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Thursday, January 13, 2022

Review: Crying in H Mart

 Crying in H Mart showed up in so many "best reads of the year" lists that I felt compelled to check it out of the library and read it. The book is the story of Michelle Zauner's childhood, her relationship with her mom, and the her mom's suffering from cancer. To some extent it's the Asian American whining about not being a part of either world. Much of it of course is attributed to where she lived growing up: in an exurb of Eugene. But the other part of it was that her mother chose to isolate herself from the community, not being Christian.

Much of the memoir surrounds food, which Zauner is amply descriptive of:

I remember these things clearly because that was how my mother loved you, not through white lies and constant verbal affirmation, but in subtle observations of what brought you joy, pocketed away to make you feel comforted and cared for without even realizing it. She remembered if you liked your stews with extra broth, if you were sensitive to spice, if you hated tomatoes, if you didn’t eat seafood, if you had a large appetite. She remembered which banchan side dish you emptied first so the next time you were over it’d be set with a heaping double portion, served alongside the various other preferences that made you, you. (kindle loc 209)

 And then there's the very Asian approach to motherly love:

every time I got hurt, my mom would start screaming. Not for me, but at me. I couldn’t understand it. When my friends got hurt, their mothers scooped them up and told them it was going to be okay, or they went straight to the doctor. White people were always going to the doctor. 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. A sinewy love that never gave way to an inch of weakness. It was a love that saw what was best for you ten steps ahead, and didn’t care if it hurt like hell in the meantime. When I got hurt, she felt it so deeply, it was as though it were her own affliction. She was guilty only of caring too much. I realize this now, only in retrospect. No one in this world would ever love me as much as my mother, and she would never let me forget it. “Stop crying! Save your tears for when your mother dies.” (kindle loc 250-263)

That last line would be repeated over and over throughout the book.  Then there's the unique fights between mothers and daughters:

He attempted to console my mother, convince her it was a normal phase, something most teenagers ache in and out of, but she refused to accept it. I had always done well in school, and this shift coincided all too conveniently with the time to start applying to colleges. She saw my malaise as a luxury they’d paid for. My parents had given me too much and now I was full of self-pity. She doubled down, morphing into a towering obelisk that shadowed my every move. She needled me over my weight, the width of my eyeliner, the state of my breakouts, and my lack of commitment to the toners and exfoliants she’d ordered for me from QVC. Everything I wore was an argument. I wasn’t allowed to shut my bedroom door. After school, when my friends would head to one another’s houses for weekday sleepovers, I was whisked away to extracurriculars, then stuck in the woods, left to grumble alone in my room with the door left open. (kindle loc 725)

 The book's prose is vivid, well written, and evocative. Her description of Korean culture rings true, as her rapid marriage to her boyfriend under the impending literal deadline of her mother's mortality. The book does have a happy ending, as Zauner found career success in the wake of her mother's death, and she clearly turned her experience as a caretaker into literary success. Despite the book being a little bit too repetitive and boldly self-congratulatory to me at times, I found myself reading it all in under a week. Recommended.

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