A Review on Crying in H Mart
Weaving in vivid descriptions of enticing Asian home-cooked dishes and turbulent navigation through her adolescence, Michelle Zauner unequivocally recounts her seemingly unshakable bond with her mother that was forged in childhood. She paints a picture of how this relationship falls apart and is rebuilt with emotional vulnerability, poignant dialogues, and unmoving devastations. My first assumption towards a memoir is that it is tailored uniquely for the author and the author only. Yet Zauner’s memoir surprisingly served as a mirror for young Asian Americans to affirm similar parallels in our upbringings. Perhaps, we grew up with too little affirmation and too many criticisms from our parents. Perhaps the ever-so-slight resentment swells up in your chest every time you see other families casually announcing their love for each other. But Zauner is here to remind us of the impending doom we all have to face somehow—our parents will no longer be here with us one day.
Tough love seems to be a stapled experience growing up in an Asian household, a shared struggle that me and my friends bonded over and a root cause of why I, along with so many of my Asian peers, bend ourselves backward in an incessant drive for excellence, just to be complemented by our parents. But our parents loved us in ways that are beyond hollow words; Zauner’s work reminds us of the deep-seated, sacrificial acts they do in the name of love. Her mother loved her “not through white lies and constant verbal affirmation, but in subtle observation of what brought [her] joy,” The unwavering love is expressed differently for all. To Zauner, it’s remembering which Korean home-cooked meal is her favorite and making more of it. To me, it’s how my mom always buys the Taiwanese pudding I enjoy so much every time she comes home after running errands. The light act of service varies for all because their act of love is molded by who we are, what we like, but weighs heavily in our hearts nevertheless.
One of the things Zauner wrote really resonated with me, describing her mother’s tough love as “brutal, industrial-strength.” More importantly, “it was a love that saw what was best for you ten steps ahead, even if it hurts like hell.” Similarly, my mother, with cruel benevolence, often would do whatever it takes to teach me a lesson even if it really hurts at the moment. She said it is to prepare me for the unforgiving world outside. I realized, in retrospect, that no one would grant me as many second chances as my parents did.
There is a Chinese proverb: 身體髮膚 受之父母 不敢毀傷 孝之始也, which roughly translates into our bodies are gifted by our parents; therefore, we must cherish them. Zauner recounted when she injured herself from climbing a tree:
“When my friends got hurt, their mothers scooped them up and told them it’s going to be okay. White people were going to the doctor. But when I got hurt, my mom was livid, as if I had maliciously damaged her property.”
Whenever I’m hurt, it seems like my mom feels it twice as much. The deeper the inflicted wound is, the harsher the mask of anger fortifies, but deep down, she feels just as hurt. I had to take a break from school in my senior year of high school due to health reasons. Unable to soothe my tormenting head with words of comfort, she would drive us up to the mountains for some fresh air. I sat in the car in silence, and she sat in my pain with me.
Recently, my mom caught my brother using his phone in a dark room in the middle of the night. My brother and I were taken back at how dramatic she reacted. She scolded him for not caring for his health. I remember exchanging a confused glance with my brother, unsure how to react to her sudden outburst of anger over something so minor. In hindsight, I now understand her frustration; our bodies were created by her, the least we can do is take care of it.
But food has the ability to untie all the family strains, no matter how tight or complicated the knot is. For Zauner, traditional Korean food has always been the base for her and her mom’s relationship, her portal to connect with her cultural roots. In quiet harmony, food becomes the paradigm of how we express our affections, whether it’s cutting up a plate of fresh fruits as a way to apologize, or feasting around a table to celebrate your achievements.
Inadvertently, food has also torn a rift between Zauner and her mom when she struggled with her Asian American identity during her teenage years. She wrote about her experiences encountering ignorance amongst her peers as she began rejecting the lunch her mother packed for her. Every word is packed with shame and regret with a tug of sympathy. It seems to be a universal experience for Asians growing up in Western society to be teased about the food they bring to school. My mom couldn’t understand why I refused to pack more Asian snacks when I left for boarding school after a break came to an end. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the way my white peers scrunched their noses in disgust when they tried my food or the judging stares that lingered in the confinements of our room.
In her twenties, Zauner saw her mom as someone outside of her bubble, unable to understand her career decisions. Suddenly and heartbreakingly, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. The illness robbed her mother away as Zauner frantically tried to piece their relationship back together. Zauner is left with memories of her; every turn and every corner in H Mart bears special memories the two shared. There is a sense of pleading behind her words as she hopes we all cherish the time we have with our parents. It made me think of how the pandemic has disrupted the normal tempo of our lives, forcing many of us to return home. It’s a gift from a disaster that I, for the first time in six years, was able to spend almost a year and a half with my family. My dad would visit art museums with me and I would accompany him when he goes golfing; he lovingly indulges in my hobby while I happily follow him around. Often, we sat across from each other at his office desk and read, taking a deep dive into a world of our choice. But we always come back to each other, for that the first thing that greets us when we resurface to reality is our love for each other. For me, after diving into the world of Crying in H Mart, the first breath of air I took when I finished the book was full of tender gratitude for my family.