Crying In H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Y’all, I was so excited when my friend Emily asked if I wanted to read Crying In H Mart with her, especially since it would help cap Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month for me here at The Frumious Consortium. We’d both heard so many great things about the book, and it looked short and relevant to our interests as parents and foodies. We dove in over this past weekend and, um, wow. Actually “yikes” is probably the best word to encapsulate the experience.

I have to say that I’m super glad I had Emily to message with throughout this experience, because as an Asian American parent whose own Asian mother will never win any Mother Of The Year awards, even I was staggered by the amounts of abuse on display throughout the book. More concerning to me was Michelle Zauner’s bizarre over-identification with her mom. At first, I thought I was unable to relate because my own mother and I don’t have the best relationship, but soon realized that my detachment sprang from the fact that I’ve only ever seen this kind of behavior in abuse victims. By the end of Chapter 2, I was telling Emily, “Mostly, I’m hoping there’s [a positive] arc to this story, because if [the author] stays like this throughout the book, I’m just gonna be hella depressed for her by the end.”

Reader, I was hella depressed for her by the end.

For those of you who blessedly have never heard of this memoir, it’s a recounting of Michelle’s childhood and early adult life as an allegedly difficult only child to a Korean American mom and white American dad. She fled to the East Coast for college from where she grew up in Oregon, and stayed there for several years after graduation, working odd jobs while nurturing her musical career. She was also slowly beginning to reconcile with her mom when the latter was suddenly diagnosed with late-stage cancer. Michelle immediately gave up her admittedly not that terrific life on the East Coast to come take care of her mother for the next year or so, before death claimed Chongmi for good. The memoir bluntly depicts everything that happened, with several chapters devoted to the aftermath as well.

There’s no denying that Michelle’s grief is moving, as a twenty-five year old who’d been hoping for not only reconciliation with an important figure in her life but also with a culture she had complicated feelings about and didn’t know how to meet on her own terms. And I deeply sympathized with her desire to reconnect with her Korean identity, and absolutely devoured all her amazing descriptions of Korean food. But I really gotta reiterate that her upbringing was neither standard Asian nor Asian American. Yes, there is a lot of emphasis placed on filial piety, as well as on physical appearance in the conservative versions of those cultures. But the screaming at her clumsiness, the lack of medical care, and most of all the indifference to her homelessness as a teen, are all huge cultural outliers. Chongmi had PROBLEMS that she was clearly taking out on her kid. Michelle’s dad was also lowkey a trash fire, but she has at least enough sense not to romanticize his issues.

And that’s my main problem with this book, that by the end, Michelle — who unsurprisingly writes in these pages that therapy is a waste of time — had completely internalized her mother’s abuse. In order to deal with her grief, Michelle decides that she herself has always been the problem, that her mother’s love had not only been extraordinary in a good way but always acted in her best interests, and that Michelle would thus carry on her legacy by striving to be exactly like her. YIKES with a capital YIKES, my friends! As a parent who not only loves but genuinely likes my kids (even when they’re being little shits — I may adore them but I’m not gonna pretend that they’re God’s gifts to all humanity,) I seriously hope that Michelle changes her mind about therapy and gets a lot of it before, as she says she aspires to, having any kids herself. I’ve personally had to do a lot of work on myself to be the parent that my kids deserve. I’m by no means perfect, but I’ve been pretty good at identifying and avoiding the hurtful things that my own parents did that I know I don’t want to scar my kids with. I’m also smart enough to figure out what things I hated at the time eventually turned out to be beneficial. Being forced into public speaking = great! Having to accept sexual harassment for two years = not great! No parent is perfect, but all kids deserve to be treated as individuals who rely on the adults around them to set good examples and provide physical and emotional safety while still encouraging them to grow.

As a depiction of what happens in the emotional relationship between an abusive mother and her daughter when the former dies before the latter can completely form a separate id, this is a very honest and yet not at all unpredictable tale. I’m sure it made a lot of readers sad, tho I also imagine that the reasons for my unhappiness at the end were far different from theirs. Going in, I really wanted to like this book. I’m just hoping that readers are smart enough not to accept the romanticization of abuse in their own lives, much less encourage it, especially under the pretense of it being Asian culture.

Crying In H Mart by Michelle Zauner was published April 20 2021 by Knopf and is available from all good booksellers, including

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