Mini Review: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

About mini reviews:

Maybe you’re not an audio book person, or maybe you are. I provide mini reviews of audio books and give a recommendation on the format. Was this book improved by a voice actor? Would a physical copy have been better? Perhaps they complement each other? Read on. . .

Crying in H Mart is a memoir by Michelle Zauner (she/her) and read by the author. The opening chapter details the foods Zauner’s Korean mother prepared for her, including the ways her mother would instruct her to consume the food. The H Mart in the title refers to a Korean store where Zauner would shop for groceries, but after her mother’s early death from cancer, it is the H Mart where Zauner frequently breaks down with grief.

There is some familiar territory in Zauner’s memoir, namely the feeling that she is not enough for any culture. Her mother is from Korea, where she met Zauner’s father, a white American man. Thus, the summers when Zauner and her mother spend weeks in Korea “prove” Zauner isn’t really Korean, but when she’s in the U.S., people “other” her as a generic Asian person, making inappropriate jokes about her facial features and packed lunches for school.

And yet, what is new is the deep immersion into Korean food, and this is one of the reasons I recommend you listen to Crying in H Mart, in addition to the fact that Zauner reads well, keeping her tone level and voice clear. The names of food on the page cannot come through to a person who does not speak Korean the way it does when Zauner says them. While she did attend Korean school every Friday night, Zauner admits that she cannot speak Korean. And yet, the names of Korean dishes are a permanent fixture in her vocabulary, adding a richness to the memoir.

Although there is much about meals, Crying in H Mart is largely about the death of Zauner’s mother, Chongmi. A stomach pain that Chongmi ignores proves to be cancer. Zauner, whose young adult life has consisted of touring with a band that can’t get a break, which means living in artist poverty, leaves her home on the east coast to nurse her mother in Washington state. There is no romanticization of Chongmi’s experiences with chemo or death, and some of it may be difficult to listen to for readers who have lost and/or nursed a loved one. On the other hand, Zauner tries to make everything perfect for her mother, including a desire to return to Korea and organizing a wedding, which includes getting engaged first. These efforts add a thrilling element to the memoir, as the read more like a movie plot than real life.

An excellent memoir that may be too much for some readers, but is a rich look at Korean culture through food, parent/child relationships, and end of life care.

CW: brief mentions of racism and child abuse

30 comments

  1. Thank ye kindly for the intro to this book. I don’t normally read memoirs but I this one sounds compelling. I am interested particularly in the end of life care sections as Americans in general avoid talking about death. I will add it to the list.
    x The Captain

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    • Yes, there are several moments during which Zauner describes her mother’s death that surprised me because the mother goes from mom to cancer patient to dead body, and all of those moments are looked at with eyes wide open.

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  2. While this sounds very interesting, end of life care always brings back memories of my grandparents before they went and that depresses me greatly. I don’t mind talking about death, I just don’t like remembering theirs. Both of their deaths crushed me.

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  3. Great review, thank you. I have spotted this one popping up over and over on the ‘best of 2021’ lists and have wondered how it had escaped my attention (given I read so many memoirs, particularly about grief).

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    • Kate! I actually thought about you while I was listening to this book. You are the one who told me that you work with end-of-life folks and that people can die with dignity and care. I have always been pro-assisted death if the person seems to be suffering or very old or in a vegetative state, but your comments a while back certainly gave me pause.

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  4. Thank you for adding the note about how difficult a read it might be for some people. I have at least one friend with terminal diagnoses at the moment so can’t deal, but I appreciate the note to avoid this (which is a shame, as the food and cultural stuff are right up my street).

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  5. I had a friend at school, at a time when Australia was still just about 100% plain vanilla white/Anglo, who had a Chinese father and an Australian mother. We others thought we were friendly but the constant noticing of his different appearance (and short stature) must have been pretty hard for him to bear, day in day out.

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    • In my elementary school we had a total of three Black children, and everyone looked at them like they were aliens. Looking back, it’s like no wonder the three of them often seemed angry and aloof. I would be too. Oddly, because I grew up on a Native American reservation, it was totally common to see tribal kids, who didn’t really stand out.

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  6. I’ve been interested in this one. I just finished a book about a first generation daughter navigating her father’s death and so I don’t feel like diving into more parental death but I will keep it on my TBR for future reading.

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  7. I was intrigued by this detail you mentioned: “organizing a wedding, which includes getting engaged first”. Wow, that’s quite a long way to go to make things perfect for her mother. It sounds like a very moving story – thanks for the recommendation!

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    • It definitely sounded like something out of a movie. She had been with her boyfriend a long time, but because the memoir isn’t focused on her relationship, I wasn’t sure if they had not chosen to get engaged before for any particular reason, or if they felt there was always time until her mother became so ill.

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  8. I had heard of this before but hadn’t really been interested – I have read a couple of grief memoirs but in general they aren’t really for me. I have enough encounters with people’s grief via work not to want to read about it in my down time. However, the food and culture stuff sounds very interesting – I love Korean food and would like to learn more about it – so I’m torn! I’ll definitely bear this in mind for future.

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    • There are many Korean cookbooks out there right now, too, so you could go that direction. I saw Cook Korean!: A Comic Book with Recipes
      Book by Robin Ha. There’s also Eat a Peach
      by David Chang, which is a food memoir.

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  9. I saw this book was named ‘one of the best books of the year’ by Buzz Feed. I actually look at buzz feed bookish articles regularly, I find their critics aren’t too bad, although they heavily skew to YA stuff. Doesn’t seem like you would call this one of the best books of the year though…

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    • Oh, it was a great book, but I want to be fair and give folks a heads up because it’s the most straightforward book about death I’ve ever read. Things about her mother’s eyes not closing in death, rigor mortis, choosing an outfit for a dead body, etc.

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  10. Korean culture seems to be popping up everywhere recently. I’ve visited Seoul several times for work and found the culture and history fascinating, the food less so! The end of life content wouldn’t be a deterrent for me. I think we shy away from that topic too much, though appreciate that for some readers it could be too raw and near to their own experience to be comfortable.

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    • I think I must be a weird person because when I experience something distressing, I am driven to read more about it, even if it it makes me cry, as it canned does – but I’m lucky, I think, in that that doesn’t affect my mental health in any lasting way. Instead, it’s either cathartic, or I feel I understand myself and the situation better.

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    • I can imagine anyone who lost someone they really loved or were the primary caregiver of a person at the end of life would be too much for them. OR, they might see themselves in Michelle Zauner and appreciate being seen. It all depends, I suppose!

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