“Crying in H Mart”: Michelle Zauner’s Memoir Helps Me Process the Loss of My Mother
Each year, I look forward to the summer solstice. There’s something magical about the longest day of the year and the maximum amount of daylight that it brings.
But by June 20, 2020, at the age of 44, my outlook on the summer solstice changed unexpectedly. I awoke early that morning to sunlight streaming through my windows and felt excited about the day ahead.
My husband Brian and I were getting ready to visit my in-laws and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary with the rest of the family. We were just about the leave the house when we heard an expected knock on our door at 8 am.
I opened the door and saw my father on the front porch looking ragged and exhausted. There was an unrecognizable sadness on his face when he said, “L, Your mother passed away last night.”
Those words punched me right in the gut, and it took me a moment to process what he had just said. My father explained that my mother had a heart attack the night before; she had collapsed instantly and then died.
He tried to revive her before the paramedics came, but it was too late. I was surprised that a heart attack had taken my mother’s life at 75 instead of Alzheimer’s. She had been battling that disease for nearly a decade, and I had prepared myself for that outcome gradually.
A year later, I was still working through the grief of losing my mother. I had struggled with not having a traditional funeral for her, getting through the pandemic, and working a stressful job.
Despite those challenges, there was a bright spot. Live music was starting to return, and I found myself back at my first show at an indoor venue since March 2020.
Japanese Breakfast was touring in support of their new Jubilee album at the time, and the indie-pop band had an August 4, 2021 show at Saint Andrew’s Hall in Detroit.
When we arrived at the venue masked, vaccinated, and ready to go, Brian mentioned Japanese Breakfast frontwoman Michelle Zauner had written a new memoir called Crying in H Mart about the loss of her mother.
Hearing about Zauner’s book piqued my interest, so I headed to the merch table and saw copies were available for sale. I purchased a copy and decided to read it even though I knew it wouldn’t be easy for me to get through it.
A couple of weeks after the show, we headed to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee for a family trip with my in-laws. I took Crying in H Mart with me and was determined to read the book as a silent way for me to process my grief.
I made it through the first three chapters and then decided I had to put the book aside. I wasn’t quite ready to process my grief alongside Zauner’s.
By April 2022, I hadn’t thought much about the book until I saw Zauner was a keynote speaker at Ohio University’s Music Industry Summit. I was trying to find a job in music journalism and decided to make the trek to Athens, Ohio for the two-day conference.
While speaking at the conference, Zauner read excerpts from Crying in H Mart and answered questions from the audience. As I listened to her revisit passages from her book, I felt my grief starting to surface and took a deep breath to regain my composure.
It had been nearly two years since my mother passed away, and I still wasn’t prepared to deal with my grief. Reading the rest of Crying in H Mart would surely unlock it and the mishmash of emotions that came with it.
Instead, I distracted myself with writing, traveling, visiting family and friends, seeing live shows, and looking for a job. A busy life meant delaying the grief and focusing on the future instead of revisiting the past.
I followed that approach for about another year when I saw Zauner was scheduled to appear at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater on April 23. She was embarking on a book tour for Crying in H Mart and would make her final stop here.
I decided it was time to finish the book and experience Zauner’s grief vicariously regardless of how I might feel about my own.
In Crying in H Mart, Zauner reflects on the bumpy relationship with her mother Chongmi after she died of pancreatic cancer in October 2014 and explores how cooking traditional Korean dishes helps her process that loss and reconnect with her heritage.
Zauner makes regular trips to H Mart, a supermarket chain that specializes in Korean and Asian food products, to purchase ingredients for dishes like Doenjang-jjigae (fermented soybean paste stew), Jatjuk (pine nut porridge), and kimchi (a traditional side dish, or banchan, with salted and fermented vegetables):
She also revisits different memories about her mother, including receiving advice about high fashion and expensive skincare products, learning cultural and culinary lessons during family trips to South Korea, and getting tough-love feedback during turbulent moments of teenage defiance:
Like Zauner, I felt distanced from my mother before she passed away, but it wasn’t because we saw things differently. Alzheimer’s slowly stripped her of the person I had known and loved while growing up. She could no longer read books, watch movies, or remember the names and faces of neighbors who lived across the street for nearly 40 years.
