Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
So Young Koo
As a Korean living in America, for me the title of Michelle Zauner’s memoir conjures up a recognizable image. While there are many different types of Korean marts, including the local one in Zauner’s hometown, none is more symbolic than H Mart. While it is broadly Asian, it is most known for its selections of Korean produce and goods. H Mart is usually a bustling, cheerful place filled with both the excitement of new discovery and the comfort of familiar tropes. This duality helps immerse readers in Zauner’s complicated grief. Treading through the friendly aisles, she is reminded of the circumference of her loss. Zauner asks, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” She can no longer call her mother, Chong-mi, for advice as her death is the main subject of Crying in H Mart. Now, Zauner’s trips to H Mart are marked by an absence amplified by her penchant for people-watching. Sitting at the food court inside H Mart, she sees a group of Korean women spanning three generations. She is jealous of the bond they share and is reminded yet again of her chasmic loss. Thus, her trips to H Mart are no longer just a “hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck”; rather, she is searching for memories and collecting the evidence to prove that the Korean half of her identity did not die with her mother.
Crying in H Mart was originally written as a short story of the same name for The New Yorker. In an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, Zauner remarks that the now richly developed memoir’s success came as a surprise to her because the stories were so personal. While born in South Korea, Zauner lived most of her life in Eugene, Oregon, which is where she most profoundly remembers her mom. Growing up as a self-admitted troubled child, she talks about the rocky relationship she shared with both her Korean mother and American father. However, Zauner’s story is not one of regret but of her private journey coming to terms with loss.
She makes sense of that which remains after having personally cared for Chong-mi a few months before her death. Zauner was initially determined to provide the best care for her dying mother, a repayment of the mothering she received in childhood. Though Zauner embarks on this process hopeful that everything will work out, she is instead faced with many failures, including their trip to Korea where Chong-mi is unable to show Zauner around her favorite Korean places before becoming hospital bound. In an attempt to give Chong-mi something more concrete to hold onto, Zauner decided to marry her then-boyfriend, Peter. While Zauner frequently consults her mother in the planning process, she notices how different the wedding would be if Chong-mi was not sick. She manages to pull off a wedding in only three weeks, but even this is not enough to save her mom. Zauner’s relationship with her American father suffers after her mother’s death. Instead of the event bringing them closer, the two do not know how to behave around each other without Chong-mi’s presence. Her father sells their home and moves to Thailand shortly after.
Growing up, Zauner took biannual trips to South Korea to visit her mom’s family. While she remembers her time there fondly, she states that she felt isolated in both America and South Korea. She was too Asian in Eugene and too white in Seoul. In Korea, however, Zauner feels most connected to her matrilineage. In the presence of Zauner’s chain-smoking, loud-mouthed, and fun-loving halmoni (the Korean word for grandmother), Chong-mi morphs into a child again. Upon learning of her own mother’s death, Chong-mi, as Zauner remembers, cried out in “this distinctly Korean wail.” Chong-mi repeatedly moans: “‘Umma, Umma,’ crumpled on the living room floor.” After the death of her mother, Zauner experiences one more death during a trip to South Korea, that of her aunt Eunmi. Just as Chong-mi had done, Zauner mourns in “[t]hat Korean sob, guttural and deep and primal…the sound [Chong-mi] made crying for her mom and sister.”
The narrative does not end with death, however. Zauner learns to negotiate her life without Chong-mi. Practicing Korean culinary art was a huge part of that journey. When she searches the internet for Korean recipes, she comes across a YouTuber named Maangchi who speaks in a manner reminiscent of Chong-mi. Discovering recipes through Maangchi, Zauner feels that she is learning from her mother again. She celebrates her small successes making the comfort foods her mother cooked for her growing up. She eventually conquers kimchi-making, which is notorious for the extensive labor required. Zauner begins to make “kimchi once a month,” and it becomes her “new therapy.”
Zauner concludes her memoir with a snapshot of the success of her music career—the largest point of contention between her and Chong-mi, both as a teenager and as an adult. Her mom wanted Zauner to take a less-risky career path and often downplayed her musical interests as a passing phase. Chong-mi always worried that Zauner would not be able to support herself as an artist. After her mom’s death, Zauner’s side project, the band Japanese Breakfast, became a hit and eventually allowed her to tour the world. Zauner’s last stop on the tour is South Korea where she invites her Korean relatives—most importantly her aunt Nami—to the concert. In these final defining moments, Zauner feels most connected to her remaining Korean matrilineage.
So Young Koo is a Literature, Media, and Cultures Ph.D. student at the Florida State University. She speaks Korean, English, and conversational French. Her interests include contemporary literature, popular culture, and gender studies.