Maya Erskine’s ‘PEN15’ Tribute to Her Mom Made Me Ugly Cry

I can vividly recall opening my lunch box in elementary school to find a thermos filled with steaming hot noodles. The other kids’ eyes would quickly dart in my direction. Some said it smelled weird, others were jealous of my meal that paled in comparison to their stale peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As a half Korean girl growing up in a predominantly white suburb, being mixed-race had its challenges—something Maya Erskine has showcased in all its socially awkward glory in her Hulu masterpiece, PEN15.

In the second batch of episodes from season 2 that dropped earlier this month, the 34-year-old actress and writer, who created and stars in the series with her real-life best friend Anna Konkle, addresses how she grappled with her cultural identity as a tween by turning the camera on her Japanese mother, Mitsuko (who plays Maya’s mom, Yuki, in the series). Appropriately titled “Yuki,” the bottle episode pulls back the curtain on the matriarch of the family, showing her doing what Asian moms do best: soaking in bathtubs, bingeing K-dramas, shopping at H Mart—and what half Asian daughters do the absolute worst (“I want a turkey sandwich!” laments Maya when her mom hands her a homemade Japanese lunch).

It hit so close to home that I immediately had to get both Erskines on a Zoom call to dissect “Yuki” in its entirety. The two wound up calling in separately from their homes in Los Angeles (Maya in Hollywood Hills; Mitsuko in Santa Monica) because, well, L.A. traffic. “My mom doesn’t like me living up in the Hills,” Maya says with a laugh. “But I’m going over to their house tomorrow to sleep over.” Within moments, it becomes apparent just how close they are, or have grown to become.

“I initially thought the episode was a love letter to my mom, but I really realize it’s a love letter to my whole family,” Erskine later reflects. (Her brother, Shuji, edited “Yuki,” her dad, jazz musician Peter Erskine, has music featured in it, and her mom, of course, starred in it.) “It’s really about the love that binds our family.” At this point in the interview, Mitsuko is holding back tears. “It’s worth all the things that we went through,” she says.

Here, more from Maya and Mitsuko about their relationship, doing a show together, and the therapeutic benefits of Japanese bathhouses.

What was your relationship with your mom growing up? How has it changed over the years?

Maya Erskine: It’s very complex. From my perspective, I felt incredibly close and dependent on my mom—my dad traveled a lot when I was a kid, and I would sleep in my mom’s bed. I considered her to be my best friend. Then, as soon as I hit the sweet age of 13, I really began to lash out, and I gave her a lot of hell. It was a hard time for us, but even when we would butt heads, we would still maintain a closeness. We would go to the Japanese baths together, and that was our safe space and haven to reconnect and talk about deeper feelings [and] hurt feelings I had from classmates or other things that were going on in my life. I felt like I could really trust my mother, but then so quickly turn on her the next day because she might not buy me a Kate Spade bag that I thought would solidify my social status in school. Things like that.

Mitsuko Erskine: Mmhmm, you said it right! [Laughs.]

I wonder how bathhouses are faring during COVID.

Maya: I haven’t gone since. I’m sure they’re open again, but I wonder because you’re in a steaming room with tons of germs circulating…I don’t know how that works.

Me either. In the show, Maya doesn’t exactly fit in with the other white kids. Did you also struggle with being mixed-race in school?

Maya: My mom would craft these beautiful bento box lunches—she’d spend a lot of time making bunny rabbits out of apples and putting fish on rice, and I was just not wanting to have it. What’s ironic is that a lot of classmates were actually fascinated with my food and probably wanted it, but I just wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted a bologna sandwich or a turkey sandwich or Lunchables. I was ashamed of my Japanese side and obviously have come to now celebrate it, but it’s been a long journey. When you are half, you don’t really have a place where you feel like you belong. When we would visit Japan, I wasn’t Japanese enough, and in America, I wasn’t white enough, so I never really felt like I had a home, or a place where there were others like me that I could just fully relate to.

Mitsuko: I was quite aware [of her feelings]. My assistant was fully Japanese and she would sometimes drive the kids to school, and Maya was so embarrassed. She would come home and say, “Don’t let her drive me! Her accent embarrasses me!” I know she was just going through a difficult time.

Maya: That’s so awful, I feel so bad! I didn’t want to be associated with anything Japanese…which I guess included your assistant. [Laughs.]

Mitsuko: At one point, the kids started showing interest in the food I made, so sometimes you’d be so proud of my sushi-making. It was always a back and forth.

Maya: It was dependent on the environment. If it was “in” for one day, then yes, I was proud of my Totoro dolls, or the Japanese erasers from Sanrio. Some of the fun cultural things were accepted, but not the real identity of being Japanese. The surface-level Japanese parts of myself were exotic and fun, but weren’t truly accepted.

