A young Asian woman (Michelle Zauner) speaks or sings into a microphone on a stage

How Japanese Breakfast Is Amplifying & Celebrating Mixed-Asian Narratives

When I wrote about Japanese Breakfast’s SNL performance about a year ago, I was met with the most heartening responses regarding mixed-Asian identity and belonging. Some were from people who are mixed themselves and shared their own experiences; others were intrigued by the band’s backstory, largely in part due to Michelle Zauner, frontman and founder, as the mixed-Asian narrative is something we’ve lacked the framework to properly discuss. Until recently, that is.

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It was around two years ago that Zauner published her first book, the memoir Crying In H-Mart. The book largely centers around her relationship with her late mother, yet also deals with the ups and downs of occupying her particular identity in America. Half-Korean, half-Caucasian, Zauner grew up in Eugene, Oregon—a small city that’s pretty white now, yet was even whiter when she was growing up. The sense of alienation that she felt not just as a person of color, but as a mixed person of color, is a huge focal point of the book, especially as it pertains to her career as an artist.

Being mixed-Asian is tricky. You don’t really feel like you have a leg to stand on regarding the race dialogue in America because we’ve been sold the “model minority” crap since birth. We often feel like two different iterations of relative privilege, and therefore, whatever problems we might feel as a result of our identity are often reduced to fantasy. Believe me, I spent most of my life telling myself my problems weren’t real, and therefore how I felt didn’t matter. But the reason I write about any of this is that as an adult with a mostly fully-formed brain, I’ve come to understand from all angles that these problems aren’t made up. In a world that systemically places value, negative or otherwise, on one’s racial identity, it would be impossible for mixed-Asian folks not to somehow be affected by their backgrounds.

Oh, the many ways in which we face these consequences. I knew girls that were constantly fetishized for being mixed, which made them feel as though their only identity was “looking sexy,” regardless of how they personally felt about it. I knew boys who felt resentment for their heritages due to all the stigma against Asian men AND the inherent sense of isolation that comes from growing up in a mixed-race household. The result of these constant dehumanizing attitudes, coupled with the diminishing of one’s feelings regarding said behavior, is the silence that we all grew comfortable with regarding who we are. This silence paves the way for violence, as I, like so many others, am unfortunately all too familiar with. Everything is a domino effect. The late-night tears didn’t come out of thin air.

So, then, how do you prevent this? How do you create space for people to be themselves and validate their own experiences? You literally have to create it. And you talk about it! This is exactly what Zauner has done, and the results have been stunning.

I’ve noticed such an uptick in people sharing their experiences as mixed-Asians since this book came out. In my personal life, I’ve found it easier to have these dialogues with friends, especially other mixed-Asian people. Last year, I met my friend’s half-Korean girlfriend for the first time and we ended up talking until 3 AM, high off the ecstasy of our startlingly similar experiences. And sure, we’d both put in the work for years to properly understand our places in the world, but I feel as though Zauner has provided an easy framework to jump off from.

Lately, though, it especially feels as though Zauner’s work is starting to pick up. SNL was huge, don’t get me wrong, but as far as momentum goes, in hindsight, it was just the boot in the ass. Recently, Conan had her on his podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend,” and the two had a wonderful conversation about mortality and video games.

Then she popped up again as a reference on Apple TV’s Shrinking. I had to laugh when the main character, played by ol’ white Jason Segel (I say with love), has a fight with his half-Asian daughter. In the fight, he attempts to ground her, and she pops back with, “You can’t do that, I’m seeing Japanese Breakfast next week!”

Could they have just written that in because Japanese Breakfast is an indie staple? I mean, sure. But it seems more to me like they saw what The Current Moment is for mixed-Asians and they decided to be smart about it. It was an especially cute moment for me to see, considering I took my mom to see the band for her birthday (it remains one of the best concerts I’ve been to, and not just because my mom is cool).

What might be the most notable piece of news, however, is the fact that Crying In H-Mart will be given a screen adaptation, directed by none other than White Lotus star Will Sharpe. Again, this is ESPECIALLY notable because Sharpe himself is mixed-Asian, so he likely took this on because of his personal connection to the material.

“There were lots of things that resonated with me as somebody who is half-Japanese, half-British, spent my childhood in Tokyo,” Sharpe recently told People. “Some of the descriptions of being jet-lagged in your family’s kitchen felt very familiar to me.”

And while film adaptations of autobiographies can sometimes be a little dodgy, I’m just here singing glory for the fact that this is even happening. Five years ago, if you’d told me that we mixed kids were having a moment, I would have laughed in public and cried in private, because I wouldn’t have believed you. This moment means so much to so many people, and it’s my hope that it won’t be a trend, but the starting point for so much more down the line.

Because ultimately, we live in a world where there are more than just a handful of experiences one can have, and each story deserves to be told. Ours are no exception. And quite frankly, I think we’re justified in being tired of having our experiences be so callously undersold, especially when the results are so utterly isolating.

So Michelle? Will? Everyone else who’s been toeing the line all the while? I’ll be pouring one out for you all the next time I go to an H-Mart. You can catch me crying over the tteokbokki.

(featured image: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images)

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Image of Madeline Carpou
Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).