review of Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart

In her mid-20s, Michelle learned that her mother Chongmi had cancer. This seems to have shaken the ground under Michelle’s feet in multiple ways: not only was she losing her mother, she was losing her primary link to Korean culture (Michelle’s father was white and she was raised in the US), and she was losing the glue that bound her to her father.

I think memoirs like this, where an author is very candid about their thoughts and experiences from a painful and tumultuous time, are great gifts to the world, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to read them. This one was somewhat difficult for me to connect with, though. Largely that’s because it’s so focused on food, full of loving descriptions of the dishes that connect Michelle with her childhood, her mother, and her Korean heritage. I have a very different relationship with food and can only empathize abstractly.

One thing I found interesting: mothers relentlessly critiquing their daughters’ physical appearance seems to be a common theme in Korean and Korean-American writing, but Michelle casts that behavior in a more positive light than I’ve seen before. It infuriated her as a teenager, but now she describes “[Chongmi's] obsession with beauty” as a “legitimate cultural difference”:

Like food, beauty was an integral part of her culture. ..."pretty" was frequently employed as a synonym for "good" or "well-behaved", and this fusion of moral and aesthetic approval was an early introduction to the value of beauty and the rewards it had in store.

This allowed Chongmi to fill special roles in Michelle’s life: as the person who could be trusted not to tell a white lie when she wanted to know how she looked, or as the person who could organize a flawless wedding for her.

Though I admire the ability to recognize when a person’s hurtful behavior is their way of trying to express genuine love, I’m uneasy with how the book’s understanding attitude veers (maybe?) into an accepting attitude. Given how much intense psychological suffering is caused by societal expectations around beauty, I feel we should be trying to reduce those expectations, regardless of any silver linings that may go along with them.

The most delightfully surprising thing about this memoir is that it doesn’t end with a divorce. Michelle pressured her boyfriend to marry her so that her mother would live to see the wedding; it sounded to me like a recipe for regret, but they’re still together eight years later!

Finally: I'd like to express my undying gratitude to the universe that ddong chim was not a part of my childhood and, in particular, not a part of my relationship with either of my grandmothers.