or lavender kong bap, a Korean rice and beans dish, Zauner realized that this was where she and her mother found common ground. 

The relationship among Zauner, a musician who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, her mother and food is the subject of Zauner’s new memoir, “Crying in H Mart.” The book expands on her popular 2018 New Yorker essay by the same name, which describes the solace Zauner found walking through the aisles of the Korean supermarket chain after her mother died from cancer in 2014.

“I have so many memories of the Korean grocery store and how important that was to her, because it was her connection to home,”  Zauner said in an interview.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, to a Korean mother and a white father, Zauner moved with her family to Eugene, Oregon, when she was 9 months old. She said she lived with a “feeling of being lost in translation between different cultures.” And she didn’t always have a perfect relationship with her mother, whom she described as being strict and offering tough love.

"Crying in H Mart" by Michelle Zauner.
"Crying in H Mart" by Michelle Zauner.Random House

She wasn't what Zauner calls a “Mommy-Mom.” She didn't comfort her by saying bullies were just jealous or rush her to the doctor any time she said she didn’t feel well, Zauner said. When Zauner was a kid, she sprained her ankle while trying to climb a tree. Instead of rushing her to the emergency room, Chongmi scolded Zauner for climbing the tree in the first place.

“A really big part of my grief is really lamenting having a tough relationship with her,” Zauner said. “I wasn't a perfect daughter, either, and she was absolutely not a perfect mother. But you know, I don't think that you would find any mother-daughter relationship that is really like that.”

Given Zauner’s limited Korean-language skills and their cultural differences, she said, she most often bonded with Chongmi during their trips to South Korea — and through food.

When she moved back home to Oregon to help take care of Chongmi near the end of her battle with cancer, Zauner tried to make Korean dishes to nourish and comfort her mother. But she never got the recipes quite right, which led to a sense of shame. “I was really afraid of losing access to [that culture] once my mom passed away,” she said.

Two months after her mother died, Zauner wrote her debut album, “Psychopomp,” which features shoegaze-inspired music; three years later, she recorded her sophomore album, “Soft Sounds From Another Planet.” Both were centered on grief. Using music and literature to process her grief, Zauner was able to contextualize her volatile relationship with Chongmi, she said.

“It was a really important part of my memory of my mother,” she said. “It wasn't something that I could really appreciate until I was older. And even when she was still alive, it was something that we were starting to talk about and really enjoy" by looking back at those moments.

Zauner said the honesty about their relationship was important in writing her memoir.

“It wouldn't have been real" otherwise, she said, “and I don’t think it would resonate with as many people" if she had written that "I had this beautiful relationship with my mom that was perfect and then it was ruined by cancer, because that's just not how it happened.”

“Crying in H Mart” isn’t just for children of immigrants. It is for their parents, as well, she said. 

“I think that any mother-daughter [relationship] or any parent and child goes to that moment in a way,” she said. “You are a piece of them, and it feels like you should inherently just know everything and understand everything about one another. But there is always a big divide. You’re two different people.”

She added: “If it was written by someone else and my mother had read this book, I feel like she would think about our relationship and maybe have a better understanding of how I was feeling.”