Michelle Zauner’s memoir, Crying in H Mart (2021), explores Zauner’s search for identity, her relationship with her Korean mother, and her beginnings as a musician. Key moments and emotions are constantly linked with food, which lies at the heart of Zauner’s connection with her mother, her heritage, and her true self.
Introduction: Take an emotional journey through love, loss, and a rise to fame.
Table of Contents
There are many reasons to shed a tear in Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart: A Memoir – battling cancer, losing a parent, questioning your identity.
Zauner’s best-selling memoir candidly details these struggles, and all the emotions that accompany them. She paints a heartfelt portrait of her Korean mother, their tumultuous relationship, and her painful death. She takes us from her childhood home in Eugene, Oregon, all the way to Seoul, where we meet her emos (aunts) and halmoni (grandmother). She searches for her own Korean-ness, lives in squalor, falls in love, and discovers the gift of music.
Along the way, Zauner makes your mouth water with descriptions of food. That’s how her mother, Chongmi, shows love, and how Zauner wins her approval. Food connects Zauner to her Korean heritage, and eventually food comforts her after Chongmi’s death.
Zauner also finds comfort in music. She shows us how that part of her grieving process leads directly to Psychopomp, the breakthrough debut album she released in 2016.
Even if you’ve never heard of Japanese Breakfast, Zauner’s musical pseudonym, or don’t have a taste for kimchi, Crying in H Mart will captivate you with its honesty, style, and heart. It might even open your eyes to a new culture and cuisine.
This summary won’t detail all the banchan (Korean side dishes) served in Crying in H Mart, but you will taste enough samples to understand Zauner’s story.
Directions to H Mart
For those who don’t know, H Mart is an Asian supermarket chain in the United States. The H stands for “han ah reum,” a Korean phrase that means, “one arm full of groceries.” H Mart is a chain, and the stores are usually located on the outskirts of cities and towns, anchoring a strip mall of other Asian markets and restaurants. The good ones, not the tourist traps you find downtown.
Most H Marts have a food court, pharmacy, appliance shop, and beauty counter, but they’re best known for their groceries. The soy-sauce eggs, cold radish soup, and dumpling skins that remind Michelle Zauner of her deceased mother. All the different brands of seaweed that make Zauner wonder if she’s still Korean when she has no one to call and ask which brand they used to buy. Her father, a Caucasian man from Philadelphia, wouldn’t know.
Zauner isn’t the only one who goes to H Mart to find the right ingredients and connect with her family in the process. She watches a family of Korean women share dishes and stories in the food court. She sees a group of Chinese students hunting for their favorite kind of noodles. When she sees a kid brandishing two packets of ppeongtwigi, a Korean snack, she breaks down in tears. She can tell you about her mother losing hair in the bathtub after chemotherapy without batting an eye, but the snacks make her blubber.
Food elicits deep emotion in Zauner because that’s how her mother, Chongmi, showed love. Chongmi Zauner remembered if you liked extra noodles, or less spice, or no tomatoes. She always had your favorite dishes waiting when you came to visit. And Chongmi loved food herself. She had a litany of favorites and “usuals,” and most of it revolved around Korean delicacies.
Chongmi practiced tough love, and as a young child Michelle was constantly seeking her approval. Food was a way she could get it. Michelle first discovers this on a trip to Seoul when she’s out for lunch with her mother and her mother’s sisters, Nami and Eunmi, at a fish market. The first plate set on the table holds live octopus tentacles. They’re still wriggling and the suction cups are still throbbing, but after watching her mother eat some with glee, Michelle takes a bite. Her family erupts in delight, and a food lover is born.
Michelle’s parents expose her to a world of flavor and she develops a sophisticated palate at a young age. She likes caviar, lobster, and raw fish of all kinds. Still, the seasoning that makes everything taste a little better is her mother’s approval. Like during another trip to Seoul when Michelle and her mother are awake in the middle of the night with jet lag and raiding halmoni’s fridge. Chongmi watches her daughter devour pungent leftovers in the dark and tells her this proves she’s a real Korean.
