Memoirist and Japanese Breakfast frontwoman Michelle Zauner explains her journey to appreciating Korean cuisine with journalist Lisa Ling.
HBO Max’s “Take Out with Lisa Ling” is a six-episode docuseries featuring East Asian and South Asian communities across the U.S. and how they keep their cultures alive through food. Michelle, the author of the best-selling and award-winning memoir Crying in H Mart, joined Lisa to discuss being grief-stricken at a Korean grocery chain H Mart location and how that grief inspired her to write about losing her mother.
The she lit book review can be found here.
In the sixth episode titled “Korean American Dream,” Michelle and Lisa meet at an H Mart in Northern Virginia.
“I knew pretty early on that the book was going to begin with: ‘Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,'” Michelle says. “It’s like this private ritual, where I’m just in my thoughts and thinking about my mom.”
Likening her weekly shopping trips to H Mart as her version of “church,” she tells Lisa that she better understood why her mother depended on places like H Mart to connect to her native land.
“My relationship to Korean food changed so much because I was trying to resuscitate her in a way,” Michelle says over jjamppong, her mother’s favorite dish that’s a Korean noodle soup with ingredients like onions, garlic, Korean zucchini, carrots, cabbages, squid, mussels, and pork. The dish, along with many others, gets an honorable mention in the book.
Crying in H Mart centers on Michelle’s relationship with her mother and the fear she feels that her cultural awareness may disappear when her mother dies because she is biracial, her mother Korean and her father White American. How she illustrates her rich culture is mostly through food since authentic Korean ingredients over the years have come stateside through venues such as H Mart.
“Being mixed-race and losing your parent who ties you to this culture, you have to actively work to preserve it,” she says in the docuseries. “In writing this book, I learned so much about our relationship that I didn’t even realize before. That particular type of friction between an immigrant parent and a first-gen American is really a unique, tumultuous relationship.”
The memoir reaches a depth of making sense of a loved one’s premature death. In the docuseries, Lisa asks Michelle how she thinks her mother would’ve reacted to the book after they discuss feeling long-awaited pride in their cultures.
“My mom was really a private person, like a lot of Asian parents are, so I’m sure she would have scolded me for sharing some details,” Michelle says. “But I always think, like, if there was another half-Korean girl who wrote this story about her mother, and I bought this book for my mother and I, I think that my mom would say to me, ‘This girl really loves her mother.'”
Michelle’s book deal with Penguin Random House imprint Knopf came out of a winning 2018 essay of the same title that was published by The New Yorker.