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Book Review: Crying in H-Mart: A Memoir – Michelle Zauner

A brutally honest look at love, family, and growing up mixed-race in America

There are some emotions you feel deep inside your soul, crawling through your chest with a force that powers through any attempt you make to subdue them. Profound grief is often one of these emotions, and author Michelle Zauner lays hers out for the world to read and experience along with her as she processes the untimely death of her Korean mother.

Grief is hardly talked about in our current American culture. We’re diagnosed by therapists with “complicated” grief if we’re still feeling deep sadness only a few months after the death of a loved one. Friends post, “I’m so sorry, call me if you need anything! 💗 ” on your social media and then vanish, carrying on with their gloriously carefree lives. Memories and events blur together in a time outside our own, each minute feeling like an hour and each hour feeling like a minute, jumbling thoughts so badly that the office assistant  checking you in for an appointment purses her lips in judgment when you momentarily forget your own birthdate. Zauner dispenses entirely with the awkward embarrassment of grieving for loved ones, and places her own on display for everyone to read, and perhaps identify with.

“It felt like the world had divided into two different types of people, those who had felt pain and those who had yet to.”

Michelle Zauner

Ethnically and culturally half Korean and half white, Zauner, like many of us fellow mixed-race Americans*, struggles to fit into the general cultural consciousness. She grows up constantly visiting a popular Korean grocery store, H-Mart, so her mother can buy traditional ingredients for their home-cooked meals. Korean ladies praise her child self for fitting into Korean ideals of beauty, but Zauner blows off Korean language lessons and never becomes fluent in her mother’s native language. Kids come up to her in school and demand to know her ethnicity, wanting, like many Americans, to fit her racially into a neat, “proper” box. Zauner’s mother is extremely strict, mirroring her own mother’s way of raising her, eventually driving a wedge of resentment between them both. Zauner moves away for college, determined to pursue a career her mother disapproves of, and only realizes the true distance between her and her mother–and thus, the link to her cultural identity–when she gets the horrifically life-changing phone call informing her that her mother has terminal cancer.

What we, the reader, get is an honest, sometimes humorous, and heartbreaking look at reconnecting with one’s parent when that parent is on their deathbed. While one might assume this memoir ends with the death of Zauner’s mother, neatly pulling the curtains closed on the triumph of accepting a parent’s death, Zauner’s mother’s death occurs approximately halfway through the story. The second half illuminates the struggles us living people left behind must endure: the awkward distance suddenly present among other family  members, the sense of loss of one’s core connections to one’s cultural heritage, and, yes: the unstoppable tears that well up and fall in the most mundane of public spaces–the grocery store.

Throughout the narrative, Zauner doesn’t preach her life lessons: she doesn’t insist that the reader run out to connect with distant family members or dictate a list on how to navigate grief. She simply invites the reader to join her on her own journey, giving the impression of listening to a good friend pour her heart out over several cups of coffee. What you take from it is up to you. This may not be the book for everyone, especially those who tend to read more upbeat novels, but it’s a vital story for those who see any part of themselves in Zauner’s writings.

*Because I know you’re wondering, I, your local friendly book reviewer, am Asian/Hispanic-American.

Disclaimer: I checked the e-book version out from my local public library for free and read it on my 10th generation Kindle Oasis. I was not paid for this review, and all opinions are my own.

Title: Crying in H-Mart: A Memoir
Author: Michelle Zauner
Publication Date: 20 April 2021
Print Length: 239 pages
Marie’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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