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Crying in H Mart: A Memoir

Review

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir

All her life, Michelle Zauner’s mother, Chongmi, told her, “Stop crying. Save your tears for when your mother dies.” Zauner’s memoir, CRYING IN H MART, stands as her abandoned, all-consuming, grieving cry in response to her mother’s untimely death.

For Zauner, as for many, losing her mother felt like losing a part of herself. As a biracial woman with a Korean mother and a white father, Chongmi was her most direct connection to her Asian culture. She spoke the language, cooked Korean dishes, brought her along to the local Asian grocery store, and traveled with her to Korea every summer to stay with her family. Without Chongmi, who gave her access to this part of herself and her heritage, Zauner felt stranded.

"Michelle Zauner gracefully and honestly shares the story of her life as a growing artist learning about herself and her mother. She skillfully has crafted a memoir that is as heartbreaking as it is comforting and page-turning."

Growing up, Zauner struggled to understand her mother’s kind of love. She writes about her parents as whole people, neither glorifying nor degrading them. In the process of her writing, it seems that Zauner can see her mother more clearly. She was neither comforting nor warm, but she was fiercely honest. Zauner quotes Chongmi as saying, “Mommy is the only one who will ever tell you the truth, because Mommy is the only one who will ever truly love you.” Though she did not understand Chongmi’s love for a long time, she still believed that her mother loved her more than anyone else. Zauner, in her tomboyish youth and depressed teenage years, did not gain her mother’s approval in terms of looks or behavior. Instead, they found common ground at the dinner table. Zauner’s love of Korean food was what made her mother the proudest.

Zauner writes in a way that carefully sets the table for each scene. When talking about a gathering, she takes as much care to describe the food shared as conversations that were had over it. Whether it's eating fried chicken and drinking beer with her cousin, or savoring the delicate aftertaste of homemade jatjuk, a pine nut soup, she knows how food connects people and anchors them to their reality. A warning to readers: Her beautiful prose will leave you hungry.

Having grown up being praised by her family for loving briny, tart, sweet and spicy flavors, Zauner feels out of her depth when her mother’s cancer diagnosis comes with difficulty stomaching anything but the plainest foods. When she is undergoing chemotherapy, the strong flavorful food that Chongmi loves becomes too much for her to take on. Zauner’s instinct is to make her Korean dishes that will comfort her and remind her of her childhood, but when even an egg souffle is too much, Zauner retreats. A family friend takes over, knowing exactly which porridges and soups to serve Chongmi, while Zauner counts her mother’s calories and makes sure she has eaten enough. Illness is an ever-looming presence in this book. As Chongmi loses her ability to enjoy food, we see her ability to enjoy life shrink against the dominating force of cancer.

After her mother dies, Zauner believes that she has less of a claim to her own culture. She doesn't feel as connected to Chongmi’s family in Korea and worries about visiting without having her mother there to lean on. However, her fears are slowly ameliorated when she finds a YouTube channel called “Cooking with Maangchi,” which makes accessible the recipes that her elders hadn’t passed down to her. The book highlights the healing power of cooking, demonstrating how the food we eat can remind us of who we are and where we came from. For Zauner, cooking was her way of reestablishing a connection with her culture in the absence of her mother.

At its heart, CRYING IN H MART is about what connects people and how we define ourselves by those relationships. It is filled with rich stories of familial love that weather the storms of immigration, illness and death. Michelle Zauner gracefully and honestly shares the story of her life as a growing artist learning about herself and her mother. She skillfully has crafted a memoir that is as heartbreaking as it is comforting and page-turning.

Reviewed by Julianne Holmquist on April 30, 2021

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir
by Michelle Zauner

  • Publication Date: April 20, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525657746
  • ISBN-13: 9780525657743