Crying in H Mart - by Michelle Zauner
Crying in H Mart - by Michelle Zauner
Beautiful writing! I wish I could tell stories in such an interesting way. This book happens to be the third memoir I read this year. What a coincidence that this third one is written by a Philly one more time: the previous two were from Kevin Hart and Will Smith.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
FOOD WAS HOW my mother expressed her love. No matter how critical or cruel she could seem—constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations—I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.
My aunts and mom and grandmother would jabber on in Korean, and I would eat and listen, unable to comprehend, bothering my mom every so often, asking her to translate.
But I know we are all here for the same reason. We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves. We look for a taste of it in the food we order and the ingredients we buy. Then we separate. We bring the haul back to our dorm rooms or our suburban kitchens, and we re-create the dish that couldn’t be made without our journey. What we’re looking for isn’t available at a Trader Joe’s. H Mart is where your people gather under one odorous roof, full of faith that they’ll find something they can’t find anywhere else.
But when I got hurt, my mom was livid, as if I had maliciously damaged her property.
Hers was tougher than tough love. It was brutal, industrial-strength.
always “save ten percent of yourself.” What she meant was that, no matter how much you thought you loved someone, or thought they loved you, you never gave all of yourself. Save 10 percent, always, so there was something to fall back on. “Even from Daddy, I save,” she would add.
She believed in QVC products with the zeal of a conspiracy theorist.
Her rules and expectations were exhausting, and yet if I retreated from her I was isolated and wholly responsible for entertaining myself. And so I spent my childhood divided between two impulses, engaging in the intrinsic tomboyish whims that led to her reprimands and clinging to my mother, desperate to please her.
My childhood was rich with flavor—blood sausage, fish intestines, caviar. They loved good food, to make it, to seek it, to share it, and I was an honorary guest at their table.
I’d never seen my mother’s emotions so unabashedly on display. Never seen her without control, like a child. I couldn’t comprehend then the depth of her sorrow the way I do now. I was not yet on the other side, had not crossed over as she had into the realm of profound loss. I didn’t think about the guilt she might have felt for all the years spent away from her mother, for leaving Korea behind. I didn’t know the comforting words she probably longed for the way I long for them now. I didn’t know then the type of effort it can take to simply move.
I worked there with my boyfriend, Peter, whom I’d originally lured there in a long-game play to woo myself out of the friend zone, where I’d been exiled seemingly in perpetuity, but shortly after I finally won him over, I was fired and he was promoted.
I had wound up doing exactly what my mother had warned me not to do. I was floundering in reality, living the life of an unsuccessful artist.
He balanced me out in the way my mother did my father, who like me was always in a rush, quick to give up on any task at the first sign of failure and delegate it to someone else.
INTO THE VACUUM of my disinterest, music rushed to fill the void.
I had glimpsed the life of an artist, and it felt, for a moment, like a path slightly more within reach.
He was proud of me, and it felt good that someone I looked up to was seeing me in a new light.
MY REMAINING MONTHS at home were scored by a fraught silence. My mother would drift from room to room rarely acknowledging my presence.
Though my mother and I hadn’t parted on good terms, once a month, huge boxes would arrive, reminders I was never far from her mind.
We were quiet in the car and I rolled down the window to take a deep breath of Oregon air.
What had been a delight as a child fell short of what I needed from a father as an adult.
That the months my mother had been a vessel for me, her organs shifting and cramping together to make room for my existence, and the agony she’d endured upon my exit could be repaid by carrying this pain in her place. The rite of an only daughter. But I could do no more than lie nearby, ready to be her advocate, listening to the slow and steady beeping of machinery, the soft sounds of her breathing in and out.
I could not even cry in his presence for fear he would take the moment over, pit his grief against mine in a competition of who loved her more, and who had more to lose. Moreover, it shook me to my core that he had said aloud what I considered to be unspeakable. The possibility that she couldn’t make it, that there could even be an us without her.
When she smiled, her lips stretched out flat and stopped before curving upward, as if paused midway through.
“But you’re not Korean,” she said. “You’re American.”
The little flap of belly my mother always pinched at had disappeared and my hair began to fall out in large chunks in the shower from the stress. In a perverse way I was glad for it. My own weight loss made me feel tied to her. I wanted to embody a physical warning—that if she began to disappear, I would disappear too.
Her icy demeanor froze us over.
I wasn’t sure if I was on to something or just being paranoid or, worse, jealous that this woman was a better caretaker for my mother than I was. How self-obsessed was I to begrudge a woman who had selflessly volunteered to help?
Part of me wanted to bound out of the car and back to her like something out of a romantic movie, but I knew it wouldn’t resolve anything.
“Gwaenchanh-a, gwaenchanh-a,” she said. It’s okay, it’s okay. Korean words so familiar, the gentle coo I’d heard my whole life that assured me whatever ache was at hand would pass.
