Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner is a grief memoir detailing the author’s journey in grappling with the death of her mother while suppressing the fear of losing the only tie to her Korean culture in America.
What makes this memoir beautiful is the descriptions of the food being used as examples to show readers the depth of Korean culture for the author, who identifies as biracial with a Korean mother and a White American father. Her mother’s cancer prognosis motivates Michelle, a twentysomething musician holding down odd jobs in Philadelphia, to move back home to Oregon to help care for her mother. As the author goes into caretaker mode with her father unable to handle the stress, she finds herself questioning if her mother dies, will her connection to Korean culture die.
The main way her mother is able to highlight her Korean culture in America is through food and venturing to Korean grocery stores. That’s why the book starts off with Michelle shopping and eating at H Mart, a Korean supermarket chain, after her mother dies, trying to piece together meals she had shared with her mother throughout her life with the right ingredients. But seeing other people sit with their families in the dining area and cruising the aisles for dish must-haves makes the author cry every time as she navigates her culture without her mother.
I closed my eyes and let my tears flow. I tried to envision us together again in Seoul. I tried to envision the mung bean batter sizzling in grease, meat patties and oysters sopped and dripping with egg, my mother explaining everything I needed to know before it was too late, showing me all the places we’d always assumed we’d have more time to see.
Growing up in Oregon, the author stays by her mother’s side as her father travels for work. Michelle and her mother take biannual trips to Korea to stay with family and absorb culture in the homeland. Being American, Michelle is seen as more rebellious, even as a child, a trait that escalates in her teenage years, upsetting her parents. The stain of adolescence lingers in the background as Michelle experiences her family as an adult and soon as an unexpected caretaker.
My mother had struggled to understand me just as I struggled to understand her. Thrown as we were on opposite sides of a fault line—generational, cultural, linguistic—we wandered lost without a reference point, each of us unintelligible to the other’s expectations, until these past few years when we had just begun to unlock the mystery, carve the psychic space to accommodate each other, appreciate the differences between us, linger in our refracted commonalities. Then, what would have been the most fruitful years of understanding were cut violently short, and I was left alone to decipher the secrets of inheritance without its key.
This memoir has raw moments around the author seeing her mother deteriorate quickly to stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma and searching for joy amid the process. As her mother is dying, she puts on her chef’s hat and leans on YouTube to guide her through recipes for traditional Korean dishes such as doenjang jjigae, described as “a rich, hearty stew filled with vegetables and tofu” that her mother had loved serving, and jatjuk, a porridge made of pine nuts, rice, salt, and water, perfect to serve to the sick. While her mother tries to keep food down, Michelle works in the kitchen to perfect her Korean dishes to preserve the culture her mother taught her.
Of course, like in most families, there is drama around who can care for her mother the way she needs as a Korean woman in America. The author finds herself butting heads with one of her mother’s Korean friends, who seems to know everything to do to make her mother comfortable. Her father is largely absent, unable to accept his wife is dying on the cusp of retirement; a fantasy full of travel is dashed by cancer. And at 25 years old, Michelle is trying to stabilize her life as a musician and maintain her relationship with her partner, as she worries what her life will be like without her mother.
Overall, the memoir illustrates the elaborate details we all experience in our own cultures, but the art of writing customs that are practiced and the foods that are eaten elevates the story. The balance of bittersweet is on every page, as the author deals with her mother dying but also experiences a renewed interest in diving into her Korean culture. It’s the uncertainty of being able to carry on the culture without the parent who taught you the culture that hops off the page. Despite the story leading up to the grief of losing a mother, the memoir ends on a hopeful note that as long as the roots are planted, they stay within you and the loss empowers you to nurture those roots.