Courtesy of Michelle Zauner

April 17, 2019

Michelle Zauner: The Korean-American Musician Behind Japanese Breakfast

Print More

Mixed is a group at Cornell that works to create a community for students who identify as mixed-race. Last Saturday, Mixed presented Michelle Zauner, a Korean-American musician behind the indie pop band Japanese Breakfast and author of the New Yorker article “Crying in H Mart” as well as an upcoming book of the same name. The article explores how Zauner regained connection to her culture through food and how H Mart, an Asian supermarket chain transformed from an Asian-American supermarket to a place of remembrance. Her memoir, which is in the works, is about the idiosyncrasies of growing up in a mixed-race household in America, and what it’s like to lose a parent who is a vital part of one’s identity.

Zauner has a natural, edgy punk vibe. She wore an all-black outfit that matched her jet-black hair and sported an intricate tattoo that snaked down her right arm. One could have easily been taken aback by her free use of language —  if not for her openness and spontaneous hilarious remarks. She shared her early life story of moving from Seoul at the age of two to the small college town in Oregon where the landscape is “coated in docile green,” “it rains incessantly” and “hippies [make] their own nut butter.”

After moving to the United States, she started her music career in high school with small open-mic gigs, playing guitar in her free time. When not creating music, she lived the average Korean-in-America lifestyle. She went to Korean school every Friday for 10 years, celebrated Korean holidays like Lunar New Year and went shopping at H Mart. According to Zauner, “food was big,” and offering it to others showed nunchi — a Korean word meaning an awareness of other people’s needs and emotions. Unlike some American “mommy-moms [who] take an interest in everything her child has to say,” Zauner’s mother showed a harsh, tough love that softened and showed nunchi, especially when preparing food for her daughter. Her mom would fill up the fridge with perfectly fermented kimchi and other goodies, an affectionate act which inspired her award-winning essay for Glamour magazine “Love, Loss, and Kimchi” after her mother passed away.

Michelle Zauner attended Bryn Mawr College where she studied as an independent major: Creative Production. She hoped attending the women’s university would give her the means to create an all-girl punk rock band, but alas, “everyone was interested in acapella!” She didn’t lose hope in her dreams. She joined a band called Little Big League, and then moved on to create the indie pop band Japanese Breakfast — named for her love of Japanese breakfast food blogs and anime — in 2013. The band started out with lo-fi-style songs, later expanding into ambient techno, pop and rock beats. Japanese Breakfast has toured parts of Asia, Spain, Canada and across the United States. Zauner has also directed 10 music videos and released two studio albums.

After her mother and aunt passed away from cancer, Zauner turned to culinary pleasures to overcome her grief and connect with her late family members. She showed us pictures of her first birthday, a huge, traditional celebration. She pointed to a photograph picturing a flat cake surrounded by multiple sweets and pastries. Apparently, the cake is “the most bland object, even though it looks the most like what you’d find at a Starbucks.” She also shared how her family lacked high culture but made up for it by spending money on the “highest of delicacies.”

Growing up, Zauner learned to embrace both American and Korean cultures. Although she used to deny she had a middle name (since it was Korean) and tried to counteract her familial Korean culture with the American values of entrepreneurship and independence, losing her mother and aunt changed her life. Trips to H Mart became a spiritual awakening and cooking her mother’s food became a healing process.

Growing up in an immigrant household myself – I’m a Colombian-Indian-American – I was inspired by her tenacity in following her passions despite financial hardship and familial expectations. Although I would have loved to see Michelle Zauner as the next Sarah Silverman or Awkwafina, a career in creative music production suits her just as well as a career in comedy would have.


Ariadna Lubinus is a sophomore in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at [email protected]