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From the indie rockstar of Japanese Breakfast fame, and author of the viral 2018 New Yorker essay that shares the title of this book, an unflinching, powerful memoir about growing up Korean American, losing her mother, and forging her own identity.
In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother's particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother's tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.
As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band--and meeting the man who would become her husband--her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother's diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.
Vivacious and plainspoken, lyrical and honest, Zauner's voice is as radiantly alive on the page as it is onstage. Rich with intimate anecdotes that will resonate widely, and complete with family photos, Crying in H Mart is a book to cherish, share, and reread.
For those who don’t know Michele Zauner, she’s the indie rockstar behind the solo musical act Japanese Breakfast. She’s also a daughter, foodie, a Korean-American, and a writer who effectively gives voice to grief and complicated mother-daughter relationships. When she was 26, Zauner’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and her memoir, Crying in H-Mart chronicles the decline of her mother’s health and her own journey in finding her sense of self. It’s through food that Zauner most connected with her fierce and independent mother, and so it follows that the place where she most misses her is in a Korean grocery store. Despite her mother rarely showing affection or vulnerability, Zauner traces her own emotions with such care and insight that it’s impossible not to shed a tear as you realize just how much she truly understood her mother. A powerful memoir that shows just how important it is to accept someone fully for who they are—and loving them just the same. —Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review
“Michelle Zauner has written a book you experience with all of your senses: sentences you can taste, paragraphs that sound like music. She seamlessly blends stories of food and memory, sumptuousness and grief, to weave a complex narrative of loyalty and loss.” —Rachel Syme
“I read Crying in H Mart with my heart in my throat. In this beautifully written memoir, Michelle Zauner has created a gripping, sensuous portrait of an indelible mother-daughter bond that hits all the notes: love, friction, loyalty, grief. All mothers and daughters will recognize themselves—and each other—in these pages.” —Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance
“A warm and wholehearted work of literature, an honest and detailed account of grief over time, studded with moments of hope, humor, beauty, and clear-eyed observation. This story is a nuanced portrayal of a young person grappling with what it means to embody familial and cultural histories, to be fueled by creative pursuits, to examine complex relationships with place, and to endure the acute pain of losing a parent just on the other side of a tumultuous adolescence . . . Crying in H Mart is not to be missed.” —The Seattle Times
“A profound, timely exploration of terminal illness, culture and shared experience . . . Zauner has accomplished the unthinkable: a book that caters to all appetites. She brings dish after dish to life on the page in a rich broth of delectable details [and] offers remarkably prescient observations about otherness from the perspective of the Korean American experience. Crying in H Mart will thrill Japanese Breakfast fans and provide comfort to those in the throes of loss while brilliantly detailing the colorful panorama of Korean culture, traditions and food.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“ Crying in H Mart powerfully maps a complicated mother-daughter relationship . . . Zauner writes about her mother’s death [with] clear-eyed frankness . . . The book is a rare acknowledgement of the ravages of cancer in a culture obsessed with seeing it as an enemy that can be battled with hope and strength. Zauner plumbs the connections between food and identity . . . her food descriptions transport us to the table alongside her. What Crying in H Mart reveals is that in losing her mother and cooking to bring her back to life, Zauner became herself.” —NPR
Zauner’s storytelling is impeccable. Memories are rendered with a rich immediacy, as if bathed in a golden light. Zauner is also adept at mapping the contradictions in her relationship with, and perception of, her mother. The healing, connective power of food reverberates in nearly every chapter of this coming-of-age story, [in] sensuous descriptions . . . Heartfelt, searching, wise.” —AV Club
"Crying in H Mart is a wonder: A beautiful, deeply moving coming-of-age story about mothers and daughters, love and grief, food and identity. It blew me away, even as it broke my heart." –Adrienne Brodeur, author of Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me
"The book’s descriptions of jjigae, tteokbokki, and other Korean delicacies stand out as tokens of the deep, all-encompassing love between Zauner and her mother . . . Zauner’s frankness around death feels like an unexpected yet deeply necessary gift." —Vogue
"A candid, moving tribute to her mother, to her identity, and to our collective desire for connection in this often alienating world...Zauner's writing is powerful in its straight-forwardness, though some turns of phrases are as beautiful as any song lyric... but it is her ability to convey how her mother's simple offering of a rice snack was actually an act of the truest love that leaves the most indelible impression." —Refinery 29
" Crying in H Mart is palpable in its grief and its tenderness, reminding us what we all stand to lose." —Vulture
"Incandescent." —Electric Lit
“Poignant . . . A tender, well-rendered, heart-wrenching account of the way food ties us to those who have passed.” The author delivers mouthwatering descriptions of dishes like pajeon, jatjuk, and gimbap, and her storytelling is fluid, honest, and intimate. When a loved one dies, we search all of our senses for signs of their presence. Zauner’s ability to let us in through taste makes her book stand out—she makes us feel like we are in her mother’s kitchen, singing her praises.
