I shouldn’t have read this book in public. Despite the activity’s affinity with the book’s title, crying on the fourth floor of Rolvaag Memorial Library is not a look. I got stares, and probably deserved them.
“Crying in H-Mart” is a memoir from Michelle Zauner, likely better known by her indie-rock project Japanese Breakfast. Both the book and much of her critically acclaimed music are trying to do the same thing — help her process her grief from her mother’s death.
Zauner’s memoir is written with a beautiful sentimentalism, at times both touching and wrecking. You feel a strong affinity with Zauner in her masterfully told anecdotes of eating with her mother. Food, in particular Korean cuisine, served as a link between Zauner and her mother, even through her tumultuous teen years. Korean food also holds significance for Zauner as it connects her to her Korean heritage, which comes from her mother — her father is white, and met her mother while selling cars to the U.S. military in Korea.
These anecdotes of love and food set the grounds for what comes later. Your appreciation of their mother-daughter relationship turns into sharp sadness when, after chemotherapy for stage-IV cancer, Zauner’s mother vomits up everything she tries to cook, everything that once tied them together. And the waterworks flow.
You start the book already knowing that, when Zauner is 25 years old, her mother dies. There is no surprise, or turn, or twist ending. Zauner’s writing is just so honest and raw that, when her mother’s headstone is miswritten, you feel a facsimile of her pain.
“Crying in H-Mart’s” storytelling is far beyond just pain, of course. Her ability to communicate remarkably complex emotional experiences is astounding. When Zauner makes progress in processing her grief by learning to cook Korean food — many tales of maternal Korean cooking guru Maangchi abound — you feel more than just happy for her. You feel a warmth as if she’s your childhood friend.
Even people who only appear briefly in Zauner’s life get a loving and sympathetic treatment. Zauner writes about her teenage experiences ripping music off of limewire with her stoner crush, and in instances like these there is a charming mix of disarming self-deprecation and proleptic sympathy. You simultaneously chuckle at and find yourself in her youthful misadventures and failures. You nod along knowingly to stories of awkward interactions with relatives. You smile when she stops paying a therapist to instead buy fancy lunches twice a week. For a book about death and grief, much of it is remarkably funny.
The book is also quite hopeful. I’ve often found memoirs centering self-improvement and growth to be riddled with cliche and disingenuous positivity. “Crying in H-Mart,” however, grapples with genuine, overwhelming despair, and still finds light on the other end of the tunnel. Despite the ultimate “happy ending” focus on Zauner’s journey of coming to terms with her grief and holding onto her Korean identity, her huge success as an artist gets relatively short treatment. A lesser memoir could have centered the rockstar narrative, but Zauner is too honest, too insightful, too astute for that. The moment of catharsis for her, the climax of the book’s arc, doesn’t come from selling out her dream concert in Seoul. It comes from a moment, alone, on the floor of her New York City apartment kitchen, preparing Kimchi.
At this point, there isn’t much more praise I can heap onto this book without being redundant. My highest accolade actually comes from my crying in Rolvaag. Very rarely does art make me cry, and never in public. A masterful memoir, full of emotional texture, honestly told, “Crying in H-Mart” is maybe the only book I’ve ever read that I would universally recommend to everyone. It just makes you feel more human.