A prickly mother-daughter bond sustained by Korean food
In an interview, Michelle Zauner describes how writing the memoir “Crying in H Mart” helped her cope with losing her mother.
After her mother’s death, Michelle Zauner was drawn to Korean food markets, where she cried in the aisles while clutching ingredients that brought back memories of meals her mother had cooked. In 2018, Zauner – who leads the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast – transformed that gastronomical bond into a moving essay about finding connection to one’s family through food for The New Yorker. That essay became the basis for a full-fledged memoir with the same title, “Crying in H Mart.”
Zauner’s mother emerges as the dominant figure as Zauner details their turbulent-though-loving relationship with candor and humor, even as she grieves her mother’s absence.
Like many immigrant parents, Zauner’s mother, who was from South Korea, held tightly to her culture and attempted to impress it upon her American child. This did not go well, especially for Zauner, who was the only biracial child among her all-white peers in Eugene, Oregon.
That’s what makes her cultural connection to food so special; meals were the time that her mother relaxed. This emerges as the book’s most beautiful theme: parents and children respecting each other.
“In your 20s,” Zauner says in an interview, “you realize that your parents are more than just your parents. They’re like these fully formed human beings that you’ve seen through a very specific lens as it relates to you. I remember that shift happening when my mother started talking about herself in this way that she never had before and asking me about my life and confiding in me.”
Zauner was in her mid-20s when her mother died, so that shift occurred late in their time together. She says that’s part of why she wrote “Crying in H Mart.”
“I felt very alone in this experience and angry at the world for not preparing me. I was like, ‘Why hasn’t anyone told me about this?’” she says. Rather than take a sentimental approach, Zauner is hilariously unsparing in her frankness. “I think that’s just the style of writer and person that I am.” It’s the same approach that her mother took.
“My mother held nothing back,” she says, mentioning a time that her mother matter-of-factly responded to her woe over losing a restaurant job by saying, “Anyone can carry a tray.”
“I think our favorite parts about ourselves or other people are often the things that are simultaneously really wonderful and terrible,” she says. Despite the difficulties, their love was never in question. “If anything, it felt more rich and secure because of those moments.”
When she returned home late in her mother’s illness to help take care of her, Zauner wanted to dispel her parents’ worries that “we were going to fight like we had when I was a teenager,” she says. “I wanted to prove that I could be good.”
Zauner’s feelings were further complicated by the presence of her mother’s friend Kye, who swooped in as caretaker and nourished her mother with Korean dishes that Zauner didn’t know how to make. Kye insinuated herself into the sick woman’s home and seemed peculiarly possessive.
Zauner refuses to pass judgment. “Everyone feels like the protagonist of their story and instead of making someone the villain, I was more interested in understanding what made them react a certain way. That was the same for myself when thinking about what I’d done wrong. Because people are multidimensional.”
Zauner reveals the ways that people process grief and maintain a connection to family – whether they cry in grocery aisles, look at old photographs, or try out recipes from long-ago home-cooked meals.