The Japanese Breakfast frontwoman and New Yorker staff writer discuss the frantic need for creative expression and the emotional resonance of H Mart for Document Journal's Summer/Pre-Fall issue
“The first line of the book is, ‘Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,’ Japanese Breakfast frontwoman Michelle Zauner explains of her memoir, Crying in H Mart (2021). “And the whole book is answering that question of why do I do that.” For The New Yorker staff writer Jiayang Fan, the question is why you wouldn’t cry in the beloved Korean-American super-market chain. To both Zauner—who emigrated from Seoul to Eugene, Oregon, before her first birthday—and Fan—who was the only Asian student her first year at Greenwich Academy after she and her mom moved to New England from Chongqing, China—the grocery store is a profound access point. In the aisles of H Mart they find not only a link to a culture they had limited access to growing up in majority-white contexts, but also a Proustian connection to a rich emotional world of sensorial memories. “Oftentimes I wonder, does everyone love everything on the shelves like their own family members?” Fan muses. “Do people have that same affection for the chili oil or to the pickled squid that I do?”
In Zauner, Fan finds her answer. “When the world divides into two people / those who have felt pain and those who have yet to,” Zauner sings on “Posing in Bondage,” a single off of her 2021 album, Jubilee. When Zauner and Fan speak, they find themselves on the same side of that divide—both have written with gripping honesty and care about their complex relationships with their mothers and the grief they felt as they witnessed them battle illness. As Zauner details in her memoir, nested within the nostalgic, comforting smells and sounds of H Mart is the stinging knowledge that her mother is not among the shoppers. Fan, whose mother has ALS, a disease that has robbed her of her ability to move, to speak, or even to breathe on her own, knows this acute injustice well. But in conveying their stories—or, in the language of their conversation’s running metaphor, reaching forth their ‘tentacles’—they uncover a poignant discovery: the validation and comfort of shared experience.
Jiayang Fan: As I was preparing for this, I’ve been snacking on my dried squid from H Mart. I’m in bed just eating handfuls of dried squid. This is my go-to brain food.
Jiayang: I have the same relationship with grocery stores as you. It’s almost like an amusement park for me. I moved to the States from China when I was eight, and going to Asian grocery stores feels like a very strange kind of homecoming. Oftentimes I wonder, does everyone love everything on the shelves like their own family members? Do people have that same affection for the chili oil or to the pickled squid that I do? I think other people are just shopping, they’re just wanting to get dinner, and for me it is such an emotional experience. In your original piece [on H Mart] for The New Yorker, you put that so brilliantly but also so accessibly. How did that piece come about?
Michelle: The first two pieces of nonfiction I wrote that made their way into the book were just odes to things in my life. The first one, ‘Love, Loss, and Kimchi,’ was like an ode to Maangchi [YouTuber Emily Kim] and my cute little relationship with the woman I’d never met, and the second one was like an ode to H Mart. In early 2018, I started expanding ‘Love, Loss, and Kimchi’ into a book. I wrote maybe the first six or seven chapters of what I thought could be a book before I submitted the first chapter as a standalone piece to The New Yorker.
It was around the second Christmas I’d spent without my mother, and I was in Bucks County outside of Philadelphia with my in-laws, and I felt compelled to go to the Elkins Park H Mart to eat lunch by myself. I just felt so tender to myself and everyone around me. I saw these women reaching over, eating from each other’s bowls. I saw this mom with her son, instructing him how to eat and [it made me] remember my mom. The first line of the book is, ‘Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,’ and the whole book is answering that question of why do I do that.
Jiayang: My mother is still alive, but her health is very, very compromised. I think I have been grieving her loss for the last decade because parts of her are dying. When someone has a terminal illness you are losing pieces of them through time. That made me feel incredibly brittle and fragile. Sometimes I wouldn’t even get to H Mart before I would just completely lose it on the subway or on the sidewalk.
What you described so well, and with such brutal honesty, is looking at everyone who is older than your mother—every woman who’s above the age of 65, who looks like they could be a shadow of your mother, and just feeling the egregious injustice of the world. Like, why did they get to make it and why didn’t my mother? I would feel immediately so guilty for having that thought.
I think one of the reasons that we take the loss of our mothers so hard is that from an early age, they made us feel like we were a part of them, not in the metaphorical sense, but like we belong to the same lump of flesh. I’ve been examining that because I think that’s quite common for East Asian mothers to make their children feel like ‘you belong to me and I have ownership over you.’