Michelle was a difficult child. Her Aunt Nami, or Nami Emo, called her the “Famous Bad Girl.” She would hide in department stores, run headfirst into anything with a sharp edge, and throw fits in public. Still, she tried to obey her mother’s strict rules in her early years. Michelle needed to stay on Chongmi’s good side, otherwise she’d feel even more alone in the house seven miles outside of Eugene and surrounded by forest.
By the time she reaches high school, however, Michelle isn’t interested in following rules. She wallows in teenage angst that turns into full blown depression.
Searching for something to cure her apathy, Michelle finds music. She obsesses over songwriters and their lyrics, like Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, who understands life in the Pacific Northwest. More importantly, she watches a Yeah Yeah Yeahs live performance on DVD and sees someone who looks like her fronting the band, Karen O. She’s half Korean and half white, just like Michelle, and her energy on stage shatters the “demure Asian” stereotype.
Inspired and determined, Michelle pesters her mother until she buys her a cheap guitar and basic lessons. Michelle practices until her fingers hurt and befriends the cool and cute boy in English class, Nick, who had a band in middle school. She records her own songs and posts them on Myspace. She plays at open mics and high school benefits. Eventually, she opens for singer-songwriter Maria Taylor at WOW Hall in Eugene, the epicenter of her local music world.
After an awkward moment with Taylor in the closet-sized greenroom, Michelle takes the stage. She runs through her set without a hitch and walks off to real applause. Her parents let her stay to watch the main act, and Taylor opens with her hit, “Xanax.” As Michelle is singing along and watching Taylor perform on the same stage where she was just sitting, the dream roots deeper. Maybe music is her path.
Still riding the high from her post-show bliss, Michelle goes to lunch the next day with her mother at Seoul Cafe, the only Korean restaurant in town. When Chongmi dismisses her daughter’s dream of being a musician, Michelle storms out and the divide between mother and daughter deepens.
College, cancer, and caretaker
After the fight at the Seoul Cafe, teenage Michelle leaves home. She stays with friends and hangs out in squats, where drunk punks sleep on the floor and throw knives for fun. She skips classes until she’s failing everything. She fantasizes about death.
Her mother eventually steps in, fixes things at school, and sends Michelle to a therapist. Somehow, Michelle gets accepted to Bryn Mawr College, which is just outside of Philadelphia. Everyone agrees separating Michelle and her mother with a continent is a good idea. The point is driven home with a physical confrontation between the two just before Michelle leaves. The fight ends with a blow from Chongmi – she reveals she had an abortion because Michelle was such a rotten kid.
Despite the difficult teenage years and nasty departure for college, time apart heals the divide between mother and daughter. Chongmi sends care packages to Bryn Mawr with Michelle’s favorite Korean snacks, ramen, and rice. And Michelle finally appreciates her mother’s work as a homemaker and parent, especially after she graduates and is living in filthy apartments filled with out-of-work musicians.
Michelle is 25 and ready to leave the starving-artist life behind when she gets the call. Her mother has cancer. Her boyfriend, Peter, drives through the night to comfort her. Reeling with shock and wanting to make things right, Michelle hatches a plan. She will become the perfect daughter, making up for past transgressions and healing her mother in one fell swoop.
Despite Chongmi’s protests, Michelle quits her three part-time jobs, puts her band on hold, and moves to Eugene to be a caretaker. She starts jogging, because her mom had always encouraged her to exercise. She goes shopping at Sunrise Market, Eugene’s Asian grocery store that conjures so many childhood memories. She cooks favorite dishes that will be easy to digest, like gyeranjjim, a savory Korean egg custard, and mochi, a Japanese rice cake. But after starting chemotherapy, Chongmi loses her appetite.
On the fourth day of chemo, Chongmi begins vomiting. She can’t keep anything down, not even water. The next day she can’t leave her bed, so she throws up in a pink bucket that Michelle dutifully empties and cleans, over and over again.
