I just finished Crying in H Mart: A Memoir, by Michelle Zauner. (Fans of indie music may know her as the lead of the band Japanese Breakfast.) It is about losing her mom to cancer, being half-Korean, and her life and relationships. I had read her titular essay in the New Yorker twice: once when it was first published in 2018, and again a couple months ago for a “short story club” I’m in at work.
Not too many people seem to do short story clubs, but I think they’re great. Like a book club, a short story club is enjoyable because you get to discuss all the thoughts and feelings you have after reading something. With more cryptic works, you can share interpretations and draw out deeper meaning than you might on your own. You might even change your mind about a story, as I did with Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” Unlike a book club, the commitment is very light, so it is not a big deal—it might even make it more fun—if you didn’t like the assigned reading.
Maybe it was the discussion with a Korean club member that made me appreciate “Crying in H Mart” even more the second time around. Maybe it was that I’m a mother now, wondering how and how much my child will identify with his Chinese side as he gets older. Or maybe two years of pandemic living made me really, really miss eating in an Asian food court. When my next monthly Audible credit came in, I spent it on Zauner’s audiobook.
I hadn’t listened to Japanese Breakfast before, so I didn’t know anything about the author. It turns out we are quite similar. She has lived in Philadelphia and New York, so she feels local. We both wrestled with growing up Asian in America. We have a sadly rudimentary grasp of our mother tongues. We were depressed in high school and college, and tried to fix it with aimless wandering in the middle of the night. We are writers and musicians—though she is obviously more accomplished than I on both fronts. We love food, have strong memories around it, tie it tightly with our cultures, and treat it as a love language. We can cook all the American comfort foods we want, but need to find a recipe online for something our mothers used to make to feel truly nourished. We are only four months apart in age.
Furthermore, I was surprised by all the ways I related to Zauner’s complex relationship with her mother. There were the givens, the universal characteristics of Asian moms: the constant criticisms and critiques, making you feel never good enough, obsession with skincare and style. At the same time, our mothers provided comforting home-cooked meals, and conveyed their love through acts of service.
There were also experiences I never imagined others to have in common. Feeling ill-prepared for college and sophisticated conversations because my parents didn’t—couldn’t—expose me to the “right” books, movies, or music. (“You’ve never seen Caddyshack?” I still remember an annoying white girl asking me incredulously. “What kind of parents do you have?” Ones who didn’t speak English when it came out, I wish I’d replied.) Receiving rage and lectures instead of comfort whenever I was hurt or unwell. Being told not to shake my leg, lest the luck be shaken out. And the one I find the most uncanny: the sudden physical revulsion at my mother’s touch once the teenage years hit.
The key difference is, Zauner eventually came back around. She strove to be the best daughter possible because she truly, deeply loved her mom. Her first words as a baby had been umma and mom, calling for the same person twice. Toward the end, she wanted to hold onto every memento and memory. Me… perhaps, even as a baby, I was already set in my ways. My mother says I didn’t have a first word; I was silent for two years, and then my first sentence was, “I want to drink milk.” Recently, I reread the essay I’d written about my mother almost six years ago, “A Mother’s Love.” I think it’s still one of the best things I’ve ever written. And the relationship described therein hasn’t changed a bit.
There are some reviews online where readers said they loved Crying in H Mart because they, too, had lost a loved one to cancer. Zauner even mentions toward the end of the book that some people are fans of her music because they relate to losing their parents too soon. I am fortunate enough not to have experienced the death of a close family member yet. Although I certainly found the passages around the cancer and its aftermath to be heart-wrenching and beautifully written, I guess I can’t say I know exactly how it feels.
What I found the most rewarding about the book was simply getting to know Michelle. A creative, conflicted, well intentioned, lovely soul… who feels so strikingly familiar, whose writing style even feels like my own at times. I celebrate her successes out of solidarity, because I want people like us to succeed. A daughter overcoming challenges with her mother and fortifying their love. An Asian-American embracing her Asian-ness, and connecting to the culture through cooking. An Asian-American writer with a published book that is going to be made into a movie. A female Asian-American musician with over 1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify (and a Grammy nomination!), who used to worry about the industry not having room for her or whether her parents would approve. An individual with mental health battles and tremendous loss finding love and meaningful relationships.
I also loved exploring her relationship with her mom. When things were bad, they screamed at each other, said awful things, and even got into a physical fight. But when things were good, they were so good. They shared amazing foods, traveled, created these everlasting imprints, and made each other feel valued and beloved. Observing their time together, I felt rapport, wistfulness, despair, bitterness, amusement, bemusement, and envy.
Michelle Zauner’s struggles in the book were painfully real and human. So much of her memoir was vulnerable and profoundly relatable. I got to know her throughout her story, and now I could see us going for Korean food, wings and beer, or Taiwanese beef noodle soup together. There’s something special when the author of a book feels like a friend—right, Salinger?
After “closing” the book in the app, I feel inspired. My own feelings and ideas seem validated and worth sharing with the world someday. Zauner made me realize that I, too, was afraid there was no more room for a story like mine or a writer like me. If so much of her writing resonated with me and made me feel seen, then maybe I could do the same for someone else. And if she could love her mother so profoundly, flaws and language barrier and all, then maybe there is hope for me yet.