Back in May, the Grinnell Asian American Association hosted a reading and Q & A by Michelle Zauner, the author of the bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart. Zauner was also on campus to perform with her band, Japanese Breakfast, which I personally did not know of but which seems to be kind of a big deal? I had heard of Crying in H Mart, though pandemic time being what it is, I somehow thought it had come out before the pandemic rather than in April 2021. I wasn’t originally planning to attend the reading, but then my friend Laura, a colleague who also comes from a Taishanese-speaking family, asked if I wanted to go with her, so I did. It was well worth it.
The event drew a crowd that filled the auditorium. When Zauner walked out of the wings, I was surprised to realize she was mixed race. Somehow I had assumed she was just Korean; maybe Zauner was her married name. But the chapter she read from her memoir made her background pretty clear. Crying in H Mart is generally about her Korean mother’s death from cancer. I haven’t read it, though I’d definitely like to now. Zauner read the chapter about her and her white father’s vacation in Vietnam after her mother had passed away. They had thought to take a trip for a change of scene, to take their minds off things, and they decided on Vietnam. Unfortunately, Southeast Asia did not furnish an escape from the fog of grief, and the trip was not exactly fabulous. The chapter describes some of their sightseeing and then relates a fight she and her father had a Franco-Vietnamese restaurant, which culminated in her father telling her her mother had warned him not to let her, their daughter, take advantage of him after she was gone and Zauner saying to her father that she was exercising great self-control in not telling him all the things she could be. She then stormed out of the restaurant and wandered around the town. She ended up in a karaoke bar frequented by locals, where she met a young Vietnamese woman. They each told the other they were sad. When the Vietnamese woman asked Zauner why she was sad, she said because her mother had died. The Vietnamese woman was sad because she wanted to be a singer but her parents didn’t support this. She encouraged Zauner to sing a song, and by the sound of it, everyone in the bar did.
The chapter was very well written and funny in places, and Zauner read it compellingly. Afterward, the floor was opened for audience questions. I don’t remember all the questions and their answers, but Zauner was great at this part too. There were some questions about her dual careers as a writer and a musician. Zauner said that, funnily enough, when she was growing up, becoming a rockstar seemed more possible than becoming an author. I believe she said she wasn’t much supported in artistic pursuits. In college, she took all the creative writing classes available to her except creative nonfiction because she didn’t think someone like her (a mixed race person) could write nonfiction that anyone would be interested in reading. It sounded like she hadn’t seen any examples of this, that is, she hadn’t had any mirrors, so she didn’t think it was a possibility.
Someone asked her if her father had read Crying in H Mart and what he thought of it. By the sound of it, the memoir may not have been the most flattering portrait of him. Zauner said he claims to have read it, though she’s not sure if that’s true. He did object to her having written that he’d sold used cars to the military because actually the cars had been new. She found it funny that it was this of all things that he’d complain about.
Another thing Zauner brought up, although I can’t remember what prompted it, is a notion a fair number of mixed race people subscribe to, namely, that we aren’t “half” anything. I might not be recalling how she expressed it exactly right, but she said that a lot of mixed people nowadays see themselves or at least choose to describe themselves as whole: wholly X and wholly Y (rather than half-X and half-Y). And she thinks that’s great, but for her personally, that doesn’t really resonate or feel authentic to her own experience. She does feel half-Korean, and I think she also said it felt like an asset, in some way? (This is what comes of writing blog posts a month after the fact!) Maybe that it had helped her in her musical career somehow, this feeling of not being fully one thing or the other? I was struck by her comment because I count myself among those who try not to use “half-X” language when talking about their own identities. But adjusting your language is one thing, and how you actually feel is another. That’s not to say I feel “half,” but being mixed is definitely a disinct experience. I liked how Zauner addressed that head on and shared what she actually thought, even if it perhaps didn’t fit into recent prevailing sentiments.