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87 pages 2 hours read

Michelle Zauner

Crying in H Mart

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Crying in H Mart is a 2021 memoir by Korean American author and musician Michelle Zauner, who is the lead singer of the indie rock band Japanese Breakfast. It provides an unflinching look at her mother’s death by cancer and celebrates Zauner’s connection to her mother through Korean food and culture. The book is an expansion of a 2018 New Yorker essay of the same name.

Plot Summary

Crying in H Mart centers on Zauner’s relationship with her mother Chongmi in the wake of Chongmi’s death when Zauner was 25. The memoir slips back and forth in time, with chapters frequently beginning in the aftermath of Chongmi’s death before moving backward to Zauner’s childhood memories. Chongmi was a stern woman who was very demanding when Zauner was a child. Zauner yearned for her approval and found it in their shared appreciation of the Korean foods that Chongmi prepared or showed to Zauner in her youth. Though their relationship was strained and even violent during Zauner’s teenage years, in part because of Zauner’s growing interest in music, Zauner and her mother were beginning to grow in appreciation and understanding of each other. During this time, Zauner moved to Philadelphia to work on her music career while seeing her boyfriend Peter.

Chongmi’s cancer diagnosis puts Zauner’s world on hold as she moves back home to Eugene, Oregon. She thinks she will have the opportunity to repay her mother’s intense caretaking during this time, and she longs to make the Korean foods that her mother loved so much. She is stymied by the severity of her mother’s symptoms, though, which are so bad that she must be hospitalized early into Zauner’s stay. Her lack of access to her mother’s care is exacerbated by the arrival of her mother’s friend Kye, who takes over much of the caretaking despite Zauner’s mixed feelings. Zauner’s father, meanwhile, proves ill-equipped to handle his wife’s illness, which creates a growing rift between Zauner and her father.

When chemotherapy doesn’t work, Chongmi elects to discontinue treatment; she watched her sister go through 24 rounds of chemo and still die young of cancer. The family plans a trip to Seoul so Chongmi can see her other sister and her home country. The trip is a disaster, as Chongmi becomes ill and must be hospitalized for several weeks; this motivates Zauner to insist that she and Peter get married as soon as possible, and Peter agrees. The wedding is held in the family’s backyard, and Chongmi is energized by the planning and the ceremony, though she is unable to stay for the whole evening.

Not long after, Chongmi’s strength fails, and she succumbs to her illness. In the aftermath, Zauner and her father plan a vacation to Vietnam to distract themselves, but the trip turns disastrous as old hurts bubble up; Zauner abandons her father at dinner and goes to sing karaoke with a stranger, and though she is empathetic to her father’s struggles, she is unwilling to forgive his failures as a father and husband. After the trip, he gets in a car accident while drunk, and within a year he sells the family home and moves to Phuket to be with another woman, further straining his relationship with Zauner.

After her mother’s death, Zauner and Peter stay around Eugene to help settle affairs and plan their next steps. It’s during this time that Zauner starts writing and playing music again, eventually recording Psychopomp, the first Japanese Breakfast album. She and Peter decide to move back to the East Coast, but before that, they take a trip to see Zauner’s aunt, Nami Emo, in Seoul. The trip is healing, especially because Zauner connects with Nami over the food she and her mother used to share.

Returning home, Zauner works hard to learn more traditional Korean dishes, turning to a popular Youtuber named Maangchi to perfect her techniques. She begins making kimchi every month, going through the painstaking process as a kind of therapy. When her father sells the family home, he sends Zauner her mother’s kimchi fridge, which she finds filled with hundreds of candid photos from her childhood, a testament to the link between mother and daughter.

The memoir closes with the successful reception of Psychopomp, which Zauner wrote in honor of her mother and which allowed her to go on tour in Asia. Seoul is the final stop of the tour, and Zauner sees the night as a celebration and continuation of her mother’s spirit. She closes the book on a scene of her and Nami Emo singing a karaoke pop song that Nami used to sing with Chongmi growing up, affirming Zauner’s connection to her Korean family and heritage.

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