Michelle: So much of this book was discovering that the things that I thought were so singularly cruel about my mother, or about our relationship, are actually a big cultural thing. One of my favorite pieces of feedback that I’ve gotten from people is that the type of nuanced relationship that some non-Asian people might think of as sort of emotionally abusive is very, very common in East Asian culture.
I remember that specific line, ‘If I couldn’t be with my mother I would become her.’ My husband, who is white, read that and was like, ‘What do you mean?’ It was this intense feeling that I’d absorbed my mother’s spirit or energy, and I lived on as her in this weird way. If we were arguing, my mom would say something along the lines of, ‘I am you, you are me, what are you talking about?’ I remember I really wanted to get my belly button pierced when I was younger—
Jiayang: [Laughs] Like, ‘This is where we are connected, how dare you?’ When I was 15, I got my ears pierced, and my mom was so deeply offended because she felt like I had pierced her property. There was that sense of, That’s also my body that you are stabbing holes into.
I felt so seen, but also terrible, when you shared this experience where every time, as a child, you took a fall or got sick, you were yelled at. I had the same experience! Again, my not treating my body as well as I should was my not taking care of what belonged to her. There was just this collapse of boundaries between us.
Michelle: Absolutely. I also feel like my mom just desperately didn’t want her regrets to be my regrets. Now that I’m older, I can already feel myself pushing that on to someone else. [Laughs] Which is horrible because I really don’t want to do that to my child, but I can already feel her through me. My husband always gets sunburned, and I’m like, ‘You need to put the sunscreen on! Put it on again, it’s been two hours! You know you’re going to get burned, and you just do this to yourself!’ It’s the exact same shit that my mom did to me when I was a kid—the way that love gets passed down through just trying to prevent personal regret.
Jiayang: My mom can no longer speak because she’s on a ventilator, but her voice is so loud in me. I do feel the tentacles of my mother reaching out. Even when I’m crossing the street with friends, I’m so protective of them, the way that my mom was. It’s frustrating to the people I care about, but I don’t know many other ways of expressing my affection, my care. I’m always worried that one day I’m going to be the overbearing mother, even though I’m excited and desperate to be a mother.
“It always feels like our mothers are a piece of us and they are also a reflection of us, but we are also trying to acquire the ability to examine those pieces of ourselves. That’s what I would like to think makes us artists.”
Michelle: I have a tremendous amount of pride about who I’ve become, largely because of the way I was raised. But I also have a tremendous amount of self-hatred, you know what I mean? [Laughs] I’m ultimately really glad. I really wish I’d listened to my mom when she told me to pay attention in piano lessons and in Korean language school. If my mom hadn’t told me ‘No,’ I would have angel wing tattoos and a belly button ring, and gauges in my ears. So I’m very grateful—but at the time, I was like, ‘You don’t know who I am! This is me!’ She did have a better idea, not about everything, but certainly about 90% of the stuff that she protected me from.
In high school, I used to have these huge textbooks and if I had a biology test or a math test coming up, I would keep them in my backpack as a reminder of the weight of the thing that I had to do. That’s so sick and fucked up, but it’s so rooted in the way I was raised. Part of me wants to pass that down to a kid so that they could have that as an adult, because it comes in handy. But there’s another part of me that’s like, Don’t you also wish that you were a fucking chiller person? Don’t do that to someone!
Jiayang: I also thought it was really delightful [in the book] when you were almost scouted to be a K-pop star. Korea and China are such deeply patriarchal societies, a woman’s beauty is one of her only assets. In Asia, it was always made very clear, even as a child, that a woman’s beauty is kind of her worth to the world. It was really interesting for me to read how your mother also protected you from that.
Michelle: I think my mom turned the scout down because she knew that I would hate it; she knew that I would fail. She had a strong sense that I had such an intense independent streak. She couldn’t even get me to wear a hat. She’s like, You’re not going to be able to eat what you want or say the things you want to. You won’t even let me put you in a skirt, what makes you think that you’re ever going to be able to survive this lifestyle?
Jiayang: I think that’s where our experiences differ. What I find most demoralizing is how much weight is placed on physical beauty, in the East in general. For a long time, I felt myself wondering, How do I maximize my assets in this way? I really was plugged into that model of seeing my self-worth as a function of my beauty by these societal standards. And I think that hindered my sense of what a self could be.
In your book, and also through your music, I could see this groping towards a self. You sound so badass because you weren’t a goody two-shoes but you also went to a really good college and you got to explore what you wanted to explore. Maybe because I only had my mother, and I was an immigrant, I felt much less American, the world had fewer possibilities for me. I was never going to be a computer programmer or an accountant. I would have to be in the arts. There was a very frantic need for self-expression—
Michelle: What did your mom think about that?