Like everyone else, he never knew the right thing to say. His method of consolation was just to lie beside me in silence until my emotions ran their course and quieted down. To his credit, that was all there really was to do anyway.
My denial was still in full force. I was convinced that all she needed was another infusion, an IV to stabilize her. I felt we could go on like this for years, just fixing her.
There was no embarrassment left, just survival, everything action and reaction.
It cheapened their bond. It cheapened us.
My mother and I had always agreed that we’d rather end our lives than live on as vegetables. But now that we had to confront it, the shreds of physical autonomy torn more ragged every day, the divide had blurred. She was bedridden, unable to walk on her own, her bowels no longer moving. She ate through a bag dripped through her arm and now she could no longer breathe without a machine. It was getting harder every day to say that this was really living.
It’d be impossible to feel beautiful without her approval. If she wasn’t there, I knew I was destined to be a joyless bride.
There was a pregnant pause on the other end of the line
It took Peter much longer to discover reciprocal feelings—or perhaps more accurately, for me to implant them.
From then on, the running joke was that I’d paid the two guys to knock some sense into him.
THE PROSPECT of the wedding worked its magic.
I’d always been proud of her resistance to spiritual conformity and I was sorry to see it surrendered.
The two of them hugged and it was like Peter and I were watching our worlds collide. We were really getting married.
There was no one in the world that was ever as critical or could make me feel as hideous as my mother, but there was no one, not even Peter, who ever made me feel as beautiful.
I kept waiting for her to fix what I could not see, but she offered no critique. She just smiled, half in and half out of consciousness, maybe too medicated now to tell the difference. Or maybe deep down she knew what was best, that small criticisms weren’t worth it anymore.
My mother had been private about her illness, and so the wedding doubled as a celebration of her life without the added pressure of saying it outright.
“I never thought I was going to get married,” I said. “But having witnessed for the past six months what it means to keep the promise to be there for someone in sickness and in health, I find myself here, understanding.” I talked about how love was an action, an instinct, a response roused by unplanned moments and small gestures, an inconvenience in someone else’s favor. And though I wished our marriage could begin under more ideal circumstances, it had been these very trials that had assured me he was everything I needed to brave the future that lay ahead. There wasn’t a dry eye left in the tent.
If we always had something to look forward to, we could trick this disease. Not now, cancer, there’s a wedding! And then a tasting in Napa! Then an anniversary, a birthday. Come back when we’re not so busy.
The house was quiet aside from her breathing, a horrible sucking like the last sputtering of a coffeepot.
A pained vibrato that breaks apart into staccato quarter notes, descending as if it were falling off a series of small ledges.
I couldn’t fathom joy or pleasure or losing myself in a moment ever again. Maybe because it felt wrong, like a betrayal. If I really loved her, I had no right to feel those things again.
With my mother’s ring on my right hand I felt like a five-year-old in a full face of makeup. I twisted it back and forth, trying to get comfortable, its facets glistened in the light of breaking dawn, oversized and out of place on my undiscerning finger. It felt heavy. A weight emblematic of loss, a tug I’d notice every time I went to lift my hand.
At the blue wraparound desk in my childhood bedroom, where I wrote all my papers in high school, where just two weeks before I’d written my wedding vows, I struggled to write her eulogy, to find the words to encompass her in a single page.
THE FUNERAL WAS WEIRD, mostly because I hadn’t been to church in over ten years and I didn’t realize just how bizarre religious practice can appear to an atheist.
I had tried to conceal my tears from my family and at last they were all funneling out. I could feel the entire restaurant staring as I sobbed and shook, but I didn’t care. It felt so good to release it.
I cried all the way home, big, comically fat tears, and then I cried hot, small ones alone in my bedroom until I fell asleep.
doenjang jjigae, the ultimate Korean comfort food
The first link led me to a website run by a woman named Maangchi. There was a YouTube player at the top of the page and a recipe on the bottom. The video was shaky and pixelated.
There was a part of me that felt, or maybe hoped, that after my mother died, I had absorbed her in some way, that she was a part of me now. I wondered if her art teacher felt this way, too, that I was the closest she could get to being heard.
I wondered if the late bloom of her creative interests had shed light on my own artistic impulses.
Thrown as we were on opposite sides of a fault line—generational, cultural, linguistic—we wandered lost without a reference point, each of us unintelligible to the other’s expectations, until these past few years when we had just begun to unlock the mystery, carve the psychic space to accommodate each other, appreciate the differences between us, linger in our refracted commonalities. Then, what would have been the most fruitful years of understanding were cut violently short, and I was left alone to decipher the secrets of inheritance without its key.
“Then where is Mommy?” she asked as I crunched into a flaky bulb. “She’s at home,” my father said, tight-lipped and teary-eyed, unsure of how to move forward.