When it’s time to take Chongmi to an oncologist’s appointment, Michelle and her father, Joel, realize things are even worse than they seemed. Chongmi can’t stand on her own. She can’t speak. When they finally get her into the car, she wails and claws at the door like she needs to escape. They pull over and move her to the backseat, where Michelle holds her hallucinating mother. As soon as the traumatized Zauner trio arrives at the oncology clinic, they’re told to head straight to the Emergency Room.
From Oregon to Seoul to married
Chongmi doesn’t speak again for days. She has to stay in the hospital for two weeks. Eventually, she recovers enough strength to undergo another round of chemo, but it doesn’t work. The masses are still there.
Chongmi calls off the treatment. After her sister Eunmi had 24 grueling rounds of chemo only to lose her battle with cancer in the end, Chongmi promised herself she would only go through two rounds, if she ever had to make that choice. Instead of more chemo, what she wants now is a last trip to Korea.
The flight across the Pacific does not go well for Chongmi. She arrives in Seoul shivering and feverish. The family takes her to the hospital, but she only gets worse. Her stomach bloats, edema covers her feet and legs, sores dot her lips, white blisters rise from her tongue. She can’t eat, and she can’t control her bowels.
Michelle stays with her mother through the night and sleeps during the day. Instead of getting better, Chongmi goes into septic shock and doctors say she will need a ventilator to breathe. Unsure of their next steps, Michelle and her distraught father go out for a bite to eat and a beer. They return to the hospital still undecided, but find Chongmi sitting straight up in bed and asking where they went, like she had just woken up from a long night’s sleep.
They immediately make plans for a medical evacuation to Oregon, and Michelle makes plans for a wedding. She calls Peter and says if they’re ever going to get married, now is the time, or else Chongmi won’t be there. Peter agrees, and the whirlwind planning begins.
Michelle hopes the wedding will give her mother a reason to keep living, at least for a few more weeks, and it seems to work. The return trip to Eugene is uneventful. With slow walks around the property and help from Korean friends and food, Chongmi gets a little stronger and healthier each day. She’s determined to have a dance with her new son-in-law at her only daughter’s wedding.
By the time the big day rolls around, Chongmi barely seems sick. She looks beautiful in a traditional Korean dress, makeup, and a wig to cover her shaved head. More importantly, she’s there to tell Michelle she looks beautiful in her wedding dress. The mother who once critiqued her daughter relentlessly now has nothing but sweet compliments.
The vows leave everyone in tears, the food is delicious, and Chongmi has her dance with Peter. She has to go to bed after that, but the day is a success. Michelle kicks off her high heels, dances barefoot with her friends, and drinks late into the night with her new husband.
A sullen normal creeps into the Zauner house after Michelle and Peter’s wedding. A few weeks later, Chongmi dies.
Michelle’s aunt, Nami Emo, and cousin Seong Young travel from Korea for the funeral. Michelle wants to be a good host for them, just like her mother would have been, so she makes Korean comfort food, doenjang jjigae, a hardy vegetable and tofu stew. She searches for a recipe online and finds a Korean woman named Maangchi on YouTube. Maangchi’s accent and instructions soothe Michelle, and the stew is a hit with Nami Emo and Seong Young.
Michelle also finds solace in music and writes a handful of songs in a secluded cabin on her parents’ property. Those songs become the album Psychopomp, which she makes in two weeks time in a bedroom recording studio along with Peter, Nick, the cool cute boy from her high school English class, and Colin, a pansexual drummer from Alaska.
The music that comforts Michelle in the moment changes her life a year later. That’s when Psychopomp, which was released under the name Japanese Breakfast, starts attracting major attention. Michelle goes on a five-week tour opening for Mitski, a Japanese-American singer-songwriter. Psychopomp keeps gaining in popularity, Michelle puts a band together, and Japanese Breakfast goes on its own cross-country tour. They play Coachella and Bonnaroo, they travel to Europe for shows in London, Paris, and Berlin. Eventually, they book a two-week tour in Asia, with the final stop in Seoul.
