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  • Writer's pictureBryan Jun

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

buy the book if the below interests you:

I've been churning through reading the past couple weeks for the first time in my life since my learning English days back in third grade (I used to bring a laundry basket to the library and fill buckets of them with titles like Horrible Harry - there's really no better way to learn how to read outside of reading). This is mostly attributed to the fact that I don't have many hobbies outside of vlogging and blogging (which are both basically the same thing and somewhat feel like a chore more than a hobby at this point) and my recent commitment to pick up a book any time I have an urge to watch Youtube or scroll through Instagram. Enough of my self-centered daily reflection - here's my review of Zauner's Crying in H Mart.

I'm not huge on the personal experience memoirs and oftentimes have a cynical eye towards them, especially ones that focus so much on the minority experience or some form of "oppressed" group. I think it's important to have a diversity of thought displayed in this world but have mixed feelings about representation in popular media (I wonder if the explosion of African American, interracial, and LGBTQ representation on insurance ads are really representative of this country and solving racism) and this ideology bleeds into my thesis on books as well. This cynicism (which I'm trying to "kill off" recently) also influences my overall worldview that people are inherently selfish and I can't help myself but think that most, if not all, authors, celebrities, influencers, etc. are doing whatever they can to ride this diversity woke train for their own personal and monetary gain. And why wouldn't they? Even in a progressive argument you could make the case that the "majority" or the "white man" has taken advantage of their own wave for the past how many years and it's "our" time to take advantage. I will say it's slightly different when you constantly make a moral or ethical case for this representation and forcefully push market dynamics to watch your movie or read your book. I recently heard a radio ad which made it seem like you were wrong if you didn't watch the new Aretha Franklin biopic Respect. I had to get this little blurb out of they way to say that I went into this book with a pretty negative outlook and tried my hardest to not be biased as a Korean American immigrant who's been deep in thought about family dynamics recently all while being recommended (by coincidence) this book by two of my friends who I consider the most "white-washed" out of my Korean friends. My only "negative" or weirdly critical remark left regarding this book is that (and I can't believe I'm saying this because this sounds like a very "woke" thing to say) this is written by a half-white individual with a white last name with a white father and white husband - the fact that I'm even thinking about noting these things, which I don't logically believe should affect whether or not your narrative is legit or not, probably says a lot about how far we've come with the issue of identity and who is allowed to talk about what. She does explain this in an interview and in the book but I also thought it was comical (and rather ironic) that her artist alias is Japanese Breakfast.

Now that I have my obligatory negative nancy out, I have to say this is one of the most captivating reads I've had in awhile. And frankly, it had nothing to do with the fact that I'm Korean American. As much as the book is titled Crying in H Mart and Zauner makes constant references to Korean words and dishes (I don't think this is to oversell her identity as a part minority or to adhere to a Korean audience, it's more for artistic effect and more so to reflect and connect to her mother who she largely connects through the foods that she learned through her and shared with that part of her heritage), this book is not an exploration of someone's racial or cultural identity, but rather a deep dig into grief and an homage to the one person we often disregard, our mother. Zauner simply uses the connection she has to her late mother through the Korean culture as a medium to express her grief, gratefulness and overall reflection tied to their relationship and emphasizes (without explicitly mentioning so) that this book is a way of celebrating her forever. In this way, I actually believe anyone can relate to this book, regardless of their heritage, and the title should not serve as a barrier to entry but more as marketing flare (which is fine in this case in my opinion as it invites people like me while also grabbing the eyes of Americans who are thirsty for reading about an "authentic minority experience" and feeling some level of insightfulness and pity about it).

There are definitely aspects of this book that one could relate to more if they have a Korean upbringing, even as Zauner does a pretty good job explaining the Korean words she uses and the cultural differences a Korean mom has from a "regular" mom. The book's narrative could be vastly different if the title was Crying in a Kroger considering that the life Zauner's mother lived is a direct result of her marrying an American and living as an immigrant in the middle of Eugene, OR while raising a hapa (I've had people who are hapa refer to themselves as that, so I'm hoping using this word doesn't get me in trouble) child. But, I think the thing I want to emphasize here and what Zauner really does a good job holding our hands through is her complex relationship that she has with her mother (and her dad) and how well it provokes the read to reflect on our own parental bonds. I think growing up we have a very one dimensional view of what is meant to be a parent - strong people that pick you up, make you food, gives you gifts, and does not shy away from perfection. As you get older, you are constantly reminded of their imperfections and how human they are and a truckload hits you with the realization that they are no different than you. As you approach the age at which they became parents themselves, you often wonder how they were able to balance their own struggles and lives while being the caretaker of another, embracing a role with no clear instructions or recipe for success.

Zauner expresses a lot of resentment towards herself, with regret regarding her lack of care for her mother growing up and the cultural and circumstantial complexities that only made it harder. I disagree with this sentiment (in an effort to be optimistic!) and revere Michelle for her ability to even recognize this and give her mother her best during her last days. If I had to make a guess, I'd assume that Zauner probably believes her actions would not have changed this drastically without her mother getting sick, which may make her feel that her matured actions and change in behavior was a purely a result of "chance" rather than the "goodness of her heart." I think a lot of us who are deeply introspective tend to worry about this aspect of life, where we wonder if the way that we improve ourselves is merely in response to our environment rather than something internal. I don't believe this is an accurate representation or analysis of how we grow, and as self-critical I am, I think human beings as a whole deserve more credit when it comes to relationship development and overall maturity. In fact, how you respond to environmental changes is quite literally what defines you internally - someone else in Zauner's shoes may not have returned to Eugene, tried her best to learn to make Korean comfort cuisine, and organize a wedding in three weeks to share the special moment with her mother before she passed.

As much as I've been trying my best to be better about my relationship with my family as a whole and specifically my mom (who I spend the most time with nowadays as I'm back home), it's much easier on paper than in practice. Familiarity often brings ungratefulness as we become so accustomed to the bottom line, when in reality that bottom line has a much higher floor than we perceive it to be. Much of what our parents have done for us is behind the scenes, and even when it's center stage we often forget that they too want to be stars of their own show. While they aren't expecting a certified return on investment based on what they do on our behalf (at least most decent parents don't), they certainly don't expect a negative return either. Regardless of whether you're expecting to cry in H Mart or Kroger after your mother's passing, let's do our best to do our parents well and spend time with them while they're around.

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