Book Summary: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Quick Summary: Crying in H Mart (2021) by Michelle Zauner is a memoir about growing up as a Korean American struggling with her identity and coping with her mother’s early death from cancer.

H Mart is an Asian supermarket chain that offers Zauner and other transplanted Asian Americans the tastes, smells, and products of their home countries and families. For Zauner, food was the strongest connection she had with her mother. That connection lives on in the Korean recipes Zauner learns to cook, which remind her of her mother’s cooking.

It was not until the last years of her mother’s life that Zauner understood and appreciated the love her mother had shown her. Zauner’s memoir is a testament to the fact that a mother’s love is sometimes difficult to comprehend, yet should always be cherished.

Crying in H Mart Book Summary

H Mart

H Mart Growing up with a white father and a Korean mother, her connection to Korea was almost entirely based on her mother’s cooking and eating together.

Zauner’s mother expressed her love through food. When Zauner thinks back on extremely difficult times, such as watching her mother’s hair fall out, it’s not those memories that make her cry. It’s the seemingly insignificant things, like seeing a Korean grandmother eating at a food court. That person should be her mother.

H Marts can be found on the outskirts of towns, usually in Asian-centered strip malls. Inside H Mart, there is almost always a food court serving Asian foods such as sushi, ramen, and Korean staples such as tteokbokki, which are chewy rice cakes boiled with fish cakes, red pepper, and gochujang.

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Family and Korea

Zauner’s mother and aunt died within five years of each other; her mother died at the age of 56. While Zauner always forgets when her mother died, she remembers exactly what she ate because that’s how her mother showed she cared – by remembering what you liked and disliked.

When Zauner was a baby, her family relocated to the United States from Seoul. Her family relocated to a remote home in the Oregon woods when she was ten years old, which she resented. Zauner spent the majority of her time with her mother, who could be suffocating at times. Her mother was obsessed with appearances, both in the home and in the physical appearance of the entire family. Zauner was constantly falling short of her mother’s standards. Zauner became desperate for her mother’s approval as a result of this and her lonely childhood.

On a summer trip back to Korea, Zauner discovered that she could impress her mother by being brave with food. As a result, Zauner experimented with her diet. Her parents never went to college, but they were well-versed in and hungry for good food.

Every other summer, Zauner would spend six weeks in Korea with her mother. It was the polar opposite of Oregon, as they would be staying in a cramped apartment with family in the heart of Seoul. Zauner relished every minute of it.

Zauner would stay with her grandmother, whom she feared because she always spoke harshly because of her chain smoking. But she also liked to drink and gamble, which she did almost every night when they played cards together.

In Korea, Zauner was frequently complimented on her beauty, which she rarely received in Oregon, where she was simply Asian. As she grew older, she realized that her mother’s obsession with personal beauty was cultural; South Korea has the world’s highest rate of cosmetic surgery.

Zauner’s mother sobbed uncontrollably when she returned from her grandmother’s funeral in Korea. Her loss of control shocked Zauner, and it wasn’t until her mother died that she realized the devastation and guilt her own mother felt.

College provided an excellent opportunity for Zauner to escape her mother, whom she found completely unbearable in high school. She only applied to East Coast schools and attended Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. She was the first member of her immediate family to complete college.

But by the age of 25, Zauner was floundering in life. Her first band, Little Big League, had become stagnant and was gradually disbanding. Her mother called her during a trip to New York to try to secure a backup plan from being a musician and told her she had a tumor in her stomach.

Peter, Zauner’s boyfriend at the time, was the first guy she had dated who her mother liked. But, unbeknownst to Zauner, her mother had told Peter about her tumor before she did. When she finally broke the news to her, she told him to be there for Zauner.

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The Solace of Music

The worst part of Zauner and her mother’s relationship was in high school, when Zauner’s adolescent angst seemed to deepen into depression. Instead of consoling her, Zauner’s mother doubled down on her criticisms, convinced she was just pitying herself before she began applying to colleges.

Music provided Zauner with much-needed solace during these difficult times. A DVD featuring a live performance by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs changed her life when she recognized herself in the band’s front woman, Karen O, who was also half-Korean and half-white.

She finally got a guitar for Christmas after pestering her mother for one. She began to fantasize about becoming a musician until her mother told her after a performance that she was being foolish. Zauner and his mother’s relationship suffered as a result.

Zauner and her mother were having a particularly heated argument just before Zauner left for Bryn Mawr after miraculously getting into college. Her mother revealed to her that she had an abortion after having Zauner because she was such a bad child, a secret she had kept hidden until that point.

Coming Home

Despite her mother’s protests, Zauner quit her three jobs and returned to Eugene after learning of her mother’s cancer. After everything she had put her mother through during her adolescence, she saw this as a chance to repay her mother and finally be the perfect daughter.

Zauner spent little time with her father, who was a drug addict when she was a child. Being clean and supporting his family was enough to make him happy. His work, on the other hand, kept him occupied. Zauner also discovered he was having online affairs, which she kept hidden from her mother.

Zauner was reminded at home of all the times she snuck out of high school, went to raves, and tried to get drunk as a kid. She wanted nothing more than to get out of Oregon at the time. But now all she wanted was to stay and have things stay the same.

