Michelle Zauner: Crying in H Mart (Knopf) | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Michelle Zauner

Crying in H Mart

Published by Knopf

Apr 20, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Michelle Zauner is an internationally known indie rock songwriter and singer, who records and performs under the moniker Japanese Breakfast. But if you come to Crying in H Mart to read about Zauner dishing on others in that scene or how she broke into it herself, you will be disappointed. There are scattered references to her musical pursuits, that amount to about a chapter’s length all told. Instead, Zauner’s memoir focuses primarily on the relationship with her mother, Chongmi, who died of cancer when Zauner was 25 years old, and the aftermath of her passing. Crying in H Mart was preceded by a same named short feature in The New Yorker and Zauner was also the winner of Glamour magazine’s 2016 essay contest with her entry entitled Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi. It is clear from reading those pieces that Zauner was just scratching the surface and had much more to share.

Born in Seoul, to a Korean mother and American father, Zauner immigrated to the United States before her first birthday, with her family settling in Eugene, Oregon. Zauner recounts her days growing up as challenging, with a mother that was hard to please and a father that was, at best, disengaged. She also had to face the challenges of growing up half-Korean in a primarily Caucasian community and high school. Zauner was also slower to mature, which compounded her frustrations as a teen. She describes her middle school experience as a place “where girls who’ve already sprouted D cups and know about blow jobs sit beside girls in trainers from the Gap who still have crushes on anime characters.” But Crying in H Mart shines brightest in its darkest passages, where Zauner describes her mother’s discovery of Stage IV cancer and her brief but storied battle. While Zauner’s elevated descriptions of Korean food and culture give the reader insight into how she came to value her Korean-ness, the bond that created with her mother, and how the connection led her back into the light.

In spite of a spate of not so out of the ordinary challenges with her parents, one of the book’s most touching passages comes in her parent’s communication of her mother’s cancer diagnosis. The parents’ news was shared with Zauner’s boyfriend, Peter, first, so that he could provide comfort to their daughter: “He didn’t tell me until much later that my parents had called him first. That he had known she was sick before me, that he had promised them that he would be there when I found out.” In an effort to allow her mother to see Korea one last time, the family travels to Seoul with plans to see the sights of the country one last time. Sadly, Zauner’s mother lands in the hospital before any touring can ensue, and here Zauner details the grimmest moments of her mother’s hoped for convalescence. Zauner stays by her mother’s side in the hospital, showing maturity beyond her years and contends with the most inhuman side of humanity. Zauner’s eye for detail also brings much to bear: “I leaned back on the guest bench and stared at my feet, slowly clapping my left hospital sandal back and forth against my bare heel.”

After her mother’s death, Zauner turns to food and its preparation to find a way forward. She provides meticulous detail around dishes most Americans will have never heard of (indie fans will appreciate the double-consonanted food names) and she is unapologetic in her descriptions, as if you should innately know what she is describing. Zauner and Peter return to Korea for a honeymoon of sorts and her descriptive skills of navigating through the bustling marketplace take flight: “We passed busy ajummas in aprons and rubber kitchen gloves tossing knife-cut noodles in colossal, bubbling pots for kalguksu, grabbing fistfuls of colorful namul from overbrimming bowls for bibimbap, standing over gurgling pools of hot oil, armed with metal spatulas in either hand.” A further description of the food on display puts a cherry on top of her sturdy prose: “raw, pregnant crabs, floating belly up in soy sauce to show off the unctuous roe protruding out from beneath their shells.”
At one point, Zauner and her father decide on a key word to be inscribed on her mother’s headstone: “lovely.” When the engraver gets this wrong, carving instead “loving,” Zauner’s father shows a rare moment of decisiveness: “That’s bullshit,” he declares and has it remedied later on. If there were a definitive word to describe Zauner’s own persona and the reverence for what she serves tribute to here it would be: humility. She not only navigated the challenges of growing up mixed-race in small town America, ultimately cherishing her Korean-ness, she was also pressed into the role of primary caretaker at too young an age and she cut no corners in the depth of her care. If Zauner takes anything positive from her father, it was a survivalist’s code to persevere in spite of personal challenges. No product of privilege, Zauner waited tables, assembled pizzas, cared for her family, and put herself out there against the odds of coming out on top. Ultimately, Crying in H Mart invites the reader to come for the heartbreak, but stay for the sustenance. (www.penguinrandomhouse.com)

Author rating: 8/10

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