Crying in H Mart: How Grief and Loss Reconnected Michelle Zauner with Her Korean Heritage

Michelle Zauner's literary debut, Crying in H Mart, is a powerful memoir about grief, loss, Korean cuisine, and mother's love.

Crying in H Mart is a 2021 memoir written by Michelle Zauner, a singer and a guitarist of the band Japanese Breakfast. It is a continuation of Zauner’s viral essay for The New Yorker and her literary debut that immediately became a major success. Reading this memoir wasn’t an easy task as it tells you the true story of an author watching her mother battle cancer, suffer from both the treatment and the disease, and losing her just when the two started to understand each other better. Besides the main theme, this memoir is an honest, unfiltered, raw depiction of Zauner growing up as a mixed American-Korean child, building her ethnic identity, and finding herself. There is a lot of praise and talk about this book these days and for good reason.

 

Plot

Her whole life Michelle Zauner is struggling with her self-identity due to her mixed background. Her father is white American and her mom is Korean, but Zauner couldn’t seem to belong to either of her heritages. More than that, she and her mom could never find common ground and understand each other. Zauner was a difficult teenager, which caused more misunderstandings between the two. Only when she started growing up did their relationship start to develop and get better over time. Until one day, out of the blue, her mom got diagnosed with cancer.

“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart,” that’s how the book starts. So it is no surprise that this book is about loss, grief, and heartbreak — the one that probably never dies down. From the beginning, the reader knows that in this memoir there is no happy ending. How can there be one if you already know that everything you will read further is related to suffering and the disease? And that’s why it hurts more. You learn about the relationship between Zauner and her umma (mom in Korean) and how unfairly soon it ended just when the two of them started to understand each other and accept their differences. Or in Zauner’s words: “Then what would have been the most fruitful years of understanding were cut violently short, and I was left alone to decipher the secret of inheritance without its key.”

Although this book is about losing a parent it is also, and more so, about navigating through that pain. Zauner tried traveling, and therapy but nothing seemed to work until she started cooking Korean food.

 

Maangchi, Kimchi, and H Mart

This is where the H Mart, an American supermarket chain of authentic Asian groceries, comes into the picture. As Zauner continues to grieve the loss of her mother, she is left to reunite and reclaim her Korean heritage, which she felt like she can’t connect with now that the bridge that was connecting her with her ‘Koreanness’ is gone. But it was Korean food and Zauner’s desire to recreate the taste that was associated with her childhood, summers in Seoul, and her umma that started healing her from this trauma.

That’s how she found a Youtuber named Maangchi, who was sharing Korean recipes and made Zauner feel like watching her own mother cook and talk while doing so. By watching Maangchi Zauner got to learn how to cook many Korean recipes each day after work such as kimchi, doenjang jjigae, and jatjuk — a pine nut porridge being the only last meal her mother was able to eat when she was battling cancer.

There are a lot of food references that those who favor Korean cuisine will definitely appreciate. In a way, Crying in H Mart is an homage to Korean cuisine that will make even those who never got to try Korean food before want to do so after reading this book.

 

Reception

Even though Crying in H Mart is a literary debut of Zauner, it quickly got many positive reviews among book lovers. You may have seen this book all over Bookstagram, BookTok, and BookTube, at least that’s how I first got to know about this memoir.

If reviews’ of the internet community are not enough for you, maybe you should know it debuted number two on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. The cherry on top is that it also became the winner of the Goodreads Choice Awards as Best Memoir & Autobiography.

Only two months after the memoir’s release it was announced that a film adaptation is coming our way. Besides that, the film will be adapted for the screen by Zauner herself and will include her band Japanese Breakfast’s song as the movie’s soundtrack.

 

Who Needs to Read This Book

I believe that this book doesn’t have a particular type of reader that needs to read it, but it goes without saying that most probably those who lost a parent or parents will be able to relate to Zauner more. For those of us who are lucky to have our parents in our lives today, it will be a reminder to call them, check on them, and tell them you love them and appreciate everything they did for you. Because the truth is, in this world tomorrow is never promised.

I also think this book will be more relatable for mixed kids, as Zauner explains in many parts that feeling of never feeling enough for any of your ethnic or racial backgrounds. Always questioning your feeling of belonging, as if by being mixed you are losing some points bringing you closer to claiming your identity, your culture, your heritage, your blood. As a mixed person, I especially valued these parts, as they made me feel heard, seen, and understood.

The book does a brilliant job at showing how we are the continuation of our parents, and how they continue living through us no matter what — through the food we make, the language we speak, and the happy memories we shared.

 

 

Photo courtesy of Leila Mekhdiyeva

 


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