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Lyrical... Earnest... Zauner does a good job capturing the grief of losing a parent with pathos. Fans looking to get a glimpse into the inner life of this megawatt pop star will not be disappointed." —Publishers Weekly
MICHELLE ZAUNER is best known as a singer and guitarist who creates dreamy, shoegaze-inspired indie pop under the name Japanese Breakfast. She has won acclaim from major music outlets around the world for releases like Psychopomp (2016) and Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017).
Maangchi and Me
Whenever Mom had a dream about shit, she would buy a scratch card.
In the morning, on the drive to school, she’d pull wordlessly into the 7-Eleven parking lot and tell me to wait while she kept the car running.
“What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, grabbing her purse from the back seat.
“What are you going to buy at the 7-Eleven?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
Then she’d come back with a handful of scratch cards. We’d drive the last few blocks to school, and she’d scrub off the gummy film with a coin on the dashboard.
“You had a poop dream, didn’t you?”
“Umma won ten dollars!” she’d say. “I couldn’t tell you because then it doesn’t work!”
Dreams about pigs, the president, or shaking hands with a celebrity were all good-luck
dreams—but it was shit in particular, especially if you touched it, that was license to gamble.
Every time I had a dream about shit, I couldn’t wait to ask my mom to buy me a scratch card. I’d wake up from a dream about accidentally shitting my pants or walking into a public bathroom to find some extraordinarily long, winding shit, and when it was time to drive to school I’d sit quietly in the passenger seat, hardly able to contain myself until we were a block away from the
7-Eleven on Willamette Street.
“Mom, pull over,” I’d say. “I’ll tell you why later.”
Shortly after we returned to the States, I started having recurring dreams about my mother. I’d suffered one such episode before, when I was a paranoid kid, morbidly obsessed with my parents’ deaths. My father is driving us across Ferry Street Bridge and to skirt traffic up ahead, he maneuvers the car onto the shoulder, weaving through a gap under construction and aiming to vault off the bridge onto a platform below. Eyes focused on the mark, he leans in close to the steering wheel and accelerates, but we miss the landing by several feet. The car plunges into the rushing current of the Willamette River and I wake up breathing heavily.
Later, when we were teenagers, Nicole told me a story she’d heard from her mother about a woman who suffered from recurring nightmares that all revolved around the same car accident. The dreams were so vivid and traumatic that she sought a therapist to help her overcome them. “What if, after the accident, you try to get somewhere,” the therapist suggested. “Maybe if you try to get yourself to a hospital or some kind of safe place, the dream will reach a natural conclusion.” So each night the woman began to will herself out of the car and crawl further and further along the side of the highway. But the dream kept coming back. One day the woman really did get into a car accident and was supposedly found dragging herself across the asphalt in an attempt to reach some nebulous location, unable to distinguish reality from her lucid dreaming.
The dreams about my mother had small variations, but ultimately they were always the same. My mother would appear, still alive but incapacitated, left behind someplace we had forgotten her.
In one I’m alone, sitting on a well-manicured lawn on a warm, sunny day. In the distance I can see a dark and ominous glass house. It looks modern, the exterior made up entirely of black glass windows connected by silver steel frames. The building is wide, mansion-like, and sectioned off in squares, like several monochromatic Rubik’s Cubes stacked next to and on top of one another. I leave my patch of grass, making my way toward the curious house. I open its heavy door. Inside, it is dark and sparse. I wander around, eventually making my way toward the basement. I run my hand along the side of the wall as I descend the staircase. It is clean and quiet. I find my mother lying in the center of the room. Her eyes are closed and she is resting on some kind of platform that’s not quite a table but not a bed either, a kind of low pedestal, like the one where Snow White sleeps off the poisoned apple. When I reach her, my mother opens her eyes and smiles, as if she’s been waiting for me to find her. She is frail and bald, still sick but alive. At first I feel guilty—that we gave up on her too soon, that she’d been here the whole time. How had we managed to get so confused? Then I’m flooded with relief.
“We thought you were dead!” I say.
“I’ve just been here all along,” she says back to me.
I lay my head on her chest and she rests her hand on my head. I can smell her and feel her and everything seems so real. Even
though I know she is sick and we will have to lose her again, I’m just so happy to discover that she is alive. I tell her to wait for me. I need to run and get Dad! Then, just as I begin to ascend the stairs to find him, I wake up.
In another dream, she arrives at a rooftop dinner party and reveals she’s been living in the house next door all along. In another, I am walking around my parents’ property. I amble down a hill, skidding on the thick clay toward the man-made pond. In the field below, I discover my mother lying alone in a nightgown surrounded by lush grass and wildflowers. Relief again. How silly we were to think you were gone! How on earth did we manage to make such a monumental error? When you’re here you’re here you’re here!
Always she is bald and chapped and weak and I must carry her to bring her back into the house and show her to my father, but as soon as I bend down to scoop her into my arms, I wake up devastated. I shut my eyes immediately and try to crawl my way back to her. Drift back to sleep and return to the dream, savor just a bit more time in her presence. But I’m stuck wide awake or I fall into another dream entirely.