From years of communicating with my mother’s family, my dad had developed this way of addressing non–English speakers that involves dropping articles and wildly gesticulating as if he were talking to a three-year-old.
“I don’t appreciate being scolded by my own daughter in front of strangers,” he said.
“Oh well, there’s plenty of things Mom said about you, too, believe me,” I said. “There’s a lot of things I could say right now that I’m choosing not to.”
Quing put down her teacup and put her hand on top of mine. “You should sing something.” She leaned in closer and stared into my eyes, like she was certain this would solve all my problems.
We didn’t talk about our fight and continued on with the trip as if it had never happened.
We had come to Vietnam in search of healing, to emerge closer to each other in our grief, but we returned just as damaged and separate as ever.
Her writing reminded me of my mother’s texts, down to the way she would micromanage every eating experience.
In fact, she was both my first and second words: Umma, then Mom
Drowsy and jet-lagged, I remained prostrate on the living room floor, drifting in and out of sleep.
I WAS HUNGRY to talk to Nami but words failed me. We communicated as best we could, our conversation interrupted by long pauses as we fumbled through our phones for translations.
All the times she told me I’d regret treating the lessons as a drag one day.
Drift back to sleep and return to the dream, savor just a bit more time in her presence. But I’m stuck wide awake or I fall into another dream entirely. Was this my mother’s way of visiting me?
Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home.
“Live here,” it invited in some new, anonymous family.
the colors have a magical, nostalgic quality.
I knew it was my mother behind the lens. Capturing and preserving me. My simple joys.
My favorites were the mistakes, ones of my mother that were objectively bad. Her eyes closed, accidentally blinking and unaware.
She was my champion, she was my archive. She had taken the utmost care to preserve the evidence of my existence and growth, capturing me in images, saving all my documents and possessions.
The knowledge left unrecorded died with her. What remained were documents and my memories, and now it was up to me to make sense of myself, aided by the signs she left behind.
good pronunciation could only get me so far before I became a stumped mute, racking my brain for a basic infinitive.
She was looking for the hint of Koreanness in my face that she couldn’t quite put a finger on. Something that resembled her own.
I mimicked the Korean mumbles of understanding, wanting so badly to keep up the charade, pretending to understand long enough to catch a glimpse of a word I recognized, but eventually she asked a question I failed to comprehend, and then she too realized that there was nothing left for her to relate to. Nothing more we could share.
I closed my eyes and tears began to stream down my cheeks, but I did not make a sound.
all signs seemed to indicate it wasn’t quite time to hang up my hat.
After the shows, I’d sell shirts and copies of the record, oftentimes to other mixed kids and Asian Americans who, like me, struggled to find artists who looked like them, or kids who had lost their parents who would tell me how the songs had helped them in some way, what my story meant to them.
In Taipei we had oyster omelets and stinky tofu at Shilin Night Market and discovered what is arguably the world’s greatest noodle soup, Taiwanese beef noodle, chewy flour noodles served with hefty chunks of stewed shank and a meaty broth so rich it’s practically a gravy. In Beijing we trekked a mile in six inches of snow to eat spicy hot pot, dipping thin slivers of lamb, porous wheels of crunchy lotus root, and earthy stems of watercress into bubbling, nuclear broth packed with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. In Shanghai we devoured towers of bamboo steamers full of soup dumplings, addicted to the taste of the savory broth gushing forth from soft, gelatinous skins. In Japan we slurped decadent tonkotsu ramen, bit cautiously into steaming takoyaki topped with dancing bonito flakes, and got hammered on whisky highballs.
When we got onstage, I took a moment to take in the room. Even at the height of my ambitions I had never imagined I’d be able to play a concert in my mother’s native country, in the city where I was born.
I took a breath. “Annyeonghaseyo!” I shouted into the mic, and we launched into our set.
If there was a god, it seemed my mother must have had her foot on his neck, demanding good things come my way.
my mother’s face on the cover, her hand reaching toward the camera like she’s just let go of the hand of someone below.
trying to lure him out of his shell
I wondered if the shopkeepers thought that Nami was my mother. I wondered if she was thinking the same thing. Each of us was role-playing in a way, soft substitutes for the dead we wanted so desperately to revive. Anything I paused to examine, Nami insisted I let her buy for me.
I must first thank Daniel Torday, a vital mentor who had to read a lot of really, really horrible writing while I was in college and somehow still managed to believe in me after it all.
Thank you to Maangchi for sharing your wealth of knowledge with the world. You are a light that has guided so many in search of connection and meaning. I’m grateful for your warmth and generosity.
And above all, thank you to Peter Bradley, who suffered so many moods over the course of this book, and tempered and tolerated the many bouts of both megalomania and utter despair that came with writing it. What an absolute privilege to have you as a first reader and editor and most perfect companion. How did I get so lucky to have tricked you into marrying me? I love every single thing about you. Thank you most of all.