In August 2018, musician Michelle Zauner’s essay “Crying in H Mart” was published in The New Yorker. In it, Zauner explained how she coped with the passing of her mother Chongmi. Fans of Zauner’s indie rock act Japanese Breakfast already have some background knowledge about this experience through listening to her cult hit debut album Psychopomp, in which songs like “In Heaven” and “Heft” show Zauner detail and grapple with this period of her life. Zauner included a new wrinkle in her grieving process in this essay: the presence of multiculturalism in her life. Now, nearly three years later, the essay is no longer known as a stand-alone effort but instead as the eponymous chapter of a memoir, Zauner’s book debut, released in April at number two on the New York Times bestseller list.
Michelle Zauner was born in Seoul, South Korea to a Korean mother and a Jewish-American father. Her family eventually settled in Eugene, Oregon where she lived throughout her childhood. While she did take occasional trips to Seoul, Zauner’s connection to her Korean heritage was often limited to her mother, a connection that was taken away when her mother was. This is the throughline to the New Yorker essay. The illustration caption describes it best: “Sobbing near the dry goods, I ask myself, ‘Am I even Korean if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seafood we used to buy?’”
Crying in H Mart, the memoir, takes the reader on a comprehensive, definitive journey through and beyond Chongmi’s battle with cancer, often jumping back in time to Michelle’s early childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood along the way. The final chapter, “Coffee Hanjan,'' recounts a Japanese Breakfast East Asian tour that ends in Seoul. However, the entire book is a study in multiculturalism.
The Ambiguity of Multiculturalism
In an early chapter, “Where’s The Wine?” Zauner writes about the music that inspired her as a teenager, including New York legends The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, fronted by Karen O. Like Zauner, Karen O. is half-Korean, and many readers may get the impression that this kind of representation was a driving force behind Zauner’s motivation to make it in indie rock. As she goes on, however, the reader finds out that it’s more complicated than that.
“Agape at the image, I found myself in a strange state of ambivalence,” she writes. “My first thought being how do I get to do that, and, my second, if there’s already one Asian girl doing this, then there’s no longer space for me.”
The ambiguity is not exclusive to this anecdote. Even when her mother was alive, Zauner still felt some detachment from what it meant to be a “real” Korean. “You don’t know what it’s like to be the only Korean girl at school,” Zauner once said to her mother.
“But you’re not Korean,” Chongmi replied. “You’re American.” Her mother was a reminder of a sort of authenticity she could not reach.
When her mother passed away, Zauner felt that it was her responsibility to preserve her Korean heritage. “My relationship to [Korea] now is so different because I have to actively preserve it in this way that I never had,” she said in a Third Place Books virtual event with author E.J. Koh in early May. “My interest in that sort of upkeep and traveling to other parts of Korea and learning more about it is part of that upkeep of preservation of my culture that is threatened now that my mom isn’t here anymore.”
Food: The Universal Language
One of those modes of preservation is food. True to the title—a nod to the Korean American supermarket chain H Mart—and the noodle-adorned cover, Korean cuisine swallows up portions of Crying in H Mart—sometimes to a fault. While some early food-centric passages are accentuated by emotional significance or contextual relevance, others struggle to transcend the rudimentary, Romanized description of Korean food that was prevalent in Zauner’s childhood.
It is after she loses her mother, however, that this depiction shifts. Throughout the memoir, the reader is treated to a holistic, unapologetic portrayal of Chongmi’s character. The reader had gotten to know her so well that her presence is missed in the latter half of the memoir, not just by Zauner and her dad, but by the reader as well. Likewise, as Zauner discovers the Youtuber Maangchi and does a deep dive on truly learning how to make Korean food, the reader gets to once again feel the presence of Chongmi vicariously through her daughter.
Accepting One’s Identity
Yet Zauner refuses to identify herself as being “whole Korean” or “whole American.” At the book event, Zauner said that there is an advantage to being mixed race. “I feel like very much that being half and half is a huge part of my identity, that feeling of being this cultural vagabond and not really having this sense of belonging anywhere is a really big part of the mixed race experience.” She then paraphrased a quote from Mitski. The fellow indie rocker, who herself is half-Japanese, told her “We don’t belong anywhere, and there’s something really beautiful about that.”
Crying in H Mart is a sprawling chronicle that touches on themes like grief, coming of age, and identity. The insights, observations, and contradictions laid out throughout the memoir bring about a refreshing perspective on the multicultural experience. As a precis to Jubilee, the latest Japanese Breakfast album released this week, it is everything Zauner’s fans could want. But as a memoir, a daughter’s tribute to her mother and a search for identity, it becomes so much more.