An extended Reading the Bestsellers review of a 2021 memoir by Michelle Zauner
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Memoir by Michelle Zauner. Vintage Books, 2021. 239 pages. $23 (e-book $16.99)
In this memoir Michelle Zaumer, head of the indie pop band Japanese Breakfast, reflects on the nature of love, often misunderstood in its expressions.
Raised by a Korean mother and an American father, she experienced the typical adolescent conflicts with her upbringing. As is often the case with North American children with immigrant parents, the tension between differing cultural expectations strained her relationship with her mother.
Being an only child only exacerbated the pressures and strains. Her mother’s devotion often took the form of nagging, criticism and demands for perfection in every aspect of life, that were, in Zaumer’s words, “exhausting.” Zaumer found herself envying her friends, whose mothers seemed more sympathetic and easygoing. She retaliated in all the classic teenage ways, leading to screaming matches and hurtful accusations.
Zaumer admits to having been a challenging child from the start. Being biracial, she felt caught between two cultures without fully belonging to either. It was when she first encountered a band fronted by Karen O, a half-Korean, half-white performer, that Zaumer saw possibilities for a future differing from her mother’s dreams for her. She begged for a guitar and began throwing herself into her dream for a career in music. This eventually led to a rift with her mother that was both bitter and prolonged.
When Zaumer was 25, a phone call changed the direction of her life. Her mother’s cancer diagnosis caused Zaumer to abandon her life as a struggling artist in Philadelphia and return home to care for her mother.
“ ‘This could be my chance,’ I thought,” writes Zaumer, “ ‘to make amends for everything…. I would be everything she ever needed. I would be the perfect daughter.’ ”
For eight months she was at her mother’s side, caring for her devotedly and willing her to live. She learned how to cook her mother’s favourite Korean dishes, bathed her, slept beside her in the hospital. Sadly, the cancer treatments failed and eight months later her mother died.
Crying in H Mart is the author’s tribute to her mother’s love as she unpacks her grief. H Mart is a supermarket chain specializing in Asian food. It typically includes a food court, an appliance shop and a pharmacy. Zaumer describes it as a “beautiful, holy place. A cafeteria full of people from all over the world who have been displaced in a foreign country.” It is also the place where she weeps over the memories of her mother stirred up by the ingredients displayed.
Food was how her mother expressed her love. “No matter how critical or cruel she could seem,” Zaumer writes, “I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I like them.” Even during the years of resentful separation, her mother was diligent in sending parcels filled with Zaumer’s favourite foods.
The book is dense with descriptions of food. Zaumer writes in exhaustive detail of the labour-intensive processes involved in making the Korean delicacies through which her mother expressed her love for her daughter, and later, how Zaumer expressed her love back to her dying mother. The food was also a means through which Zaumer links to her Korean culture and family.
At times, the food references border on tedious, but throughout them, the author reiterates the connections between meals and family affection. She recognizes that all her mother’s behaviours could be traced back to intense maternal love: the nagging, the insistence on perfection, and most of all the food.
Crying in H Mart spent 60 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and is scheduled to be made into a movie.
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