Fortunately, my mother still recognized our immediate family before she died. The last time I had seen her was two days before she passed away. My father had scheduled a medical procedure that day, and my mother wasn’t able to stay home alone. I had just started a new job the week before and worked remotely from my parents’ house while I stayed with my mother.
I regret that I was working on the last day I ever saw my mother. I never thought she would go that quickly, but I’m grateful she didn’t suffer any longer from Alzheimer’s. At the same time, I feel cheated as Zauner did in a way with her losing her mother. I had always envisioned my mother living well into her 90s and that we would keep growing closer as we both aged.
While Zauner sought refuge in cooking, I looked for comfort in music. I started listening to some of my mother’s favorite artists and bands, including The Little River Band, John Farnham, Donna Summer, Michael Bolton, and Fleetwood Mac.
Each time I listened to an album by one of those artists I would allow myself to cry when the grief rose to the surface. It would be gut-wrenching at times to hear Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Donna Summer’s Bad Girls, Michael Bolton’s Time, Love & Tenderness, or The Little River Band’s First Under the Wire, but it was worth the immediate relief and momentary connection to my late mother.
Zauner reflected on a similar connection with her late mother during her appearance at the Michigan Theater. She told moderator, author, and University of Michigan associate professor Kiley Reid about struggling with her loss and channeling it into an essay called “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi” which she wrote in 2016. That essay led to Zauner penning Crying in H Mart, which was published in April 2021.
“After work and on weekends, I had to do something for myself. I couldn’t let it go, so I was working on mixing my first record, and my life exploded. My mom had died, and my dad and I were in a weird place; I had given up my dreams of becoming a musician,” said Zauner, who studied creative writing and film at Bryn Mawr College.
“It was really hard to process, and suddenly I find myself cooking Korean food and getting really into that. I had this strange parasocial relationship with this YouTube vlogger named Maangchi, and I thought this was a cute Korean Julie & Julia story and maybe someone would like it.”
In hindsight, I had turned to writing as an escape from my grief. I wrote tons of articles about local music for my blog The Stratton Setlist and processed my emotions through writing about the reflections and experiences of others.
If an artist’s song or an album dealt with loss, anger, guilt, or sadness, I expressed my grief unconsciously in meaningful ways across two to three articles a week. It didn’t matter where I was: I wrote at home, while staying with family, and from hotel rooms or Airbnbs during trips.
What I didn’t realize was that sharing little bits here and there chiseled away at the pain. Before I knew it, I had published over 500 articles on my blog.
Zauner adopted a comparable approach when it came to writing Crying in H Mart in 2018.
“My editor was like, ‘We’re looking for around 90,000 words [for Crying in H Mart].’ I was like, ‘I’m gonna write 1,000 words every day until I hit 90,000,’” she said.
“A lot of this book was written in between soundcheck and showtime, in the back of a van, on a plane, in cafes, and in green rooms. I just wrote really badly for a long time. I wasn’t gonna look back until I hit that number, and I would just slice and dice it down … and then go back and forth until it got sorted out.”
By June 2021, I had left my stressful job and decided to focus on music journalism full-time. Losing my mother and being stuck at home during the pandemic prompted me to reevaluate my life and redetermine my priorities.
With Mother’s Day approaching and the summer solstice next month, I can’t help but think what our relationship would have been like if she were still alive and hadn’t had Alzheimer’s.
I like to think she’s watching out for me in a way and hoping that one day I can become a mother myself.
As for Zauner, a similar thought weighs heavily on her mind as she works on a film adaptation of Crying in H Mart and plans to tour and write new material with Japanese Breakfast.
“It’s heartbreaking whenever you lose a parent at any point in your life. For me in particular, I lost my mom when I was 25, and I think the most heartbreaking thing about it was that we were just starting to return to one another,” she said.
“I always reference The Sopranos … there’s a line Tony Soprano says to Carmela who was fighting with her daughter, ‘Don’t worry, Carm, she’ll return to you.’”
In a sense, I had returned to my late mother through my love of music and writing. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing what I love to do now.
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.