Japanese Breakfast mastermind parses music, food, her heritage & her mother’s death in touching memoir
I love words, really – in any format. In an article or on a screen, on a sticker or the back of a sweatshirt. But I especially love words in a book or in music. I love words even more when it’s a book about music. When I first started reading about music, a new world was opened up to me as a music lover; backstories and secrets you could never find on the internet. I introduce you to “Oh Darling! Please Read Me,” a monthly column about books about music.
Ever since I lost my grandparents to cancer back-to-back four years ago, I’ve recognized a pattern in myself to subconsciously always pick up literature surrounding loss and grief. The reason may be because I’ve found it too difficult to find the words myself, maybe it’s because I find comfort in other people’s similar experiences. For whatever reason, while always knowing the plot of Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart, I only now decided it was time to sit down with it.
From the first page of Crying in H Mart, I knew this was going to be a book that would find its way back into my thoughts periodically throughout my life – when I think of my mother’s experience as a first generation American and the relationship with her Italian mother, when I think about losing my grandparents of cancer, whenever I pass an H Mart, whenever my mother cooks me a meal, whenever I try to recreate one of my mother’s meals and it just doesn’t taste the same. As someone who has experienced the gruesome experience of watching someone you love die slowly by cancer, and someone who comes from a heritage where food speaks more than words ever can, I felt incredibly touched and seen and in awe at Zauner’s way of detailing so many experiences that are translatable to so many people’s private sufferings.
Now having spent an entire year on the New York Times Best Seller list, Crying in H Mart has become a staple read and with good reason. Better known as Japanese Breakfast or J Brekkie to the music world, Zauner tells that story we all know one day (if not already) will leave us with the largest hole in our lives, the story of the death of her mother, Chong mi. Crying in H Mart is not just a book about death, it’s a book about her split Korean and American heritages, it’s a book about food, it’s a book about music and love and seeing the world and sure, crying in grocery stores.
“My grief comes in waves and is usually triggered by something arbitrary. I can tell you with a straight face what it was like watching my mom’s hair fall out in the bathtub, or about the five weeks I spent sleeping in hospitals, but catch me at H Mart when some kid runs up double-fisitng plastic sleeves of ppeongtwigi and I’ll just lose it.” (I spent most of the book with my belly rumbling and my Uber Eats app open, tempted to order every single delicious meal she so perfectly described.)
Zauner paints the picture of loss and death with the most intricate and honest of brushes. Crying in H Mart isn’t so much a book about music as it is a book by a musician – but nonetheless, music is always there; leaving, entering and re-finding its way back into Michelle’s life. So much of the time music becomes a thing – a thing to critique, a thing to dissect, a thing to talk about. It becomes a headline, vocals, drum lines and melodies and so much of the time it’s easy to forget that behind all those tricks and techniques and talents, there is a writer telling a story – a story they lived, a story they made up, and very real stories of loss and grief and love. For Michelle Zauner, Japanese Breakfast wouldn’t exist without the ability to do so.
Zauner poses one of the most challenging questions: without our moms who are we? “Sobbing near dry goods, asking myself, ‘Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” (4). The book entails the dynamics of the relationship between a very Korean mother and an Americanized daughter, the harshness her mother displayed in opposition to affection, “…every time I got hurt, my mom would start screaming. Not for me, but at me,” and the fear of not being able to preserve her Korean heritage without her mother. Not only does Zauner so fluently describe the generational gap that falls between parents and children, but also the wider distance within that gap when the two are born in two completely different worlds all while also tying the gap into closeness with an invisible string throughout the book. When Michelle began to pursue a life of music, she found herself rebelliously going against her mother’s wishes out of spite for her misunderstanding of music as a career. Between the screaming fights and the bursts of rage between Michelle and her mom, the love and dependency their relationship had is apparent. Likewise, we feel the shift in Zauner becoming the caretaker to her mother; counting her caloric intake, bathing her, staying overnight in the hospital in the same ways her mother cared for her.
Michelle has an eminent ability to jump between time periods and draw readers back into the past and push them into the present that feels natural. She describes her mother with such precise love and care displaying the intricacies of their relationship. I found myself falling in love with her mother on every page – laughing at her curt responses and admiring her will to upkeep her physical appearance with Korean-specific beauty tricks, the art classes she radiated in. By the end of the book we’re let into the world that is now Japanese Breakfast. It’s a lens into how her first record Psychopomp started to gain traction (which features her mother on the cover), into her tour with Mitski and her subsequent world tours, and well, let’s just say Japanese Breakfast is just getting started.
As the book travels from her childhood in Oregon, to the liberal arts college she attended in Philadelphia, to the kitchens of pizza parlors, a treacherous vacation to Vietnam with her father, the definitive trips to visit family in Korea and the becoming of Japanese Breakfast in New York City – readers get to watch Zauner make peace with her mother. We get to watch her look at herself in the mirror and see her mother in the reflection, cook a meal and taste her mother in the ingredients, sit with her husband Peter and feel her mother’s adoration for him, perform on stage and sense her mother’s presence. Crying in H Mart takes a wound and rips it open and slowly but surely, readers watch as Zauner mends her broken heart the way she knows best – with words.