Zauner felt lost when she went grocery shopping for her mother, who was home sick. It felt strange returning to hometown grocery stores where she had always gone with her mother.

Zauner attended Korean language school as a child. She learned to read and write, but she never became fluent in either. Unlike the extremely obedient Korean children raised by two immigrant parents, Zauner was always out of place. As a result, she acted out.

Zauner found herself in the role of cook for her mother. Her mother was now the picky eater, and Zauner was the worried mother, trying to persuade her child to try what she had just made. Her mother, on the other hand, continued to vomit everything she ate and deteriorated.

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A Care Crew

A plan was devised to assist in the care of Zauner’s mother. Her friends Kye and LA Kim would visit the house and assist with the caretaking. This allowed Zauner to take a break, and as a result of her mother’s previous urgings, she began to exercise more frequently.

Middle school is a trying time for everyone, but especially for Zauner, who is one of the few Asian students at her school. Growing up proud to be half-Korean, she became a terrifying outlier in middle school, and she tried everything to make her heritage disappear.

Kye’s help around the house, particularly with cooking, appeared to benefit Zauner’s mother. Zauner took on the role of keeping track of her mother’s medication, as well as her bowel movements – anything that could help track improvements or regressions.

However, as Kye’s stay dragged on, Zauner’s mother began to drift away from her daughter and father. She started forgetting to translate from Korean to English, which Kye seemed to take advantage of. Kye’s presence made Zauner and her father uncomfortable, and eventually irritated them. Kye, Zauner felt, was not respecting her Korean heritage, which she now wishes was stronger.

Wait and See

Zauner had studied in Seoul for a semester with her mother’s sister Eunmi. She adored her and considered her to be her second mother. Eunmi, on the other hand, died of colon cancer despite leading an extremely clean and strict lifestyle.

Despite the nagging guilt that made her want to stay home with her mother after her mother’s second chemotherapy treatment, Zauner returned to Philadelphia to tour with her band. But she knew that nothing would improve her condition; all they had to do was wait and see if the chemotherapy was working.

Zauner discovered after their tour that her mother’s treatment had done nothing to shrink her tumor. It was also her mother’s wish that they stop fighting the cancer after two treatments. Instead, Zauner’s mother desired that they make one final trip to Korea.

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Return to Korea

Zauner’s mother’s condition deteriorated as soon as they arrived in Korea. They took her to the hospital and had to cancel their flight back to the United States. Every time they thought they had one ailment under control, another would appear, leaving Zauner’s mother completely bedridden.

The line between living and dying was becoming increasingly blurred in Zauner’s mother, who could no longer stand, eat, or control her bowels. Just when Zauner’s family thought they had put her out of her misery, she recovered enough to fly back to Oregon on a medical evacuation.

When they returned, Zauner planned to marry Peter in the hopes of keeping her mother alive just long enough to see her only daughter’s wedding. Instead of discussing catheters, they began discussing color schemes and dresses. Her mother was eventually released, and they returned home.

Heartbreak and Love in Eugene Zauner met Peter when he relocated to New York at the age of 23. She had liked him from the beginning, but it was clear that he only wanted to be friends. That was until he was hospitalized after being attacked one night, and the feelings became mutual from then on.

The prospect of the wedding accomplished exactly what Zauner had hoped for. Her mother was brimming with newfound vigour. She was up and about, assisting her daughter with her wedding preparations.

Zauner waited for her mother’s approval on the wedding day. While no one, not even Peter, could make her feel uglier, no one, not even Peter, could make her feel prettier. She believed everything she said, and her mother complimented her on her appearance that day.

The wedding was flawless, and Peter and Zauner’s mother were able to dance together. Her mother went upstairs to retire shortly after. Zauner noticed she was crying and wasn’t sure if it was from joy or sadness at not being able to stay the entire time.

Zauner’s mother’s ailments did not magically disappear after the wedding, as Zauner had hoped. Instead, her mother was exhausted by the same symptoms and treatments. With little to look forward to, she became less active and gradually began to speak less.

When Kye finally left the house one night, Zauner and her mother sobbed together on the sofa while watching Law and Order. When Kye returned, she spoke with Zauner’s mother before abruptly leaving, upset and stating that she needed to go home.

Zauner and her father had no idea what had happened, but Zauner’s mother simply smiled and said Kye had a good time looking after her.

Zauner’s mother’s condition deteriorated further. In their home, she was completely bedridden. Apart from changing the sheets when she peed on the bed, all Zauner and her father could do was wait for her to die.

Peter paid Zauner a visit, and when she awoke the next morning, her mother was no longer there. She had hoped that her mother would have awoken for a split second to impart some last-second wisdom to her only child, but instead she faded away into the night.

Zauner dressed her mother modestly before having her cremated, and she and Peter went to a nearby orchard. The orchard had no meaning for her or her mother. Instead, it gave the impression that her mother was still waiting for her at home.

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The Funeral and Aftermath

Zauner’s father handled the majority of the funeral arrangements, while he chose the headstone and cemetery. She struggled to write the eulogy because she wanted to learn something about her mother that only she knew. Her mother’s greatest legacy, however, was Zauner herself.