Was this my mother’s way of visiting me? Was she trying to tell me something? I felt foolish indulging in mysticism and so I kept the dreams hidden, privately analyzing their possible meanings. If dreams were hidden wishes, why couldn’t I dream of my mother the way I wanted? Why was it that whenever she appeared she was still sick, as if I could not remember her the way she’d been before? I wondered if my memory was stunted, if my dreams were consigned to the epoch of trauma, the image of my mother stuck where we had left off. Had I forgotten her when she was beautiful?
After the honeymoon, Peter and I posted up at his parents’ place in Bucks County. During the day we updated our résumés, applied for jobs, and looked at apartments online. I attacked these tasks with abandon. I’d essentially spent the last year as an unpaid nurse and cleaner, and the five years before that failing to make it as a musician. I needed to commit myself to some kind of career as soon as possible.
I applied indiscriminately to what seemed like every available office job in New York City and messaged everyone I knew in search of potential leads. By the end of the first week I was hired as a sales assistant for an advertising company in Williamsburg. They had long-term leases on nearly a hundred walls around Brooklyn and Manhattan, and an in-house art department that hand-painted mural advertisements like they did in the fifties. My job was to assist the two main account reps, helping them sell walls to prospective clients. If we were going after a yoga clothing company, I created maps that pinpointed every Vinyasa studio and organic health food store within a five-block radius. If we were pitching to a skate shoe company, I charted skate parks and concert venues to determine which of our walls in Brooklyn men between eighteen and thirty were most likely to pass by. My salary was forty-five grand a year with benefits. I felt like a millionaire.
We rented a railroad apartment in Greenpoint from an old Polish woman who’d acquired half her husband’s real estate in their divorce. The kitchen was small, with little counter space, and the floor was peel-and-stick checkerboard vinyl. There was no sink in the bathroom, just a large farmhouse-style sink in the kitchen that pulled double duty.
For the most part, I felt very well adjusted. Everything was so unfamiliar—a new big city to live in, a real grown-up job. I tried my best not to dwell on what could not be changed and to throw myself into productivity, but every so often I was plagued by flashbacks. Painful loops would flare up, bringing every memory I had hoped to repress inescapably to the forefront of my mind.
Images of my mother’s white, milky tongue, the purple bedsores, her heavy head slipping from my hands, her eyes falling open. An internal scream, ricocheting off the walls of my chest cavity, ripping through my body without release.
I tried therapy. Once a week after work I took the L train to Union Square and attempted to explain what I was feeling, though generally I was unable to take my mind off the ticking clock until half an hour in, when time was already up. Then I’d take the train back to Bedford Avenue and walk the half hour back to our apartment. It was hardly therapeutic and seemed just to exhaust me even more. Nothing my therapist said was anything I hadn’t psychoanalyzed in myself a million times already anyway. I was paying a hundred-dollar copay per session, and I began to think it would be much more fulfilling to just take myself out for a fifty-dollar lunch twice a week. I canceled the rest of my sessions and committed myself to exploring alternative forms of self-care.
I decided to turn to a familiar friend—Maangchi, the YouTube vlogger who had taught me how to cook doenjang jjigae and jatjuk in my time of need. Each day after work, I prepared a new recipe from her catalog. Sometimes, I followed her step by step, carefully measuring, pausing, and rewinding to get it exactly right. Other times, I picked a dish, refamiliarized myself with the ingredients, and let the video play in the background as my hands and taste buds took over from memory.
Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home. Knife-cut noodles in chicken broth took me back to lunch at Myeongdong Gyoja after an afternoon of shopping, the line so long it filled a flight of stairs, extended out the door, and wrapped around the building. The kalguksu so dense from the rich beef stock and starchy noodles it was nearly gelatinous. My mother ordering more and more refills of their famously garlic- heavy kimchi. My aunt scolding her for blowing her nose in public.
Crispy Korean fried chicken conjured bachelor nights with Eunmi. Licking oil from our fingers as we chewed on the crispy skin, cleansing our palates with draft beer and white radish cubes as she helped me with my Korean homework. Black- bean noodles summoned Halmoni slurping jjajangmyeon takeout, huddled around a low table in the living room with the rest of my Korean family.
I drained an entire bottle of oil into my Dutch oven and deep- fried pork cutlets dredged in flour, egg, and panko for tonkotsu, a Japanese dish my mother used to pack in my lunch boxes. I spent hours squeezing the water from boiled bean sprouts and tofu and spooning filling into soft, thin dumpling skins, pinching the tops closed, each one slightly closer to one of Maangchi’s perfectly uniform mandu.
Maangchi peeled the skin off an Asian pear with the giant knife pulled toward her, just like Mom did when she cut Fuji apples for me after school on a little red cutting board, before eating the left-over fruit from the core. Just like Mom, chopsticks in one hand, scissors in the other, cutting galbi and cold naengmyeon noodles with a specifically Korean ambidextrous precision. Skillfully stretching out the meat with her right hand and cutting it into bite-sized pieces with her left, using kitchen scissors like a warrior brandishes a weapon.