Crying in H Mart is a raw and brutal account about salvaging a relationship with your dying mother and grappling with your mixed race identity with food bridging the gap to help you both cope with your loss and and straddle two cultures. Michelle Zauner is an indie rock musician of a band called Japanese Breakfast and this searing memoir is an extended version of an essay she wrote for The New Yorker in August 2018.
Michelle was brought up in Eugene, Oregon by her Korean mother and white American father. She had a troubled relationship with her mother Chongmi and it only became worse during her teenage years of rebellion. Everything changes when Chongmi is diagnosed, when she is fifty six years old, with stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma in her stomach. Michelle, who is twenty five at the time, realizes how much her mother means to her and suddenly the roles are reversed. She is her mother’s caretaker and through all the pain and suffering, she finds comfort in Korean cooking and bonds with her mother through food.
I recently lost my mother and I could relate to Michelle’s loss. I could see myself in Michelle- in the eagerness to please and also in the pain of seeing someone wilt before your eyes. She feels guilty about not appreciating her mother until it is almost too late. She tries to be more Korean than ever to make amends and to assuage the guilt, for a connection to her Korean heritage is by extension a connection to her mother.
Chongmi was far from perfect. She was critical, a perfectionist, a shallow woman who only cared about appearances. But yet when Michelle learns that her mother is dying, she transforms overnight from a rebellious youngster into a dutiful and loving daughter. She finds healing through food and specifically by exploring her Korean heritage through food. H Mart is a Korean grocery store chain. The book starts with her breaking down in the store as the aisles remind her of her mother’s cooking.
“Food was how my mother expressed her love. No matter how critical or cruel she could seem—constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations—I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.”
She wants to make it up to her mother before it is too late. I found it heartbreaking to see this young woman try so hard to win her mother’s approval. Interestingly, I discussed this book at a book club where there were many women of Asian origin. We were from China, Taiwan and India and we could all relate to the mother-daughter relationship. And all of us women unanimously declared that our emotionally distant mothers showed their love through cooking and feeding us. It seemed like there was some common cultural conditioning that resulted in our mothers’ attitudes and behaviors.
There are such vivid descriptions of Korean food in the book that if you are someone who enjoys the cuisine, it will leave you salivating. I think this memoir would have been perfect as a cookbook with personal anecdotes and stories accompanying each recipe instead of just an outpouring of grief. The writing is lyrical on the whole. One passage where Michelle Zauner compares the process of fermentation to stored memories, stood out in particular to me:
“I had thought fermentation was controlled death. Left alone, a head of cabbage molds and decomposes. It becomes rotten, inedible. But when brined and stored, the course of its decay is altered. Sugars are broken down to produce lactic acid, which protects it from spoiling. Carbon dioxide is released and the brine acidifies. It ages. Its color and texture transmute. Its flavor becomes tarter, more pungent. It exists in time and transforms. So it is not quite controlled death, because it enjoys a new life altogether.
The memories I had stored, I could not let fester. Could not let trauma infiltrate and spread, to spoil and render them useless. They were moments to be tended. The culture we shared was active, effervescent in my gut and in my genes, and I had to seize it, foster it so it did not die in me. So that I could pass it on someday. The lessons she imparted, the proof of her life lived on in me, in my every move and deed. I was what she left behind. If I could not be with my mother, I would be her.”
Michelle captures the challenges of being a bi-racial kid who desperately wants to fit in with her American peers. She is the only Korean -American in her small rural town. One can sense the internalized self-loathing and shame about her race that she experiences during her teen years. She does not speak Korean well and is removed from her culture other than the annual summer trips to Korea where she spends time with her relatives. She moves to the East Coast for college and as a struggling musician in NYC blends in with her white peers and has a white boyfriend. Immigrants and their children know this feeling only too well- of belonging and yet not fully belonging.
“I had spent my adolescence trying to blend in with my peers in suburban America, and had come of age feeling like my belonging was something to prove. Something that was always in the hands of other people to be given and never my own to take, to decide which side I was on, whom I was allowed to align with. I could never be of both worlds, only half in and half out, waiting to be ejected at will by someone with greater claim than me. Someone whole.”
With her mother’s impending death, it dawns on her that she risks losing the tenuous link she has to her culture. She scrambles to learn the language and learns to cook following a YouTube blogger.
Michelle had a lot of resentment and anger towards her mother but now that she is dying, she sweeps everything under the rug and is filled with love and tenderness for her. I have to wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t suffered from cancer! It was painful for me to see her experience her grief but it was even more painful for me to see her idealize a mother who was flawed in many ways. To make her mother happy, she even guilt- trips her boyfriend into marrying her just because she wants her mother to attend her wedding before she dies. She even admits in the acknowledgements that she tricked her husband into marrying her.
Writing a memoir is tricky. It requires vulnerability, honesty and courage. And sometimes that means that you cannot refrain from airing your dirty laundry in public. I couldn’t help feeling that Michelle treated her father unfairly. He was an alcoholic and had many shortcomings but he had some redeeming traits too – he was the sole provider of the family who took care of their financial needs and he nursed his wife during her illness and loved her in his own broken way. Michelle reveals that her father had an affair and it makes me wonder if her mother would have liked this in the open. The dead are not there to defend themselves. And not unsurprisingly, she is now estranged from her father.
The book hit close to home for me. It appealed to me as I could relate to the perspectives of both the mother and the daughter. I could identify with Michelle’s grief and the realization that our mothers love us in their own imperfect ways and with Chongmi’s situation as an immigrant parent raising first generation American children caught between two cultures. Making peace with your parents is a wonderful thing but if only Michelle had acknowledged her mother’s flaws and recognized the emotional abuse and yet felt compassion for the woman withering before her, it would have been a much more introspective and nuanced perspective of their relationship!