Michelle Zauner, known for her role as the lead singer of the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast, dives deep into her Korean heritage and the bond with her mother, intensified and complicated by their shared love for Korean cuisine.
The narrative intricately weaves between the present and the past, drawing the reader into Zauner’s journey. As a child, Zauner seeks her mother’s approval, finding common ground in the Korean dishes Chongmi prepares. Despite a tumultuous relationship during her teenage years, marked by Zauner’s growing passion for music, there’s a budding mutual appreciation between mother and daughter.
Zauner’s world turns upside down with Chongmi’s cancer diagnosis. She puts her life, including her burgeoning music career in Philadelphia and her relationship with her boyfriend, Peter, on hold to return to Eugene, Oregon. Here, she anticipates nurturing her mother with the same Korean dishes that once symbolized their bond. However, the severity of Chongmi’s illness, coupled with the overbearing presence of her mother’s friend Kye and her father’s inability to cope, challenges Zauner’s expectations.
Chongmi’s decision to stop chemotherapy leads to a family trip to Seoul, which ends in a hospital stay. The situation propels Zauner to marry Peter hastily. The wedding, a brief moment of joy for Chongmi, soon gives way to her inevitable decline and eventual passing.
Post her mother’s death, Zauner’s relationship with her father deteriorates. A trip to Vietnam exacerbates their strained relationship. Meanwhile, Zauner finds solace in music, creating “Psychopomp,” the debut album for Japanese Breakfast. As she grapples with her loss, Zauner and Peter decide to move back East, but not before a healing trip to Seoul to visit her aunt, Nami Emo.
In Seoul, Zauner reconnects with her Korean roots through food, learning traditional Korean cooking from YouTube sensation Maangchi. Her father’s decision to sell their family home brings an unexpected gift – her mother’s kimchi fridge filled with childhood photographs, symbolizing the enduring connection between Zauner and her mother.
The memoir culminates with the success of “Psychopomp,” a tribute to her mother. Zauner’s tour in Asia, ending in Seoul, is a celebration of her mother’s life and legacy. The final scene poignantly captures Zauner and Nami Emo singing a karaoke song, once beloved by Chongmi, sealing Zauner’s reconnection with her heritage and family.
1. The Complexities of Mother-Daughter Relationships
At the heart of Zauner’s memoir is the intricate and evolving relationship with her mother, Chongmi.
This theme delves into the multifaceted nature of their bond, marked by cultural nuances, unspoken expectations, and a deep, underlying love. Zauner navigates through her childhood, where she yearns for her mother’s approval, and into her turbulent teenage years, where rebellion and misunderstanding strain their relationship.
The memoir doesn’t shy away from depicting the challenges and conflicts inherent in their relationship, yet it beautifully encapsulates how these struggles are underpinned by profound love and mutual respect.
It’s a testament to the layers and complexities that define mother-daughter relationships, particularly in the context of cultural identity and immigrant experiences.
2. Cultural Identity and Heritage
Zauner’s exploration of her Korean American identity is a pivotal theme that flows through the memoir. The narrative is imbued with reflections on how food, traditions, and familial bonds shape her understanding of her cultural heritage.
The Korean dishes prepared by her mother become more than just meals; they are symbolic of Zauner’s connection to her Korean roots and a bridge to her mother’s world.
The memoir underscores how cultural identity is often interlinked with family, food, and memories, presenting a powerful narrative of self-discovery and reconnection.
Zauner’s journey back to Korea, her efforts to master traditional Korean cooking, and the way she intertwines these elements into her music and personal life, underscore the continuous process of exploring and embracing one’s heritage.
3. Grief, Loss, and Healing
Zauner’s memoir poignantly portrays the universal themes of grief and loss, particularly in the wake of her mother’s death.
The raw and honest depiction of her emotions — from the initial shock and denial to the eventual acceptance — offers a deeply personal look into the grieving process. However, the narrative doesn’t stop at loss; it also explores the journey towards healing.
Music, cooking, and reconnecting with her Korean heritage become therapeutic outlets for Zauner, allowing her to process her grief and find a way to honor her mother’s memory.
The memoir shows that healing is not a linear process but a journey filled with moments of reflection, understanding, and growth, often facilitated by returning to one’s roots and embracing the legacies left behind.
“Crying in H Mart” is a heartfelt memoir that resonates deeply with its exploration of family, culture, and grief. Michelle Zauner’s honest and vivid storytelling brings to life the complexities of her relationship with her mother, underscoring the universal themes of love, loss, and the search for identity.
The memoir is particularly moving in its depiction of how food and cultural practices can serve as powerful conduits for memory and connection, bridging gaps between generations and geographies.