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Book Review: 'Crying in H Mart' tells heartbreaking story of loss, regret, healing

Michelle Zauner is usually seen with a microphone in hand, playing to massive crowds of people with her band, Japanese Breakfast, but outside of music, she is a force of nature on the page. Zauner knows how to wow readers with her words, especially within Crying in H Mart, a memoir dedicated to her late mother, Chongmi.

Crying in H Mart tells the story of Chongmi and her battle with pancreatic cancer, which upended the singer’s life path and sense of stability in 2014. While most expect the book to just highlight the hardships of her mother’s struggles, Zauner paints a vivid image of what her mother was like throughout certain periods of her life, not afraid to detail the rocky ups and downs of their relationship before her diagnosis.

Interestingly, food plays an important role throughout the memoir, as Zauner admits that cooking is how she remembers her mother best. The singer also says she feels a stronger sense of her Asian-American identity when making and experimenting with the Korean dishes from her childhood, hence where the title of the memoir comes into play. 

Growing up in the small town of Eugene, Ore., Zauner and her mother would go to a Korean grocery store called H Mart, where they found solace within each other as they picked out ingredients, snacks and ordered meals together. Chongmi taught her daughter about different Korean foods, allowing for Zauner to slowly learn new aspects of her culture.

Zauner also gives insight into traveling to her birthplace of Seoul throughout her life. Visiting her mother’s side of the family, she alludes to desperately wanting to engrave the values of hard work and respect, while also developing a strong will and impressive food palette for Chongmi and her sisters. The singer confesses of the pressure to live up to her ancestors’ morals and her steadfast efforts to emulate herself to be like them.

As she struggled throughout her life between wanting to accept her racial identity, as well as distance herself from it, Zauner creates a nostalgically heartbreaking tone, regretting the moments when she wanted to only be seen as American. Regret is one feeling Zauner reflects on immensely throughout her story, proving the struggles many Asian-Americans experience in regard to how they are perceived by others. The model minority comparison is heavily discussed, as Zauner says the stereotype of being highly successful and intelligent solely because of her racial status caused tension between the traditional Korean values Chongmi held and the ones that the singer aligned herself with.

The singer details her struggles with depression, stemming from these identity struggles, along with her mother’s constant persisting of maintaining perfection, and how this led her to music. 

For Michelle, music is seen as the one escape from trying to meet Chongmi’s expectations, as well as her own, and she unveils her musical journey to readers, from learning how to play guitar to performing at local venues to eventually recording Japanese Breakfast’s debut album Psychopomp before and after her mother’s death.

While she does talk enthusiastically about her musical evolution, Zauner doesn’t let her rise to fame overpower the true themes of the novel, nor does it outshine her mother’s incredible legacy and heritage. As her mother’s health continuously fails, Zauner fears for the future but remains hopeful and stoic in her presence.

Towards the end of the novel, a beautiful scene is when Zauner decides to throw an unexpected last-minute wedding in her own backyard, knowing her mother will not be around much longer. Marrying her long-time boyfriend Peter, the singer tells readers how Chongmi was able to find the strength to help plan the occasion with her, from picking out a wedding dress to ordering flower arrangements. When the day comes, it’s almost as if you can see her mother as she lets Zauner go, with sentimental tears and warm smiles proving that moments like these can deter even the worst of situations.

Shortly after, Zauner grieves Chongmi’s final days, sadly passing away just weeks later. As her mother is now absent from the memoir as the end grows nearer, the singer is stuck in the past, trying to find any more evidence that her mother is still alive somewhere. 

For months, the singer reflects on her mother’s life, which leads to a somewhat hopeful turn of events as Zauner begins writing music again to cope. After Psychopomp gains some ground, Zauner believes her mother’s spirit is with her, cheering her on as she finally gets to live out her true dream of becoming a musician.

The final moment of the novel is when Japanese Breakfast plays a show in Seoul, which Zauner sees as an homage to her culture, extended family, and of course, Chongmi. With Chongmi’s beloved sister in the crowd, Zauner says this is the moment she found a sense of relief after years of battling and mourning, which allows for the memoir to end on a reflective and uplifting note.

Overall, Crying in H Mart is not an easy read, nor a necessarily happy one, but causes readers to realize the importance of a mother’s love and just how fast your reality can change. With Zauner’s heart on display, you will get lost in her tense, yet at times hilarious, childhood memories and teenage years. At the same time, you will be able to feel Chongmi’s spirit throughout, wishing that you could know her as Zauner did.


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