Written by Katie Stam
Graphics by Anita Chan
Michelle Zauner’s new memoir Crying in H Mart details the relationship between food, culture, and care.
The first time I saw Michelle Zauner of the band Japanese Breakfast play, it was 2016 and I was 15 years old. The show was at the Echoplex in downtown L.A., and I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, so my mom graciously dropped me and my friends off at the venue. We arrived an hour before doors, anxious to get a good spot at the sold-out show, and ended up in the very front row.
I was primarily there to see the headliner Mitski, but I had also listened to Japanese Breakfast and Jay Som in anticipation of their opening performances. When Zauner took to the stage, I was mesmerized by her energy. I took a quick, 4-second video of her performing her song “Everybody Wants to Love You” and uploaded it to my Snapchat story with the caption “JAPANESE BREAKFAST!!!!!!”
Seeing Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, and Jay Som (who are all Asian women) perform with my friends (all of whom are half-Asian) was an incredibly impactful experience. For the first time in my life, I saw women who looked like me playing a show and singing about experiences that I could relate to. It felt like the rest of the crowd faded away, and it was just the artists performing directly to me and my group of friends. I found myself smiling up at the stage during each set, hoping the artist would catch a glimpse of me, notice our shared traits, and know how much seeing her perform meant to me.
Since watching Japanese Breakfast play, I’ve been following all of Zauner’s work, from her album releases to her New Yorker article, which her new memoir Crying in H Mart is an expansion of. I think I feel a special connection to Zauner’s art because we’re both half-Korean with a Korean immigrant mother and a white American father. I don’t know a lot of other half-Korean people, so whenever I find out that someone else is, I feel like we’re a part of some special club that only those with one Korean parent can join. And, if such a club really did exist, Crying in H Mart would definitely be required reading.
Crying in H Mart details Zauner’s experience growing up and struggling to meet her Korean mother’s expectations, moving away to pursue her creative aspirations, and then returning home after her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Zauner devotes herself to her mother in her final, painful months and then must reckon with the grief of losing both her mother and her last connection to her Korean heritage.
The book opens with Zauner crying in H Mart, some time after her mother’s, Chongmi’s, passing. The Korean grocery store is an escape for her, a place full of memories created before the “chemo head and skeletal bodies and logging milligrams of hydrocodone,” when her mother would shop with her and teach her about the food she ate growing up in Korea. Zauner now asks herself: “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”
The memoir then jumps back in time to describe Zauner’s childhood and her tense relationship with her mother. It articulates details about being a mixed Asian-American woman that I had never been able to put into words or even known that others had also experienced.
Zauner feels strange and undesirable as a child attending a school with few other mixed kids but is suddenly called “Yeppeu” and praised for her Caucasian features when she visits Korea. She struggles to follow along whenever her mother speaks Korean and feels relief when words are written out in Konglish, a seamless blend of both Korean and English. And, she relishes the experience of trying new Korean foods with her family, her mother telling her, “This is how I know you’re a true Korean.”
Crying in H Mart is packed full of lush, mouth-watering descriptions of Korean food and cooking that reminded me of eating with my family. Zauner writes of her mother’s tender short rib, “soused in sesame oil, sweet syrup, and soda and caramelized in the pan,” live octopus from the fish market, “briny, tart, and sweet with just a hint of spice from the sauce,” and the contents of her grandmother’s refrigerator, “sweet braised black soybeans, crisp yellow sprouts with scallion and sesame oil, and tart, juicy cucumber kimchi.”
Food is so much more than just sustenance to Zauner: it’s a way of demonstrating love and care. Her mother’s painstaking meal preparation and nagging instruction of how to eat is the way she shows her affection. When her mother becomes ill, the roles are reversed and Zauner becomes committed to caring for Chongmi with comforting, homemade Korean food. After her mother passes, Zauner learns how to cook more Korean dishes to stay connected to her culture and the memories of her family. In the chapter Maangchi and Me, Zauner describes learning to cook Korean meals from the Youtuber Maangchi. “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home,” says Zauner.
In this memoir, Chongmi’s death happens a little over halfway through the book, so Zauner is left with around 100 pages to detail the aftermath. She writes about grief and the feeling of losing a loved one unflinchingly and holds nothing back. We’re with Zauner through difficult moments, when she struggles to hold onto her relationship with her father without her mother to unite them, and joyful ones, when she bonds with her aunt Nami in Korea over bowls of naengmyeon. Unsurprisingly, Crying in H Mart had me on the verge of tears more than any book I’ve read recently.
Zauner’s memoir and interviews from the book’s press tour also provided me with a new perspective on her body of music. I had known that Japanese Breakfast’s album Psychopomp was about Zauner’s grief after her mother’s passing, but I hadn’t known all the details she provided: that her mother is pictured on the left of the album cover and her aunt on the right, the audio clip at the end of the song “Psychopomp” is a voicemail from her mother, and that she had to deal with a range of emotions when the album she wrote about her mother’s death launched her from starving artist to full-time musician.
The memoir also made me think a lot about my own family and my relation to my culture. My mom, her mother, and her sister are the women who introduced me to Korean culture and the only part of my Korean family that I’m close to. And, inevitably, there will likely be a time when they are no longer here. How would I go on without them? Who would I be then? It’s difficult to think about, but I’ve found comfort in reading Zauner’s story and knowing that I won’t be alone.