Crying in H-Mart: Grief, Hunger, and Healing
The cafeteria of H-Mart, a Korean-American supermarket chain, is a microcosm of longing, a gathering place for immigrant and diasporic visitors to seek “freedom from the single-aisle ‘ethnic’ section in regular grocery stores.”“I know we are all here for the same reason,” indie rock musician Michelle Zauner (who performs under the moniker Japanese Breakfast) writes in her memoir, Crying in H-Mart, which shares the same name as her viral New Yorker essay, originally published in 2018. “We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves.”After Chongmi, her mother, passed away from cancer in 2014, Zauner roamed the aisles of H-Mart, a place that triggered memories of her mother as she gathered chives and cuttlefish. “I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identity didn’t die when [my mother] did,” she says. Zauner’s memoir, published this week, charts the life she shared with her mother, the struggles of becoming a caretaker to a parent, and reconciling biracial identity through Korean cooking.
For the author and performer, food is not just a vessel to memorialize her mother. It’s a significant touchstone for accessing her Korean heritage. Her father, who is originally from the United States, met Zauner’s mother in Seoul in the 80s, when he was attending a trainee program for selling cars to the US military. While growing up in Eugene, Oregon, a town with little racial diversity, the mother-daughter pair bonded over meals.
Korean cooking drives Crying in H-Mart. It feeds the recurring chorus that Zauner offers in between verses about her childhood in Eugene, visits to Seoul, South Korea—her mother’s hometown—and learning to cook beloved dishes as a way to mourn. We see Zauner’s mother mix short rib marinade with 7Up, soy sauce, and green onion when visiting her as a young adult in Philadelphia, living in a self-described dilapidated apartment while waitressing and playing shows after graduating college. There are chilly soups like kongguksu, which Zauner’s mother eats when she undergoes chemo, and piping hot soups like jjamppong, complete with noodles, seafood, and vegetables. Foods sizzle, steam, bubble, crunch, wriggle, and burst with flavor. Sweet and sour pork is deliciously glossy, and jjajangmyeon noodles are coated in black bean sauce that is “salty, chunky goodness.”
“This is how I know you’re a true Korean,” Chongmi tells Zauner, cracking open the shells of raw crab and chomping down on seasoned yellow bean sprouts while staying at her grandmother’s apartment in Seoul during jet-lag fueled midnight feasts. These moments of the memoir are most poignant for me to read because like Zauner, I’m also mixed-race. I’m half-Chinese, and my family too, had a routine of beating jet-lag when visiting Beijing every other summer, of waiting until the break of dawn when a street vendor opened up shop to sell jianbing, and going out to eat dishes we couldn’t get at a takeout restaurant from my hometown in Florida. “The good stuff,” my dad would say in between bites of yuxiang qiezi, mapo tofu, or zhajiangmian (the Chinese version of jjajangmyeon). Meanwhile, my mom would stock up on black sesame and lotus seed cakes from her favorite bakery, Daoxiangcun. Gathering around a lazy Susan while sharing bites of squirrel fish was a way to bond with my extended family, the food smoothing over any language barriers between us.Talking about identity crises seem initially self-indulgent on the surface, but I am appreciative of Zauner delving into these internal schisms. There are scenes where Zauner struggles with communicating in Korean, possessing limited speaking skills (relying on emojis when messaging relatives) and always feeling like the “bad kid” at Hangul Hakkyo, an after-school language program in Eugene’s Korean Presbyterian Church where she is the only mixed-race student in attendance. There are passages which describe an immigrant mother’s love that is “brutal, industrial strength.”“Every time I got hurt, my mom would start screaming. Not for me, but at me. I couldn’t understand it,” Zauner writes. “When I got hurt, my mom was livid, as if I had maliciously damaged her property.” (And here I was thinking I was alone in experiencing that, dear reader.)
