CBR14 Bingo: “Heart” – In this heartbreaking memoir, Michelle Zauner shares her love for her mother and their connection through a love of food.
Last year I heard on NPR an interview with Zauner, a Korean American, when she released her debut book, Crying in H-Mart: A Memoir. I was instantly interested in small part because I too shop at H-Mart, a Korean grocery chain in the United States. Then I became engrossed by listening to Zauner talk about her mother’s death and food. I was looking for my next audiobook and since I enjoyed Wil Wheaton’s autobiography, Still Just a Geek, decided to try another memoir (a genre I almost never read but have discovered that I enjoy when narrated by the author).
Zauner had a complicated relationship with her mother, Chongmi. Being an only child in the rural part of Eugene, Oregon the two were inseparable as she grew up. There was intense love but also struggle against her mother’s expectations for her. It wasn’t until later in life that she came to understand it was in part due to Chongmi’s Korean upbringing. Zauner felt her mother was always seeking perfection and found it hard to measure up. Then one day as a child, while visiting Korea, she tried a particular dish of food and found pleasure in the combinations of flavors and textures, much to the delight of her mother and Aunties. Zauner found she could win her mother’s approval by trying and enjoying traditional Korean food. Food became a passion they always shared.
Zauner’s teenage years were particularly wrought between the two and it was a relief for everyone when she left for college. Time away gave her new perspective and by her early twenties the relationship with her mother had reached a new place. When Zauner was twenty-five her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Zauner had been trying to make it big as a musician but immediately put that on hold to come home for her mother’s chemotherapy treatment.
Watching her mother die by slow degrees was devastating. Zauner and her mother had finally reached a point of reconnection and figuring out how to have a relationship as adults. It felt incredibly unfair. Zauner wanted to be the one to make nutritious Korean food that her would tempt her mother to eat but she had never learned to cooked Korean meals. A longtime Korean friend, Kay, came to help Zauner and her father care for Chongmi. Kay was at once indispensable but also created a wall between herself and Chongmi, and Zauner and her father.
After Chongmi’s death, Zauner felt adrift, that there was no one who understood her Korean half anymore. She felt she was losing her Korean identity with the loss of her Korean mother. Therapy wasn’t going anywhere so Zauner looked to Korean food for connection and solace. She found consolation in making kimchi and comfort in familiar dishes, maintaining a connection to her mother through food.
Crying in H-Mart is an incredibly touching book. Love from Zauner to her mother is evident at every turn. It is also is a lovely treatise to the delights of Korean food. Not that we need it but it is also a reminder that cancer f*cking sucks, taking people we love away far too soon.
Note: Michelle Zauner is also the head of an alternative pop band, ironically called, Japanese Breakfast.