Jiayang: She thought, Well, if you’re going to be an artist, you’re going to have to be Picasso. If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to have to be Shakespeare. You can make these choices, but that is the bar—
Michelle: You have to be exceptional! [Laughs]
I was lucky in some ways. My dad was a white man who really didn’t give a shit; he was just a united front with my mom. My dad is a recovering addict; he was a felon and a meth addict at 19. So, anything that I was doing felt pretty chill to him. I think I had a sort of entitlement that came with that, because I really hated beauty. I wanted to be pretty, but on my own terms. I had what my mother would refer to as my ‘ugly things phase,’ where I literally just wore ugly Goodwill sweaters and patched overalls, and I looked hideous, with really short hair. I think I needed a sense of purpose; I had such a strong feeling that I needed to make art. In a way, pushing those parts of my mom away that she was forcing on me was me being, I don’t want me to be you, and you don’t want me to be you either! So why are you trying to get me to be obsessed with beauty when I don’t have time for that? I have to read my books and write my stuff.
Jiayang: I saw so much of your mom in my mom, but I also saw so much of your mom in me. Our immigration experience is more similar, which made me feel this impossible tenderness toward her and you.
The mother-daughter relationship feels so primal to me. Of course, I find myself having really uncomfortable thoughts about what it would mean to raise a daughter. The rational part of me thinks I want her to grow into her own person and I want to equip her with the ability to do that. But I fear that my mother in me, the tentacles, will reach out—
Michelle: I love how you refer to them as your tentacles.
Jiayang: Because there’s something so grasping about that desire to protect their children from themselves.
“If my mom hadn’t told me ‘No,’ I would have angel wing tattoos and a belly button ring, and gauges in my ears. So I’m very grateful— but at the time, I was like, ‘You don’t know who I am! This is me!’”
Michelle: I remember being in Vietnam with my dad and seeing a little girl taking pictures with her mom. In that moment I was like, Do I want to be the little girl or do I want to be the mom? Courtney Love talks about, seeing the rock star and not being sure if you want to fuck them or be them. It’s like,I don’t know if I want to be the mom or I want a mom. I have both of those desires that really emerged after my mom passed away. Especially at this age when there’s still part of you who wants to be taken care of and coddled as a kid but there’s also this part of you that feels like, I can’t have that anymore, I want to give that part of myself to someone else.
Jiayang: Our art is so intertwined with our thoughts of our mothers. Our mothers are a piece of us and they are also a reflection of us, but we are also trying to acquire the ability to examine those pieces of ourselves. The artist in us is trying to make sense of how those parts cohere in our identity and offer something to the world.
Returning to the beginning of our conversation about why [our mothers] were so hard on us when we were children, in terms of regarding our bodies as a part of theirs: I think there were so many dreams that they had that were deferred, that could never be realized, and we became an expression—we were their artworks. That was incredibly difficult and sometimes exasperating and humiliating for us. My mom is entombed in this bed, marooned between life and death. Whenever I’m able to achieve, part of me thinks, I hate the fact that she is living for me, but I also know that she was living for me before she even became ill. The only thing that I can give to my mother is this sense of, You didn’t have the opportunities that I had to make a mark in this world. But—going back to the theme of cooking—you are absolutely the most vital ingredient in me. Yes, I have to make the recipe on my own, but whatever emerges from the pan, that has you in it.
When I was listening to your song, ‘In Heaven,’ I was crying, and I was reading your book, too. It’s so fucking cool because you have these multiple ways of channeling your art that I do not have. Writing and making music, do you feel like you’re using different tentacles?
Michelle: Music feels so intuitive because writing is just a small part of it. It really goes hand in hand with the sonic elements that have all these accompanying rules. Like, if you start in a key, it kind of has to stay in that key or find its way to a new one with math. Or, like, words have to have a certain amount of syllables or a rhyme scheme. It’s so limited. I feel comfortable in that set of rules, whereas writing a book is like building a house: There are so many things that could go wrong, and it’s so easy to get lost in the structure and feel like you totally fucked up the entire thing by a misstep. Also, there’s nothing to hide behind if someone disagrees with you or if they can’t see where you’re coming from. So I was so worried about this book in this way that I’ve never been nervous about a record.
Jiayang: Writing doesn’t come to me very easily, sometimes I’m just like, I have no idea why I have chosen this as my profession.
Michelle: I feel like every writer feels that way, though.
Jiayang: Can one of my tentacles reach out and grab you?
Michelle: I would love our two tentacles to hold hands!