Every show in Asia comes with a bounty of local food, from Taipei to Beijing to Tokyo. When Michelle gets to Seoul, the greenroom is filled with her favorite Korean treats, like shrimp chips and banana puffs. The sold-out crowd loves the concert, and they buy dozens of albums when it’s done. Chongmi’s picture is on the cover of Psychopomp, and Michelle watches as her mother’s face fans out into the streets of Seoul, carried by her fans.
Michelle and Peter stay in Korea for two more weeks, visiting all the places Chongmi wanted to go on her final trip but couldn’t. They end the stay with a feast, of course, at a seafood restaurant with Nami Emo and her husband, Emo Boo. They eat abalone, scallops, and live spoon worms. They cap off the night at a karaoke bar. Nami Emo pulls Michelle on stage with her and they sing “Coffee Hanjan,” one of Nami and Chongmi’s childhood favorites.
Michelle and Chongmi’s relationship needed to break down and reinvent itself before it could thrive, just like kimchi needs to ferment and change before it reaches the perfect tart flavor. The process was painful for mother and daughter alike, and their last days together were a mess of hospitals, illness, and impossible decisions. Still, they never stopped struggling for each other. They nurtured each other until the end with love and food.
If there’s an H Mart in your town, now is the time to go. People watch in the food court. Try some ppeongtwigi, or gyeranjjim, or shrimp chips. Connect with Chongmi’s heritage, or connect with your own, through your taste buds.
The book is a memoir that explores the author’s relationship with her mother, who died of cancer when the author was 25, and her connection to her Korean heritage through food and culture. The book is divided into four parts:
- Part One: The book begins with the author’s essay that was published in The New Yorker in 2018, where she describes her visits to H Mart, a Korean supermarket chain, after her mother’s death. She recalls how her mother taught her to cook and appreciate Korean cuisine, and how food became a way of coping with her grief and reconnecting with her identity.
- Part Two: The book then goes back to the author’s childhood and adolescence, where she grew up as one of the few Asian American kids in Eugene, Oregon. She narrates her struggles with fitting in, rebelling against her mother’s strict expectations, and finding her passion for music. She also recounts her trips to Seoul, where she bonded with her grandmother and other relatives over food and stories.
- Part Three: The book follows the author’s college years and early adulthood, where she moved to the East Coast, formed a band called Little Big League, and met her husband Peter. She also describes how her mother was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, and how she returned to Oregon to take care of her during her final months. She details the pain and trauma of watching her mother suffer and die, and the guilt and regret she felt for not being closer to her.
- Part Four: The book concludes with the author’s life after her mother’s death, where she moved to New York, started a solo project called Japanese Breakfast, and wrote this memoir. She also reflects on how she learned to cope with her loss, honor her mother’s memory, and embrace her Korean heritage.
The book is a moving and honest account of the author’s journey of grief, healing, and self-discovery. The author writes in a clear, candid, and engaging tone that makes the book easy to read and relate to. She also uses vivid descriptions, anecdotes, humor, and emotion to convey her experiences and feelings. She does not shy away from showing her flaws, mistakes, and vulnerabilities, but also reveals her strengths, achievements, and potential.
The book is not only a tribute to the author’s mother, but also a celebration of Korean food and culture. The author shares her love and knowledge of various dishes, ingredients, recipes, traditions, and history that are part of her heritage. She also explains how food helped her cope with her grief, connect with her family and friends, and reclaim her identity. She makes the reader feel as if they are sitting at the table with her, enjoying the flavors and stories.
The book is not only a memoir but also a universal story of loss, love, and growth. It touches on themes such as identity, belonging, family, culture, music, art, and happiness. It shows how the author dealt with the challenges and changes in her life, and how she found meaning and purpose in them. It inspires the reader to appreciate their own relationships, heritage, and passions.
Overall, I think the book is a valuable addition to the literature on memoirs and Korean American experiences. It is suitable for anyone who wants to read a heartfelt and compelling story of a daughter’s love for her mother, or learn more about Korean food and culture. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in this topic.