How Japanese Breakfast used her Korean heritage to cope with grief

Grief presents itself in several forms: the dripping ink of a writer, the tip of an artist’s worn down brush, the slumped shoulders of a lonely man. When her mother died after fighting stage four cancer, Michelle Zauner (or better known as Japanese Breakfast) found herself coping with her grief by connecting with her Korean heritage. Her lyrics blossomed from the pain of loss; the pickled cabbage jars lying around her kitchen soaked in the memories of her favorite childhood moments.

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Michelle Zauner with her mother eating Korean food. 

Tapping into her Korean heritage was important to Zauner when coping for with her grief because it was a way for her to connect with her mother, who was raised and grew up in Korea. Things she had once could care less about, such as the Korean music her mom had listened to and the dishes she used to create, carried more meaning now that she knew it a specter of her mother she never got to know. Being true to her Korean heritage not only gave Zauner a way to celebrate the legacy of her mother but also to rebuild the narrative of her life to reflect her mother’s strong soul as an immigrant in the United States.

Then there were the childhood summers when she brought me to Seoul. Jet-lagged and sleepless, we’d snack on homemade banchan in the blue dark of Grandma’s humid kitchen while my rela­tives slept. My mom would whisper, “This is how I know you’re a true Korean.”

Excerpt from Michelle Zauner’s essay “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi”

In the song “Psychopomp,” Zauner includes a sound bite of her mother saying “괜찮아 괜찮아 (It’s okay, it’s okay). Don’t cry sweetheart.” The line seems like the epitome of a sweet Korean mom raising an American child – the use of both Korean and English during the act of comforting may seem all too familiar to those who have grown up in first generation families. Several of my own tear stained nights have been comforted with similar words from my own mother.

The use of Korean itself in her songs is a bold step for Zauner. Until her album “Psychopomp,” her music deviates far from her culture: her past emo band “Little Big League,” punk rock melodies, the long, blonde hair she used to sport. Even when she had visited Northwestern as APAC’s Fall speaker, she had said her Asian-American identity was never anything she gave much thought to in the past because she was the only Asian-American in her rural Oregon hometown. Yet being Korean was her mother’s most prominent identity, having had moved to the United States when Zauner was nine months old, and during times of loss, it seems as if Zauner was willing to connect with her dead mother in any way.

In her music video “Everybody Wants to Love You,” grief takes on the form of tackling the general narratives of Asian females. Zauner is seen dressed in a hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, as if to represent the image of a quaint, stereotypical Asian-American. Yet throughout the music video, her actions are far from traditional as she drives her motorcycle, shotguns her beer, and charismatically plays her guitar on top of a truck while throwing out rock and roll signs. In a sense, it’s as if she is almost declaring that though she now fully embraces her Asian-American culture, – which can be seen by her use of a hanbok – she refuses to conform to the hegemony that follows the label. Rather than assimilating to the dominantly white culture or submitting to the pre-existing hegemonic narratives of Asian-Americans, Zauner paves her own way as she emerges from her grief with a new title that her mother would be proud of. She is Asian-American and “stylish and headstrong, always speaking her mind,” two traits that both she and her mother prove can go hand-in-hand.

Zauner also uses Korean cooking as a way for her to connect with her heritage and the joy that her mother brought to the table with every dish. Despite growing up in a predominantly white town in Oregon, Korean food was the one way Zauner kept in touch with her culture. From kimchi to traditional stews like jjjigae, Zauner was never shy when it came to eating Korean food for each meal. After her mother’s death, during the pursuit of trying to reconnect with her culture, it is only natural that she latched on to the one aspect of her culture that she knew the best: the food.

“One night not long ago, I had a dream: I was watching my mother as she stuffed giant heads of Napa cabbage into earthenware jars.

She looked healthy and beautiful.”

Excerpt from Michelle Zauner’s essay “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi”

As she recreates real Korean food, not the monstrosity that is Bobby Flay’s Korean taco or his clumsy kimchi slaw, she learns not only about her culture but her mother as well: “My dishes are never exactly like my mom’s, but that’s OK—they’re still a delicious tribute. The more I learn, the closer I feel to her,” Zauner said in an essay submitted to Glamour Magazine. Cooking Korean food served as a coping mechanism for her grief by allowing her to recreate her childhood through food and mimic her mother’s narrative. 

 

Losing a mother is life-shattering for a child. When the strongest figure in one’s life falls, how is one expected to move on and continue to overcome obstacles? Rather than let her sadness consume her, Zauner decided to express her grief through music, ironically a route that her mother thought was “just a phase,” and cooking. She found herself connecting with her Korean identity, which had been neglected for the majority of her life, in order to learn more about her mom and fill in her absence by becoming like her. Culture brought unity between the living and the dead, the Korean-American and the Korean, and the daughter and the mother.

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