“These were the places my mother had wanted to visit before she died,” Michelle Zauner recalls about a journey her and her newlywed husband took through Korea less than a year after she lost her mother to cancer, in her book Crying In H Mart.
“The places she’d wanted to take me before our last trip to Korea was quarantined to a hospital ward. The last memories my mother had wanted to share with me, the source of the things she raised me to love. The tastes she wanted me to remember. The feelings she wanted me to never forget.”
Zauner, who creates music as Japanese Breakfast, said she ultimately wrote Crying In H Mart for herself, because she had to. Lots of deservedly wonderful things have been said about the best-selling memoir, in which Zauner wrangles with preserving her identity despite the sudden absence of the woman who shaped it. Food holds the key. “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left in my life to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?” she asks herself in the first chapter, excerpted by The New Yorker in 2018.
Likewise, Zauner wrote her first album as Japanese Breakfast, called Psychopomp, to process those emotions in her preferred art form. “Rugged Country,” the bitter-yet-soaring third song on that record, traverses the unsteady earth of otherness from both sides; growing up as a Korean-American child made to feel ashamed for standing out in Oregon, then desperately seeking connection to her birthplace as an adult, for the first time without her mom to guide her. Her mom, who appears at the left of Psychopomp’s cover, “her hand reaching toward the camera like she’s just let go of the hand of someone below” in Zauner’s eye.
I finished reading Crying In H Mart last week on a plane. When I got off that plane, my parents — who would, no exaggeration, scramble to book the quickest flight across the planet to be there for me if I needed them for any reason, money never an object — were waiting for me at arrivals, and I hugged them tight. If you still can, call your mom. And read Crying In H Mart, too.