Fifteen Minutes Japanese Breakfast, a.k.a. Michelle Zauner, Talks with Noah Cho About Food, Family, and Grief
“I found myself dwelling on these parts of Korean culture as a way to reconnect with my identity and also the memory of my mom.”
There’s one question I’ve been puzzling over for most of my life: Am I Korean?
There’s a literal answer to this: Of course I am; I carry Korean genes; my father was from Seoul. But there’s also a deeper, more anguished search that many of us in the Korean diaspora face. If you’re not born in Korea, or you’re multiracial, or you’ve learned but forgotten the language, or you never learned it at all, or you were adopted, or you’re estranged from your Korean roots in some other way, how can you be truly Korean?
Growing up, I had my share of people, both Korean and not, tell me I wasn’t Korean and never could be. For a long time, I believed them. I hid from my Korean identity until I went to college and found my first multiracial affinity group. It was there, in that space, that I felt affirmed. I started telling people I was Korean and white, not even necessarily biracial or multiracial. Now, sometimes, I just say I’m Korean—it was hard to say at first, but it has gotten easier over time.
My first step toward acceptance came from cooking—I am not fluent in Korean as a language, but I am fluent in cooking the food. The second step came from meeting someone a lot like me, and seeing her as a Korean: wholly, authentically, without reservation. Her confidence in who she is helped me feel confident in my own identity. That person, who I first met in 2017, is Michelle Zauner.
You may know Michelle Zauner as her alter ego, Japanese Breakfast. I’ve seen Michelle perform—her music has an ethereally beautiful quality to it, at times infused with a longing or sadness that has always spoken to me. I first came to Michelle’s music via her writing: years ago, she won an essay contest with an essay that spoke to me as few others have. Michelle is, like me, a biracial Korean American. Both of our Korean parents—her mother and my father—died of cancer. In reading her words, it became clear to me that, like me, food is what speaks to her identity. Cooking Korean food is a way for her to find her mom again, just as it is the way I speak to the ghost of my father, still haunting me after twenty-five years.
When Michelle was in San Francisco in March, we met up a couple of times to eat Korean food and drink tea and talk about food, family, and the book she’s writing. Throughout our conversation, we used our broken Korean, but it never felt forced or strange—we just knew what the other meant.
Michelle looks like me, but doesn’t look like me. The first time I met her in person, at a Japanese Breakfast show in Oakland, I hung back to introduce myself since we’d interacted on Twitter. She didn’t flinch. “Oppa!” she cried. And as we hugged and said hello, the similarities were evident: We’re short; we look like our Korean parents; we’re high-energy. Neither of us has ever “passed” as white. Her Korean, though, is far better than mine—it flows from her, warmly, and her conversations with me are always peppered with Korean words or idioms. We both look Korean, but she sounds more Korean, until she doesn’t.
I wondered how she feels about her Korean-ness. How Korean has she felt at different points in her life?
“It’s something, at least when I was a kid, that made me feel special . . . just an inherent part of myself to be celebrated,” she says. “I was born in Seoul and immigrated to the US when I was a year old. But when I was a middle-schooler, that’s when it started to feel like every small difference—any small thing that makes you different from the crowd—was like a scab . . . and that was probably around the age when I started rejecting the Korean part of my identity.” She pauses, then adds, “You know, resenting [the fact that] there’s a certain type of way that my mother wanted me to be, that I started to identify with less and less.”
“I found myself trying to learn more about cooking, and dwelling on these parts of Korean culture, as a way to reconnect with my identity and also the memory of my mom.”
A lot of Asian American children, especially those of us that have an Asian parent, can probably identify with this. But I think there’s another layer when you’re multiracial. You might be rejecting just one parent, just certain family members, just one part of you. You might try to protect the other part to spare your teenaged soul, and sometimes that’s at the cost of your adult identity. Sometimes it’s not.
“There was a time where I didn’t want to be thought of as Asian, I just wanted to be regarded as a person—and I felt like in order to do that I had to reject my Korean heritage in a way,” she says. “My middle name is actually Chong-mi, which is my mom’s name, and I used to pretend I didn’t have a middle name.”
For both Michelle and me, our parents’ deaths led us to want to reconnect with our Korean heritage as adults. “It wasn’t until I got older and more comfortable with myself that I found myself reaching out more to that part of my identity, and especially once my mom passed away I think I was suddenly confronted with [the question]: ‘Am I now severed from that part of my identity?’ It was something that I thought I would always have access to, and now it suddenly felt like I didn’t have access to it anymore.”
As she tells me this, I think of how matter-of-fact it becomes for many of us who have lost a parent to talk about that loss. It can become a kind of callous, strong and firm on the outside, but still tender at the core. But the use of the word “severed” hits me. How to repair it?
It turns out that, for both of us, food goes a long way. “That was when I found myself trying to learn more about cooking, and dwelling on these parts of Korean culture, as a way to reconnect with my identity and also the memory of my mom,” Michelle says.