Then there are tender, relatable moments of not realizing just how much those visits back to our parents’ home countries meant until after we grew up, and scenes of utilizing cooking as “preservation of a culture that once felt so ingrained…but now felt threatened” following Zauner’s mother’s death.
Near the end of the book, Zauner visits a Korean spa, and she makes small-talk with a staff worker: “She stared at me….taking me in, as if to sift out the Korean parts. It occurred to me that what she sought in my face might be fading. I no longer had someone beside me, to make sense of me.” This line echoes similar thoughts I’ve had in recent years, questions I’ve asked myself. If I called myself Chinese, would anyone believe me? Must I recite an explanation, a five-second abridged autobiography of my parentage, my hometown, and how my parents met in China?
There is a lot to be said about how Asian Americans cherish and grow protective over their culinary traditions. (Just type “cut fruit love” or “lunchbox moment” into Google and you’ll see what I mean). But Zauner never comes across as too saccharine when it comes to feeling connected to her identity through eating and cooking. She’s a human encyclopedia of Korean cuisine and clearly knows her stuff. Crying in H-Mart is an emotional gut punch, but Zauner also backs up her love for Korean food by dropping knowledge. Details about significant dishes and ingredient lists are slipped seamlessly into the narrative without a hitch. For example, in one passage, she explains the origins of naengmyeon, “a North Korean specialty, where the cold climate and mountainous terrain are better suited to furrows of buckwheat and root vegetables than the paddy fields of rice that line the rural river valleys further down the peninsula.” She continues, “[Two] styles of the cold noodle dish became popular in South Korea by way of northerners who fled south during the Korean War, bringing their regional preferences with them.” It’s no surprise that Zauner co-hosted a show with VICE about the historical connections of food and migration. Maangchi, a Youtube phenom who became Zauner’s “digital guardian” while learning to cook Korean dishes, appears in the show’s first episode.
Zauner’s prose resonates because making food from our parents’ home countries is a way to claim belonging, even if our language skills are lacking, if we come from blended families, or if we grew up overseas away from most of our relatives. Food is the resilient cultural life raft we cling to and rally around, which can survive displacement and generational divides. It is in the aisles of H-Mart, Zauner writes, where she feels fluent in Korean.
Crying in H-Mart is ultimately a love letter from a daughter to her mother. While Zauner writes a tender tribute to her, the memoir does not shy away from brutal, searing rawness. Her mother’s cancer diagnosis, caretaking duties, and eventual passing creates a rift with her father, who depended on her for support throughout her mother’s illness (Zauner recently published a short essay about her father in Harper’s Bazaar). There are explosive, physical fights and flare-ups. When Zauner tells her mother she wants to pursue music as a career after high school, she responds, “I’m just waiting for you to give this up”. However, relations are mended while Zauner attends college at Bryn Mawr on the east coast, 3,000 miles away from Eugene. Readers eventually see Zauner’s mother give her blessing to pursue a life of her own making.
Towards the end of the memoir, Zauner writes about fermenting kimchi, and describes the chemical processes of a transformation. “…it is not quite controlled death,” she writes, “because it enjoys a new life altogether.” Zauner threw herself into creative work following her mother’s passing and has released two albums, Psychopomp and Soft Sounds from Another Planet, the former featuring a photograph of her mother as cover art. In the music video for her song “Everybody Wants to Love You”, Zauner crowdsurfs, sprints down the street with reckless abandon, and rides on the back of a motorbike while wearing the hanbok her mother wore at her wedding.Both albums allowed Zauner’s music career to take off. Writing these albums has been a way to encapsulate the loneliness and darkness she felt at the time, but in this memoir, she wanted to memorialize her mother’s “brilliant character and spirit.” In June, Zauner will release a new album with Japanese Breakfast entitled “Jubilee” with the simple message, “It is about joy.” Certainly, that’s something we could all use more of these days.
Megan Cattel is a NYC-based journalist and writer. She grew up in Florida, attended college in the Bronx, and spent her post-grad years in Shanghai. She is reluctantly on Twitter: @meganisonline