Crying in H Mart is the first memoir I’ve ever read, and it hit me really hard emotionally for a lot of reasons. In this book, author Michelle Zauer shares the account of her mother dying from cancer. She explores the relationship between her and her mother over the course of her life and over how difficult the grief was to navigate. She says after her mother passed away, “It felt like the world had divided into two different types of people, those who had felt pain and those who had yet to.”
This book feels especially difficult to review. On the one hand, I feel like my review has turned into more of a shared experience of my own battles with grief and how this book helped me reflect on those moments. In my life, I’ve experienced grief similarly to the way the author described, but it’s been so very different, too. My husband and I are infinitely lucky to still have our parents in our lives in significant ways. We live with my in-laws and get to see them every day. I see my Dad and stepmom every month and talk to them weekly. My mom lives pretty far away from me. I don’t get to see her more than once or twice a year, but we try to keep in touch as much as we can. So in a way, I feel like I’m on a different plane of grief. I have lost grandparents and great-grandparents whose memories I cherish and cling to. They are people I wish I could have known as an adult. My memories of them sometimes fade and pop back up at the oddest moments. The smell of eucalyptus makes me think of my great-grandmother every time. It’s an incredibly comforting smell and I wonder if my memories of the sound of her voice are still true. Or if I’ve forgotten it entirely, my memory warping it over time.
Michelle Zauer shares her struggles with losing her mom and also losing this big part of her cultural identity at the same time. Her mom was her connection to being Korean. And her entire life she had pushed some of her heritage down, feeling like learning to speak Korean and making Korean foods was a chore. But after her mom got sick and died, she felt that part of her slip away, and she wanted to learn it all, connect with her mom through the memories of foods she cooked or phrases she spoke.
It really left me reminiscing on my time with my great-grandparents and my grandma. My great-grandfather died when I was nine, my grandma died when I was 14 and my great-grandma died a few years later. I am grateful I knew them as long as I did, but I wish, we all wish, that we had more time. One more day to ask all the questions we didn’t get to ask or didn’t even get to think of at the time. And those memories, those experiences claw at us forever. We are left wondering what memories we might have had if we’d had more time.
But I really remember my great-grandmother’s food. My great-grandparents immigrated to the US from Cuba, and they were proud of their heritage and who they were. They encouraged me to take Spanish as a second language but in all my years of schooling I took French, Italian, Latin and even a little Greek but never Spanish. And it’s a decision I regret to this day. Was I being stubborn? Was I trying to be different from my older sister who embraced her Cuban heritage from an early age? My favorite dish my great-grandmother made was arroz con pollo. Over the years, I’ve tried dozens of renditions of it. My mom makes it a certain way. My dad and older sister another. I’ve tried making it dozens of times but still to this day cannot get the rice just right. It’s either overcooked and drenched or it’s hard and crispy and there’s no saving it. And yet I’ll never stop trying because I am chasing the moment of tasting the rice and chicken and it tastes just a little like hers did. I wish I had watched her make it. I wish I had been old enough to ask and realize what I would be losing by not asking.
In her memoir, Michelle Zauer also accounts one of her greatest fears as a child- losing her parents. She had a recurring dream about them dying and this is something that I experienced as a kid too. The thought of losing my parents wrecked me in a way that didn’t necessarily seem to affect my siblings, or if it did, they didn’t talk about it the same way. As I’ve gotten older, that fear still lingers but it’s morphed and grown to include more people. My husband, son, in-laws, my sisters. It’s always going to be there, I think, but I also think it’s a part of life. I cherish the time and memories I have with my family, and I love them all and try to remind them of that as often as I can.
This book, Michelle’s voice and way of sharing her experiences with us, is a stunning piece. She explores grief in a way that allows all readers a way to relate. We’ve all loved and lost, we’ve all experienced regret. We fight with those we love and sometimes we make up with them. Sometimes we don’t. