“Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”
I’m in my early 20s. I haven’t lived with my family full-time since I was 17 and moved to attend college in Northern California; even before then, starting when I was 15, I was traveling internationally for weeks at a time for competitions and spent my entire summers living away from home and working. I’ve been taking care of myself for a while now, and I consider myself to be a very independent person.
I still call my mom every time I successfully recreate a dish she’s made for me hundreds of times, or whenever I don’t remember which brand of rice I should buy, or if I’m nostalgic for a certain food but can’t remember its name or English translation to save my life. She’s more than my anchor and best friend; she’s also the strongest link to my Korean heritage I have. She is visible in every one of my memories of celebrating Korean New Year; she delivered me to the jaws of Korean School every Sunday for 14 years; I think of her every time I eat seaweed soup away from home on my birthday. The emotional devastation I would face in the wake of losing her would include the pain of becoming a little more unmoored from my culture, an untethering I already experience as a second-generation Korean American living in a big city, no longer constantly surrounded by Korean people.
All that to say: I cannot imagine losing my umma. I especially cannot imagine losing her at 25, the age when Michelle Zauner, popularly known as the musical artist Japanese Breakfast, lost hers. In CRYING IN H MART, Zauner confirms that the pain is as visceral and overwhelming as I imagined it would be, but she does so with warmth, tenderness, and vulnerability. Her love for her mother and mother country pours from the pages, and with this book, she builds on a goal she’s visibly had since the release of her 2016 album “Psychopomp” — to continuously pay homage to the person and culture who shaped her.
A big thank you to Knopf for sending me a finished copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review!
True to its title, CRYING IN H MART made me bawl like a baby. This memoir centers on Zauner’s experience of losing her mother at such a young age, along with the reckoning that followed as she attempted to forge new ties to her culture and strengthen her relationships with her living Korean relatives — considering that she’s an only child, and her white father was largely absent in supporting her through her grief, her aunt, uncle, and cousins become especially important to her.
Zauner also discusses her upbringing as a biracial Korean American, from growing up as in semi-rural Oregon to spending entire summers in Seoul (where she was born); being the target of racist attacks, desperately wishing she was white, to feeling insecure about not being “Korean enough” and longing to have more of her mother reflected in her face. We learn that Zauner has loved music her whole life and spent years struggling to “make it” as an artist; she writes about how, when she was a teenager, she and her umma shared a very tumultuous relationship. In other words, Zauner is extremely honest, writing truthfully — if a little delicately — about her life, how her Korean-ness and mother shaped it, and how it disintegrated when she died.
She is honest about how one of the largest tragedies surrounding her mother’s death is that her cancer diagnosis was delivered right as they were enjoying a new season of their relationship, during which the two were closer than they had been in years. Zauner had a turbulent adolescence, frequently clashing with her mother after a childhood of desperately clinging to her. The two were very different people, and from her umma growing to accept her music career to Zauner learning to appreciate her mother’s many sacrifices and expressions of love, they had to take time to get to know each other. It felt like they had come so far just to never get to the best part.
While she was preparing for her mother’s death, she was also attempting to mourn all the memories they’d never get to make, experiences they’d never get to share. She tries to minimize these losses the best she can; she and her boyfriend, Peter Bradley, even got engaged to ensure that her mother would get to attend her wedding. (She did, by the way — Bradley and Zauner were married two weeks before she died.)
Zauner experiences real grief and guilt over everything she never got to do for her mother, so she jumps at the chance to care for her throughout her entire illness, moving back to Oregon and putting her career on hold. There’s a desperation to her devotion, as though she’s trying her hardest to make up for her volatility as a teenager, for all ways she had wronged and hurt her mother. She tries her hardest to jam what would be a decades-long process into less than a year.
When she first learns of her umma’s cancer diagnosis and decides to move back home, she thinks,
“This could be my chance […] to make amends for everything. For all the burdens I’d imposed as a hyperactive child, for all the vitriol I’d spewed as a tortured teen […] I would radiate joy and positivity and it would cure her. I would wear whatever she wanted, complete every chore without protest. I would learn to cook for her — all the things she loved to eat, and I would singlehandedly keep her from withering away, I would repay her for all the debts I’d accrued. I would be everything she ever needed. I would make her sorry for ever not wanting me to be there. I would be the perfect daughter.”
At many points throughout CRYING IN H MART, I was genuinely surprised by how much Zauner and I had in common, but this last passage particularly, and painfully, resonated with me. Like Zauner, I was difficult in adolescence — I also felt very misunderstood and trapped, lashing out as a result. Like Zauner, I struggle with guilt over this, constantly feeling like I have so many debts to repay and amends to make; knowing that no matter what, it will never feel like enough.
Food plays a crucial role in Zauner’s memoir, and she recalls moments, places, and people she associates with various Korean dishes so vividly. Her descriptions of dishes like jjamppong, samgyeopsal, naengmyeon, and tangsuyuk are delightful and evocative, bringing to mind my own memories of dinners with family friends, snacks at church, and secret field trips with my mom to our favorite restaurants. (This is because Zauner is an excellent storyteller, able to present us with memories so vividly depicted it’s as if we were there with her.)
Food is an important part of any culture, helping to create a shared sense of identity and giving people something to bond over. For immigrants and members of diaspora groups, cultural dishes take on new significance — they become an ultimate source of comfort and nostalgia, a window to childhood memories and home; they also become harbingers of bullying, carefully and lovingly packed by our parents in cartoon-patterned lunchboxes. Demonstrations of love intertwined with recollections of pain and shame.
After her mother passes away, Zauner desperately tries to fill her (and her father’s) emotional void by cooking decadent meals, with items like chicken pot pie, steak, and lobster regularly appearing on their dinner table. But it isn’t until she makes herself a bowl of jatjuk, a simple, Korean pine nut porridge, that she finally feels full. She begins devotedly watching Maangchi, a Korean American cooking channel on YouTube, and recreates traditional dishes, sending photos of successful attempts to her aunt. Along with her music and writing, cooking becomes her primary way of remembering and honoring her mother. By constantly surrounding herself with all the foods and places and people and memories she associates with her umma, she holds her close, forever reaching for her, seeking her.
Japanese Breakfast has been one of my favorite artists since I was a teenager, and reading and writing about CRYING IN H MART has left me feeling close to her — she doesn’t know who I am and probably never will, but the experiences we share now make her seem like a friend, a fellow Tormented Korean Daughter. A full five out of five stars. I wouldn’t change a thing about this book.