Circulation Manager Pam Parker recommends Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Dinner and a Movie? Or, Noodles and a Book?
When she’s not fronting her indie-pop band, “Japanese Breakfast,” Michelle Zauner has a side gig. She’s an author—and Crying in H Mart (2021) is Zauner’s best-selling debut about finding solace in an unusual place, the Asian market known as H Mart.
“It’s a beautiful, holy place,” she wrote about H Mart in The New Yorker essay by the same title that spurred a book deal with Knopf publishing. The book has also been optioned as a major motion picture, and Michelle is writing the screenplay. Meanwhile, her musical career has blossomed into a third album, Jubilee (2022), which has been Grammy nominated.
The story explores the unexpected death of her mother shortly before the younger Zauner is jettisoned into pop-star status in 2014. The circumstances forced the budding musician to deal with both grief and rising fame simultaneously.
Comfort foods–specifically myriad Korean dishes–take front row during this process. Cold Radish Soup (dongchimi), spicy fried chicken (yangnyeom), kimchi (samgyupsal), and her mother’s favorite noodle soup (jjamppong) are some of the dishes that flavor her recollection of her childhood growing up in Eugene, Oregon, and visits to stay with her Korean grandmother in Seoul.
Michelle studied creative writing at Bryn Mawr, a liberal arts college for women on the East Coast. Her mother was not supportive of the choice nor of her ambitions to be a musician, and their relationship was admittedly strained. “My mother was always trying to shape me into the most perfect version of myself.” Even though her mother, Chongmi, was often critical of her daughter, Michelle recognizes that they were very close even when they disagreed.
When leaving the hometown of Eugene for college on the East Coast, Chongmi’s parting words for Michelle had been, “So you want to be a starving musician…then go live like one.” And, she did. But when Chongmi falls ill, Michelle races back to Eugene to help with her care, putting her fledgling music career on the backburner. Ironically, it is not until Chongmi’s death that her break comes as her band “Japanese Breakfast” starts to take off in popularity and commercial success.
Throughout the process that is Chongmi’s illness, Michelle fears losing her Koreaness if her mom dies. As a typical American teenager, she had aimed to fit in with the cool crowd—yet, after being bullied by a popular girl about her race, she doubled down on how not to stand out. She confesses to pretending not to have a middle name, which is Chongmi (after her mother), to play down her heritage.
In a reversal of heart, Michelle fully embraces her duality as Korean and American after her mother’s death. In H Mart, she reminisces about certain brands and ingredients that carry meaning and memory. And, after the funeral, Michelle returns to Korea with her husband Peter for their honeymoon, a decision that seems to seal it as a place of ongoing significance to her as her mom was so hopeful for.
Crying in H Mart is a dutifully painful recounting of a young adult’s struggle to define herself in the shadow of a loved one’s terminal illness. Michelle delves into her difficult family dynamic with rare candor—at times, we wonder how she manages to overcome the challenges. A healthy serving of Chongmi’s determination plays a role. But it’s the daughter’s growing wisdom and self-confidence that carry her through and give her the boost to a happiness on her own terms.