Part an account of her mother’s unfortunate death and part food memoir, Michelle Zauner’s “Crying in H Mart” links how food is inextricably tied to her mother and memories of her Korean-American mother are just as tangled in food. She describes the joy they both found in the contrasts and complements of Korean cuisine with infectious delight—no dish goes uneaten, no flavors undescribed.
After Zauner’s mother told her that she was dying of stomach cancer, she spent as much time as possible with her, with the goal to support her as much as she herself was supported. She casts an unflinching eye to the relationship between herself and her mother, who was highly critical and said shockingly hurtful things to her daughter. She shines a spotlight on her own less-than-perfect behavior as well, revealing, no surprise: a typical mother-daughter relationship, full of hurt and heart-stopping love.
Zauner, who greatly regrets her poor Korean-language skills and inability to cook Korean food, hoped to learn as much as she could about cooking Korean food to nourish her mother’s body and soul. But Mrs. Zauner was too ill to cook, and a friend of her mother shut Zauner and her father off from a closer connection to her. She ends up learning how to make authentic dishes by watching the YouTube channel of a Korean-American home cook. (The inspired reader is likely to make her way there as well.)
Although Zauner seems selfish at times, particularly in planning a trip to Korea that her mother was clearly not well enough to enjoy, and getting married to her boyfriend Peter in her mother’s final days, she almost desperately explains how she hoped those things would raise her mother’s spirits and distract them all from the horror of her impending death. Like many adults, Zauner behaves like a child around her parents, and they revert to their past roles—critical mother, provocative teenager, distant father. No one knew that better than her mother. “‘When you were a child, you always used to cling me. Everywhere we went,’ my mother whispered, struggling to get the words out. ‘And now that you’re older, here you are—still clinging to me.’”
Inevitably, the ones we love the most have the ability to hurt us the most. Zauner writes, “There was no one in the world that was ever as critical or could make me feel as hideous as my mother, but there was no one, not even Peter, who ever made me feel as beautiful.” Her enthusiastic prose may be over-laden with adjectives, but what hurtles through the page is her earnestness and honesty. At a time when the United States is reckoning with anti-Asian racism, books like Zauner’s and the story of her lived experience as a Korean-American feels vitally important.
Those familiar with her musical career may be surprised that she rarely mentions her band, Japanese Breakfast. The indie band is receiving national attention and even a recent booking on “The Tonight Show.” A wider audience has led to greater visibility of not just the band but the overlooked human being that she is—a role she takes seriously. “After the shows, I’d sell shirts and copies of the record, oftentimes to other mixed kids and Asian Americans who, like me, struggled to find artists who looked like them, or kids who had lost their parents who would tell me how the songs had helped them in some way, what my story meant to them.” What a brilliant way to connect the reader to her story, using food, the sights and smells we all have in our lives, the scents that a mere whiff of in the grocery store will lead to tears.
“Crying in H Mart”
By Michelle Zauner
Knopf, 256 pages