Genres: Memoir

Rating: 5/5 

book cover

There is no memoir so visceral and so heartbreaking as “Crying in H Mart.” This book is capable of making you yearn for something that you might not even have, and is compelling even if you know what it's about or what may happen next. Michelle Zauner revisits a time before she was even born in order to convey to the reader what it means to be the daughter of a Jewish-American father and a Korean mother. However, despite this story being written by Zauner, it is Chong Mi Zauner’s tale that enthralled me. How do you learn about a woman who “saves ten percent of herself” from even the people whom she loved most? How do you mourn a person who is made up of so many different, and often conflicting, traits? Zauner uses this memoir as a sort of catharsis, as a way to lay out the story of her mother’s past, and her mother’s passing, so that she can understand her own present. 

The thing that makes this book stand out amongst other memoirs is that Zauner doesn’t attempt to fit each person in her life into a particular role. They, as with all humans, simply are. Zauner is profoundly imperfect, as are her mother and her father. She’s able to expand upon motivations and the reasoning behind other’s actions without ever truly knowing their intentions. In taking the reader on her journey of discovery, she is able to have a conversation with the audience. It feels as though she’s connecting the dots in real time. At one point, she realizes the following on page 132 of the book,  “All of the Korean moms took on the names of their children. I never learned any of their real names. Their identities were absorbed by their children.” This provides the readers with a tangible example of what it means to be a Korean mother and a Korean daughter. 

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t immersed myself into international, intercultural or interracial content in the past. I’ve been recommended books, movies and TV shows by fellow Brazilians or Americans and, as a result, have consumed mostly Brazilian and American pop culture. But, in 2022, I’ve started to expose myself to more POC creations and have taken the pledge to Stop Asian Hate seriously. I started with something that was pretty popular a few years ago: the TV show “Kim’s Convenience.” 

When Zauner detailed the pieces of her childhood that most reminded her of her Korean identity, she mentioned the terms “yeppeu,” “umma,” and “ddong chim.” Yeppeo means pretty and can often be equated to politeness or goodness, something that Zauner said fused, for her, morals and aesthetic appeal. Umma means mother and it is the one thing that Zauner called out to her mother as she left this earth. Finally, ddong chim literally translates to poop needle and is a game that Korean children play in which they poke one another in the behind. As strange as it may seem, I, a non-Korean person, was able to make connections to every single one of these terms thanks to my prior exposure to Korean culture and customs as seen in “Kim’s Convenience.” So go out of your way to find new content to enjoy because you never know when something as phenomenal as “Crying in H Mart” will come along. 

It should be noted that, although this is a read that will stick with you for some time to come, Zauner was able to do so because the memoir uses incredibly primeval, gut-wrenching language. There are extremely triggering occurrences and mentions throughout as well, such as death, depression, abortionand cancer. For those who, like me, don’t tend to stray into the “memoir” section of the library, I would like to explain that a memoir is about a specific theme,whereas a biography is about a person’s life, typically the whole of their life up until the point in which the biography was written. However, a memoir is about one central idea, identity or situation. That being said, I still think that experiences Zauner describes in “Crying in H Mart” fit a little too neatly into a box. The progression from Chong Mi’s death to Zauner’s musical success seems almost too perfect in a narrative sense; however, I will concede that it’s clear that Zauner needed a way to round this off and that her successful career seemed like the neatest way to do that. I also think that Zauner’s father became something of an antagonist or villain as the book wore on. He was still a complicated person, but I didn’t care for him as I did the other people in the book, despite trying my hardest to be understanding, or at least interested in, the mentions of his life pre-addiction.

In this book of secrets, it’s easy to forget, however, that Zauner doesn’t know, and will most likely never know, all of the things that befell her parents before she was born. Even after her mother was gone, Zauner continued to learn new things about Chong Mi. For one, she found out that her mother was enrolled in an art class where she created honest, albeit crude, pieces that spoke to parts of herself that no one, not even her husband or daughter. This book is a study in code-switching, not just between languages or dialects, but between person hoods. The Chong Mi that Zauner, Zauner’s father, Chong Mi’s friends, Chong Mi’s art teacher and Chong Mi’s late sister knew were all different facets of one person that overlapped to create a complicated, kind-hearted, stern, miserable, happy, alienated and unforgettable person.