Noah Cho and Michelle Zauner
When I ask what it is about food and cooking that makes her feel especially connected to her mom and her Korean-ness, she doesn’t hesitate. “I think it was just a natural way of grieving, because it’s such a basic [need] to feed yourself. And I also think that’s the way that Korean parents will show love. . . . They’re the first people that would notice if you like a certain type of banchan and refill it. There’s a wordless connection.”
But for Michelle, it goes even further than that: “My mother suffered [from] indigestion and a lot of painful sores in her mouth when she went through chemo, so getting her to eat was such a struggle. It felt like such a personal failure, because I didn’t know what to make for her.”
A Korean friend came to stay with them, and she cooked the more medicinal and herbal Korean dishes for Michelle’s mom, things the latter could stomach. But she didn’t teach Michelle how to makes the dishes; instead, she froze her out. This was particularly difficult for Michelle—for her, being able to care for her mom would have felt redemptive. “My mother cared for me for so much of my life, and I was such a horrible teenager. I knew there was a time when I would repay her, and I really wanted to do that for her.”
“I feel comfortable [in Korea] because I’m exploring my mom’s past . . . when your parent dies, you become this detective, uncovering things because you want to be closer to them.”
The story about Michelle’s family friend reminds me a little of my Korean grandmother, my halmoni, who would leave steps out when teaching my mom Korean recipes—she even did this to her own daughter. Sometimes it’s the foods we love and crave the most whose recipes are denied to us. For me, it was bindaetteok, the crispy mung bean pancake. My grandmother never really revealed her secret. For Michelle, it was jatjuk, a version of juk, the pan-Asian rice porridge—which her Korean family friend made for her and her mother, without ever sharing the recipe with Michelle. “After my mom died, the first thing I wanted to eat was jatjuk,” she says.
That longing for a comforting food is real. Learning how to make it also seemed to give Michelle some control back. “I almost felt like I was my mother, now, and this was a psychological reckoning: ‘I’m going to make this and I’m going to learn how.’ Food became inflated in my grieving process.”
In terms of both grieving and getting the food right, Michelle views Korean food as something that ties her to both her culture and her mom, and maybe those are the same thing. For me, I know how I feel when I make Korean food: There’s a longing in my heart that I only listen to while my fingers are intertwined with loose leafs of kimchi I’m cutting, or tossing wet mung beans in a colander, or feeling jeon batter to know if it’s right. I ask if it’s like that for Michelle, too.
“There are a lot of different feelings, channeling and commemorating my mother and trying to memorialize her.” She pauses, searching. “There was this panic of feeling that I need to remember this now. ‘How did mom make this? How do I remember this so I can pass it on? Because if I don’t do it now, it’ll move further away from me.’”
She still worries about losing that connection. “If I go a couple of weeks without eating Korean food, I get nervous, like I’m going to lose that palate. . . . It’s like language: the more you don’t interact with a language, [the more] it will lock you out. What do I have now? I have these memories, and I need to lock them down and continue to practice and remember, because if I don’t, I don’t have anyone else in my life to help me remember.”
The two of us talk about visiting Korea. I first went when I was two, and I have no memory of it. When I went back twenty-five years later, I was faced with something almost alien to me; it felt right, but it didn’t; I felt like I fit in, but definitely did not. I wondered what it was like for Michelle to go to Korea now.
“It feels very different. I know a lot of Korean American people who are frustrated with their relationship to mainland Korean people, and there are so many aspects of Korean culture that are frustrating . . . it’s very judgmental and there are a lot of rules,” she allows. “But because I don’t speak Korean fluently, I am almost naïve to these things. I don’t know when people are being snarky if I’m not following a rule. Sometimes I get a pass, because they assume I just don’t know better. But that’s not as true for Koreans who have lived outside of the country for quite some time and try to come back.”
I think about this. I’ve always been treated well in Korea, too, and maybe I think this because I don’t always know what Koreans are saying behind my back. More often, Koreans I’ve met in Korea were happy to help introduce me to my father’s culture—with far less judgment than most of the Korean Americans I grew up with here. A few years ago, on my most recent trip, I went to the top of Lotte World Tower, the tallest building in Korea. I looked out at this Seoul that my father never saw, that Michelle’s mother never saw, vast and sprawling, the snaking Han river gleaming in the sun. I looked at the hills, still verdant and underdeveloped, and wondered what my dad would recognize; what he would be confused by. It was like thinking about how he’d react to my life if he could see it now.
We think about our parents, our food, our families, and we know who we are.
“I definitely feel like I don’t spend enough time in Korea to get a sense of community there,” Michelle shares. “I feel comfortable there, though, because I’m exploring my mom’s past. I feel like when your parent dies, you become more fascinated by parts of their lives that you weren’t before—you become this detective, uncovering things because you want to be closer to them.”
In the end, maybe this kind of detective work is all we have as Koreans of the diaspora. And for both of us, maybe our primary clues are and always will be the Korean food we love.
Michelle and I end by discussing our favorite foods to eat, the dishes we love to introduce people to. She tells me it’s nice to talk with another Korean American with a similar background and experience. “A lot of times, people will ask me about Korean food, and they won’t know what I’m talking about when I tell them,” she says with a smile. But I know what she means.
We think about our parents, our food, our families, and we know who we are.