Author Michelle Zauner Cries in H Mart: A Uniquely Korean Remembrance of Her Mother

In+adolescence%2C+Michelle+Zauner+often+clashed+with+her+mother+over+nearly+everything%3A+clothes%2C+studies%2C+hair.+The+only+common+ground+between+them+was+their+love+for+Korean+food%2C+ingredients+that+can+be+found+in+H+Mart%2C+a+Korean-American+supermarket+chain.+%E2%80%9CCrying+in+H+Mart%E2%80%9D+is+dedicated+to+Zauner%E2%80%99s+relationship+with+her+mother.+

Courtesy of David Lee

In adolescence, Michelle Zauner often clashed with her mother over nearly everything: clothes, studies, hair. The only common ground between them was their love for Korean food, ingredients that can be found in H Mart, a Korean-American supermarket chain. “Crying in H Mart” is dedicated to Zauner’s relationship with her mother.

By Erin Choi, Portola High School

In life, Michelle Zauner’s mother, Chongmi, would show love by remembering. 

At her dinner table, crowded with banchan side dishes, she would silently observe which ones you didn’t touch, which ones you emptied first. She would remember if you liked greens, if you hated tomatoes, if you could handle spice or not.

The next time you came over, Chongmi would serve you with all these preferences in mind, making you feel cared for and comfortable without even realizing. 

In her memoir “Crying in H Mart,” Zauner pays tribute to her mother by remembering. With a tenderness that parallels her mother’s, Zauner recalls childhood in semi-rural Oregon as the only Korean-American in town. She looks back on turbulent adolescence, when she and her mother conflicted terribly, to early adulthood, when the two began to “unlock the mystery, carve the psychic space to accommodate each other.” 

She personifies vividly, her prose animated with precise details of Chongmi: a portrait completed in pieces. I could picture her skin, slightly sticky with QVC anti-aging creams, Chongmi herself dressed in the latest Korean fashion with a quilted Chanel purse hung over her shoulder.

When Zauner writes about the last years of her mother’s life — the sudden diagnosis, the swift deterioration — she renders pain in simple, impactful images: “Her tongue looked rotten—like a sack of aging meat.” Her breath, “a horrible sucking like the last sputtering of a coffee pot.” 

Cancer ransacks her mother’s body of life, and Zauner remarkably continues to show this through visceral food metaphors. Her description of grief is as equally unsparing as her description of cancer. 

Meals tether Zauner to her heritage, and without her mother to guide her through dishes, Zauner loses a shard of her identity: “Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” 

At times, grief is no more than a dull ache. At times, it is an “internal scream, ricocheting off the walls of my chest cavity, ripping through my body without release.”

Zauner’s anecdotes stumble at first, episodic and prone to time-jump. But as mother, daughter, food and grief tangle, they become inseparable from one another. The once-disjointed scenes meld smoothly into uninterrupted narrative. Here is where the function of food transforms. 

Once a way to love, food becomes a way to memorialize things lost: mother, memory, culture. When therapy fails, Zauner turns to YouTube personality Maangchi to re-learn foods from her childhood. “Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory,” she writes. “Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home.” 

In “Crying in H Mart,” Zauner savors the memories that food conjures. Then, she heals. 

This story was originally published on Portola Pilot on May 27, 2021.