Reading Crying in H Mart, Michelle Zauner’s examination of her relationship with her mother in the aftermath of her early death from cancer, it was impossible for me not to psychoanalyze the author and eventually it became impossible for not to psychoanalyze myself as well. In all it made this book about a necessarily heavy topic a rather burdensome read and not one I particularly enjoyed.
Zauner, the lead singer of the pop band Japanese Breakfast, grew up in Oregon with her Caucasian father and Korean mother. Her relationship with her mother was at times loving and at other times thorny. In Zauner’s telling, her mother Chongmi seems to have had very exacting standards that her daughter had no hope of meeting. It’s quite jarring to read about the young Michelle striving so hard to do her chores perfectly so her mother will approve. When Michelle goes through what seems a rather typical phase of teenage rebellion, her mother practically snaps and even kicks her out of the house for a protracted period. After incidents like these it’s sort of hard to read Zauner talking about her deep love for her mother without wondering about the healthiness of their relationship.
Going into the book I thought I’d be able to relate to Zauner because I also lost my mother to cancer way too young. But as the complicated dynamics between Michelle and her mother unfold I found myself struggling to connect with her experience except in the broad strokes.
Much of Crying in H Mart deals with food. The strongest connection between the author and her mother is over their shared love of Korean food. One of the few ways the young Michelle wins approval is by being willing to try any dish her mother prepares. In the wake of her mother’s death Michelle throws herself into learning how to prepare these dishes herself. I must confess I found this aspect of the book a tad exhausting. It’s just fairly repetitive and not that interesting. Your mileage may vary.
By comparison, I was shocked at how little a part Zauner’s music played in the story. For those of you worried that Crying in H Mart wouldn’t be for you because you’ve never listened to, or even heard of, Japanese Breakfast, your fears are misplaced. Outside of casual mentions of her bandmates or touring, there’s almost no discussion of music until very late in the book. At one point Zauner mentions writing, recording, releasing and touring for her debut album Psychopomp in a single aside.
I don’t want to be too critical of a book as earnest and heartfelt as Crying in H Mart, but if I’m being honest, this was a difficult, uncomfortable read that didn’t resonate as much as I was hoping.