Zauner prepared doenjang jjigae, a Korean fermented soy bean soup, for the family who had stayed the night after the funeral. It was a small gesture, but Zauner was proud of herself for being able to provide for them, just as her mother had done her entire life.

Zauner rummaged through her mother’s belongings, looking for any traces of her mother’s life before the pain and misery of cancer. She discovered this in her paintings, which Zauner’s mother had taken up only a year before the cancer was discovered.

As their empty house began to bother them two weeks after the funeral, Zauner and her father booked a trip to Vietnam. While they had planned a long and exciting trip, they found it difficult to do anything. They slept for the majority of the journey.

When they arrived in Hue, the halfway point of their two-week journey, Zauner wanted to go home. But Hue was far more peaceful than Hanoi, and Zauner and her father bonded over a voracious appetite for good food and cheap beer.

Zauner and her father had a terrible argument one dinner, and she stormed out without eating. She went to a bar and made friends with a local because she didn’t know where to go and wanted to avoid her father. They sang karaoke together once, but then they never saw each other again.

Zauner’s father was killed in a car accident the night after they returned from Vietnam. While he insisted he had simply fallen asleep at the wheel, Zauner suspected he was inebriated. He slept in his room for the next few days, drowsy from the painkillers. Zauner never checked in on him.

Cooking and Self-Care

Zauner occupied herself by cooking. Peter eventually moved into their home. While looking for Christmas decorations, Zauner came across many items her mother had hoarded for no apparent reason. Zauner ended up selling the majority of it, feeling callous as a result of the experience.

Jatjuk, a Korean pine nut porridge, was one recipe Zauner found herself craving. Maangchi, a Korean woman she met online, reminded her of her mother, not just in the way she cooked, but also in the way she talked and valued the act of eating. Maangchi gave Zauner what she was looking for while cooking: someone who could teach her a simple Korean recipe, which she had assumed had been lost with her mother.

Zauner got a job as a cook at a crowded pizza parlor. The work was arduous, and the pay was pitiful. Peter begged her to leave, but Zauner needed the job to keep her occupied and keep her from feeling sorry for herself.

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Honeymoon

Zauner and Peter eventually decided to relocate to New York and work regular 9-to-5 jobs. But, before the move, they decided to take a belated honeymoon to Korea. Zauner was concerned about staying at the home of her mother’s eldest sister Nami without her mother present to translate.

Nami treated Zauner and Peter as if they were her children as soon as they arrived. The language barrier was difficult, especially since Zauner had so much to say. Her mother was correct once more: she regretted skipping Korean language classes.

Following their stay with Nami, Zauner and Peter continued their honeymoon, exploring more of Seoul before heading to Busan, Korea’s second largest city, and finally the island of Jeju. The food they ate reminded Zauner of her previous trips to Korea with her mother.

Dreams of Kimchi

After returning to the United States, Zauner continued to have dreams about her mother, who was still sick but alive. She was never able to pick her up or get her father before she awoke. Zauner and Peter eventually relocated to New York, where Zauner landed her first real job.

After therapy failed to help, Zauner began making all of Maangchi’s Korean recipes online as a form of self-care. Maangchi’s homemade kimchi was one of the most satisfying dishes Zauner prepared. It was so satisfying that Zauner started making it once a month.

Zauner spent Thanksgiving with Peter’s family on the East Coast. She made sweet potato tempura, which was far too foreign for Peter’s extended family to eat.

Peter’s family had been storing Zauner’s mother’s kimchi fridge in their basement for months, waiting for them to find a large enough space to take it back. Inside, Zauner discovered old family photos. Her favorite photos of her mother were the candid ones.

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Life After Death

Zauner’s first album, Psychopomp, received widespread attention about a year after he moved to Brooklyn with Peter. She was offered a tour with Mitski as her opener. Peter joined her band, Japanese Breakfast, when they began to headline shows and became the lead guitarist.

Japanese Breakfast toured in Asia after touring across the United States, with their final stop in Seoul. It didn’t seem real to Zauner to be singing songs about her mother in front of her mother’s hometown.

Zauner spent his final night in Seoul with Nami singing karaoke, which was exactly what they needed with Zauner’s mother’s absence.

Crying in H Mart Review

Michelle Zauner expresses herself freely about her personal experiences, with no hint of fear or timidity. She jumps back and forth between her main story about her mother’s death and tangents about food, Korean culture, and brief histories of her family or friends.

Korean culture and food, in fact, are recurring themes throughout the novel. If readers want to fully understand and appreciate the numerous references Zauner makes, they may need to conduct their own research into these Korean dishes.

About The Author

Michelle Zauner is a Korean-American singer, songwriter, director, and author. She is the lead singer of the indie-rock band Japanese Breakfast. They have released three albums, Psychopomp (2016), Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017), and Jubilee (2021).

Zauner was born to a Korean mother and a Jewish-American father in Seoul. When she was nine months old, her parents relocated to Eugene, Oregon. On June 7, 2021, Orion Pictures announced that Crying in H Mart would be adapted into a film.

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