I’d seen Crying in H Mart (2021) by Michelle Zauner on Barack Obama’s Recommended Reading List as well as NPR’s Best Books, but it never really called to me. My husband read it last year, but he was very vague on what it was about: he said it was a woman feeling lost about her life (or something). So that didn’t really make me want to read it either. But I never forgot it, and when I needed a book about Asia for Bingo, I thought it just might work.
Michelle Zauner is the lead singer of the Indie band Japanese Breakfast. I am not familiar with the band or her music. Zauner does talk about being in a band for years and how she started becoming successful, but it’s not the focus of the book. Instead, the focus of the book is food! Specifically, Korean food, and how the food relates to Zauner’s relationship with her Korean mother as well as how Zauner relates to her own cultural heritage. (Zauner’s father is a white American).
Zauner is an only child who has always had a very close relationship with her Korean mother. Her mother and father met in Korea, got married, had Zauner, and then moved to Eugene, Oregon. Zauner and her mother would go visit her maternal aunts and grandmother every other summer. Her relationship with her mother and her visits to Korea were always memorialized by delicious, sumptuous Korean food. Zauner says that her mother showed her love through food, and it obviously made a powerful impression on the author.
But Zauner’s relationship with her mother also had some serious turbulence. Even when very young, Zauner said she would feel hurt by her mother’s constant nitpicking and criticisms. She felt like she was never good enough. This all came to a head when Zauner was a teenager. She had some kind of psychological breakdown and her mother was less than supportive. But as Zauner became a more independent adult, she was able to start rebuilding a better relationship with her mother. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much time because when Zauner was only twenty-five years old, her mother was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.
When she heard the news, Zauner went back home to help her father care for her mother. It was a very painful time of nursing, and gathering together her mother’s things. After her mother’s death, Zauner had to live with her grief. She found a Korean cooking show on Youtube that was surprisingly comforting, and Zauner began cooking all the dishes her mother had prepared for her over the years.
This was a well-written book that felt very genuine and nuanced. Zauner had a very complicated relationship with her mother that ended tragically, and it felt very courageous that she could share all of those details. I was of two minds with all the talk about Korean food. On the one hand, it sounded delicious and important, and it made me want to go find a Korean food market and load up. On the other hand, the food and the names were foreign to me (I didn’t even know how to pronounce most of them). It occasionally felt a little tedious to read so many paragraphs about something I knew so little about. However, the food was so important to the book, and when Zauner discussed other parts of her life, I was engrossed. Recommended.
CBR15Bingo: “Asia & Oceania”