“When you are half, you don’t really have a place where you feel like you belong.”

—Maya Erskine

How did you come to embrace your culture?

Maya: There’s so much about the culture that I appreciate. I used to go visit Japan—I have a lot of family still there. There’s a civility that’s expressed between people that I really admire; there’s such a beauty and simplicity to the way of life. I love that I’m half Japanese now. I love taking baths with my family, and the food. Being able to learn more about my mother through the culture is really enriching for me as an adult.

pen15    “yuki”   episode 211    a day in the life of yuki maya maya erskine, and shuji ishii peters dallas liu, shown photo by courtesy of hulu

Maya Erskine and Dallas Liu, who plays her half-brother Shuji, in PEN15.

Courtesy of Hulu

What was the jumping off point for this episode? Where did you start?

Maya: It started off as an experiment. Like, “Hey, I wonder what it would be like to experience a day in the life of Yuki”—a bottle episode to really see what it would be like in her shoes. It’s been this meta experience because Yuki’s purpose in the show is Maya’s mother, and in my life, she serves the purpose of being my mother. So in a lot of ways, this episode was addressing: What is Yuki’s life outside of being a mother?

I made a concerted effort to limit Maya’s scenes because, as a kid, the world revolves arounds you—everyone’s a supporting character to your life. Now that I’m an adult, I’m trying to step out of that and see my mother as a full person. And when I was filming, I was seeing her become a full person in front of my very eyes. She would even say, “stop calling me mom” on set. In the public, she’s not seen as my mom, she’s seen Mitsuko, and there’s this whole rich, complex life she’s led. She has hobbies.

She loves K-dramas.

Maya: We watched one together! I don’t know even know if it was age-appropriate, but I loved it. It was about a couple that was each having affairs on each other. If I could include more things, it would be a late night of [Yuki] organizing, doing laundry, staying up, and having a beer and Japanese snacks while she watches TV. I’ve inherited that from you, mom.

Mitsuko: My friends are crazy about Korean dramas.

What was it like being directed by your daughter?

Mitsuko: She was really great. I’m not an actress by profession—this just happened to me. Most of the time I’m okay, but when I was having a hard time, she would explain what’s going through my mind and act in front of me. Then I’d just copy her. I’m a good copier. [Laughs.]

Did you copy her dance moves too?

Mitsuko: That was a combination of Maya and me. We tested the tone; she told me to dance. I sometimes do that kind of movement at home.

Maya: You have it in you. All those moves are from my mother, but she might be a little shy at first to open up and be her true weird self. She was doing some fantastic moves.

pen15    “yuki”   episode 211    a day in the life of yuki yuki mutsuko erskine and hideki masayuki yonezawa, shown courtesy of hulu

Mitsuko Erskine as Yuki in PEN15.

Courtesy of Hulu

Maya, congrats on the baby, by the way! Are you teaching him about all things Japanese?

Maya: I want him to be around my mom as much as possible so he can soak up the Japanese language more than I have. She’s already given him my childhood Japanese books for him to read—he’s a little young to understand that, but we are surrounding him with all of that. I hope he gets to visit Japan soon, too. I want to incorporate all of that into his life. I think with a daughter, it might be more intense at this age. I don’t think my brother had this many issues in middle school, right mom?

Mitsuko: Oh he did, but that’s a different story [laughs]. He was rebellious, so I had to be very strict. We’d fight, but not to the extent of you and me.

Maya: I’m taking it day by day, but I hope I can be as good of a mother to him as my mom was to me.

It’s amazing that you and Anna got pregnant around the same time. Did you guys plan it that way?

Maya: [Laughs] No, but it’d be pretty incredible if you could. Getting pregnant is its own beast; it can’t really be planned, so that was truly wild how that happened. It was a blessing because we could go through it as first-time mothers together. It was like the blind leading the blind. Thankfully, our babies have met and they have already bonded really deeply. We’re projecting our hopes and dreams onto them already.

What’s the most important thing you learned while making this episode?

Maya: I could see that Maya’s insecurities and certain anxieties are born out of Yuki. Yuki is someone who is weird and funny and complicated and struggles with her own identity in this world, and you see that in Maya, so it was really cool to see the parallels between the two and how similar we are in a lot of ways. When [Yuki] talks about how she feels like she was ugly in the café—that’s something I struggled with my whole childhood.

Mitsuko, what did you think of the episode when you watched it?

Mitsuko: I really felt fortunate and acknowledged. I still get in fights with Maya all the time; she makes me upset—because she’s so controlling and I’m so controlling—but this erases it. This makes it seem like, “Oh, we didn’t do so bad after all.”

Maya: That’s such a Japanese mom response.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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