“It felt like the world had divided into two different types of people, those who had felt pain and those who had yet to.”
I know Zauner’s book was all the rage last year but for some reason, I just never paid attention to the hype. I don’t even remember putting this book on hold at the library until it checked out to me first week of 2022. I didn’t have anything else to read so I decided to give it a go. Also, I never paid attention to what this book was actually about. I just assumed it was a collection of essays about being Asian in America but instead what I got was a heartbreaking memoir about grief, mother-daughter relationships and identity.
“I remember these things clearly because that was how my mother loved you, not through white lies and constant verbal affirmation, but in subtle observations of what brought you joy, pocketed away to make you feel comforted and cared for without even realizing it.”
Zauner writes about her complicated relationship with her Korean mother and her white father and losing her mother to advanced pancreatic cancer. She doesn’t shy away from the difficult times and what actually caring for a loved one is like. She also doesn’t paint her mother to be just one thing. That was my favorite part of this book. Her mother was never shoehorned into a stereotype, she let her mum be a full human being who had flaws. After a tumultuous relationship with her mother during high school, she runs away to college in the east coast and when she finally returns to care for her mother full time, she wants to heal her mother through Korean food and repair their relationship.
“Food was how my mother expressed her love. No matter how critical or cruel she could seem—constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations—I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.“
The way Zauner talks about her Korean identity through food and travel was really lovely to read. The author went to Korea every summer for 6 weeks with her mum until high school and talks about the cultural differences. She wasn’t a beauty in America but because she was mixed in Korea with white skin and had the coveted double eyelid, she was considered a great beauty there. She even got scouted to be an idol singer during one of her trips but her mum told her she would never be happy being an idol*. These anecdotes made her connection to her mother and her country very real. She was very immersed in her Korean identity despite having a white father. In fact, she was born in Korea but they moved back to the US when she turned 1.
“The boy’s mom placed pieces of beef from her spoon onto his. He is quiet and looks tired and doesn’t talk to her much. I want to tell him how much I miss my mother. How he should be kind to his mom, remember that life is fragile and she could be gone at any moment.“
Crying in H Mart was absolutely worth all the hype. It had me feeling so many different emotions and also had me bawling in my office while reading it. Seriously, fuck cancer. This is a thought provoking and emotional memoir that reminds us that our parents are human and are winging this parenting thing. Zauner wrote a very honest book that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics or gloss over who her parents were, but you come out of it feeling like you saw a full picture instead of one single perspective. You feel compassion for her mother even when her actions come off cruel.
“In fact, she was both my first and second words: Umma, then Mom. I called to her in two languages. Even then I must have known that no one would ever love me as much as she would.”
I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone looking for a nonfiction book to read with a trigger warning that this book is about loss and grief. I gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads.
*Idol – a Korean star who has been trained from birth to be a star usually scouted purely on looks.