If you’re familiar with Michelle Zauner’s work as Japanese Breakfast, you may know how deeply the death of her mother has affected and inspired her songwriting. She wrote the songs on Psychopomp, her first album as Japanese Breakfast, in the wake of her mother’s passing a few years ago; her mom is featured on the album artwork as well.
But in addition to songwriting, the Philadelphia-based musician has written about her relationship with her mother in prose, too — in this 2016 piece for Glamour magazine, but most recently in her first essay for the New Yorker, which is equal parts tribute to her mother and tribute to H Mart, an Asian supermarket chain. As she explains, the two are more interwoven than one might think — a trip to H Mart isn’t like a trip your typical grocery store, but a fully immersive cultural experience that sounds about as close as you can get to the real thing without leaving the US.
“Growing up mixed-race in America, with a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, my mom was my access point for our Korean heritage,” Zauner writes. That connection is something she has been trying not to lose since her mother has been gone; something that a place like H Mart helps maintain. “I can hardly speak Korean, but in H Mart I feel like I’m fluent. I fondle the produce and say the words aloud—chamoe melon, danmuji…I remember the snacks Mom told me she ate when she was a kid and how I tried to imagine her at my age. I wanted to like all the things she did, to embody her completely.”
In between illustrating the sights and smells of an H Mart (reading this essay will make you hungry), Zauner tackles her own grief and speculates about others’ relationships with the market. “I wonder how many people at H Mart miss their families,” she writes. “How many are thinking of them as they bring their trays back from the different stalls. Whether they’re eating to feel connected, to celebrate these people through food. Which ones weren’t able to fly back home this year, or for the past ten years? Which ones are like me, missing the people who are gone from their lives forever?”
“It’s a beautiful, holy place. A cafeteria full of people from all over the world who have been displaced in a foreign country, each with a different history. Where did they come from and how far did they travel? Why are they all here?”
Read the essay in full here via the New Yorker. Listen to Michelle Zauner’s two albums as Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds From Another Planet, below.
— Japanese Breakfast (@Jbrekkie) August 20, 2018
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