“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” Wandering the aisles of the pan-Asian grocery store, Michelle Zauner sees the specter of her mother. She cries when she can’t remember which seaweed brand her family used to buy, and she cries seeing a Korean grandmother in the food court, picturing how her mother would’ve aged had she lived into her seventies. Representing “freedom from the single-aisle ‘ethnic’ section,” H Mart’s abundance of instant noodles, banchan, and snacks adorned with cartoons becomes an anchor to Zauner’s heritage. She writes, “I can hardly speak Korean, but in H Mart it feels like I’m fluent.”
As with Zauner’s viral New Yorker essay of the same name, Crying In H Mart is a heartfelt, searching memoir of a mother-daughter relationship prematurely ended by cancer. Zauner, the indie rock musician who performs as Japanese Breakfast, reflects on summers spent in her birthplace of Seoul and life as an only child in Eugene, Oregon. Her mother—adventurous in travel and appetite, yet strict at home—is an object of her obsession, and Zauner spends her childhood desperate for her mother’s affection yet intent on flouting her many rules.
A fissure forms in their relationship when an adolescent Zauner discovers music, which her mother sees as frivolous, and she runs away at the end of high school. Despite mending things with her mother in early adulthood, Zauner feels lingering guilt over what she considers her own ingratitude. After learning of her mother’s stage IV squamous-cell carcinoma diagnosis, Zauner moves back home, intent on becoming the perfect daughter as atonement. Living under her parents’ roof again revives dormant feelings of inferiority. Like many diasporic and biracial people, the Korean American Zauner alternates between pride and shame over her culture.
Zauner’s storytelling—and recall of her past—is impeccable. Memories are rendered with a rich immediacy, as if bathed in a golden light. As she and her mother drive from the infusion clinic singing Barbra Streisand songs while the sun sets, the clouds are “flushed with a deep orange that made it look like magma.” Zauner is also adept at mapping the contradictions in her relationship with, and perception of, her mother. While writing her mother’s eulogy, she feels conflicted over the idea that she may only be remembered as a mom and housewife. “Perhaps I was still sanctimoniously belittling the two roles she was ultimately most proud of,” she writes, “unable to accept that the same degree of fulfillment may await those who wish to nurture and love as those who seek to earn and create.”
As a writer and daughter, Zauner is most at home at the dinner table. The healing, connective power of food reverberates in nearly every chapter of this coming-of-age story. In long, sensuous descriptions, Zauner recalls heaping bowls of jjamppong, a spicy seafood noodle soup, and endless jars of kimchi in various stages of fermentation—foods that functioned as a common language between her and her mother. In one passage, the pair share a late-night ritual of raiding Halmoni’s (Zauner’s maternal grandmother’s) refrigerator. “We’d giggle and shush each other as we ate ganjang gejang with our fingers, sucking salty, rich, custardy raw crab from its shell, prodding the meat from its crevices with our tongues, licking our soy sauce-stained fingers. Between chews of a wilted perilla leaf, my mother would say, ‘This is how I know you’re a true Korean.’”
But Zauner also discovers the limits of food in the face of an uncaring disease. As her mother undergoes chemotherapy, her once-vibrant palate is replaced. She drinks Ensure Clear from a wine glass instead of chardonnay, and Vicodin is crushed like “narcotic sprinkles” onto ice cream. Being a full-time caretaker does not offer the spiritual redemption she seeks, and though her family experiences moments of love and relief, Zauner wisely does not imbue suffering with a posthumous glow of nobility. Suffering is painful, often defying meaning.
After her mother’s death in 2014, Zauner is adrift, struggling to find purpose and reeling from an increasingly distant relationship with her father. In addition to writing the haunting, grief-filled songs that would later comprise Psychopomp, her first album as Japanese Breakfast, she turns to cooking in the aftermath of her mother’s death. She prepares rich, elaborate meals, “the kind you’d order on death row”: boiled lobsters, chicken pot pie, gratin dauphinois, giant lasagnas. But one day, she feels a craving for jatjuk, a pine nut porridge her mother ate while sick. Following a recipe from Maangchi, a Korean American YouTuber, Zauner sits down with a bowl of the creamy soup and realizes, after weeks of decadent feasts, “this plain porridge was the first dish to make me full.”
Author photo: Barbora Mrazkova
Correction: The original review stated that Zauner moved back home after her mother received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. This was later determined to be a misdiagnosis. We regret the error.