In her debut memoir, Michelle Zauner (also lead singer of the band Japanese Breakfast), mines her experience as a third culture kid to illuminate her development as an artist, and the poignancy of the mother-daughter relationship.
Crying in H Mart, also the title of the first chapter, tips the reader to the eventual denouement as we find her tears triggered by visiting a comprehensive Korean grocery store, after her Korean mother dies.
H Mart is where your people gather under one odorous roof, full of faith that they’ll find something they can’t find anywhere else. In the H Mart food court, I find myself again, searching for the first chapter of the story I want to tell about my mother. I am sitting next to a Korean mother and her son, who have unknowingly taken the table next to ol’ waterworks … his mother is still instructing him on how to eat, just like my mom used to.
Their relationship was thorny—her mother describes her as “difficult”—but nevertheless they have an unparalleled bond. The family came together as Zauner’s American father took a job in Korea, where he met and married her mother. They lived in several countries until settling in the Pacific Northwest, where they were particularly isolated living on a small farm, and with few Korean connections—and nothing similar to the modern H Mart.
I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck; I’m searching for memories… H Mart is the bridge that guides me away from the memories that haunt me…
Her mother maintains a connection to Korea for Zauner through long summer trips back there, where they renew their relationships with the extended family and they revel in foods unavailable in the US. At home in Oregon, she also mainly cooks Korean food and instills a specific and unabashed love for all of its flavors in her daughter: on food, Zauner is deliciously specific.
By the age of ten I had learned to break down a full lobster with my bare hands and a nutcracker. I devoured steak tartare, pâtés, sardines, snails baked in butter and smothered with roasted garlic. I tried raw sea cucumber, abalone, and oysters on the half shell…. My childhood was rich with flavor—blood sausage, fish intestines, caviar.
Like other Asian-American children, Zauner later stripped away familiar and preferred foods and habits to fit in at school, only to have her mother push back that she was not Korean either: the plight of the third culture kid.
I stopped posing with the peace sign in photos, fearing I looked like an Asian tourist. When my peers started dating, I developed a complex that the only reason someone would like me was if they had yellow fever, and if they didn’t like me, I tortured myself over whether it was because of the crude jokes boys in my class would make about Asians having sideways pussies and loving you long time… “You don’t know what it’s like to be the only Korean girl at school,” I sounded off to my mother, who stared at me blankly. “But you’re not Korean,” she said. “You’re American.”
As her mother’s condition worsens, Zauner rushes back to try and be a “good” daughter, and the gaps in her knowledge of her mother, and Korean traditions, become more clear, and the depth of her love, despite their earlier clashes, emboldens her. As other friends and family gather, and she starts to teach herself cooking from watching videos and using her memories of taste, she builds a stronger connection and begins to understand motherhood, and what leaving Korea meant to her mother.
Zauner does not share many specifics of her musical development, aside from the joys of eventually touring with her band in Korea, but it’s evident that from the initial struggles, her fierce independence and point of view have contributed to her success as an artist, both in the musical and literary senses. Crying in H Mart will push the reader to explore Korean food if it is unfamiliar, and share the poignancy of memories intertwined with love and meals past.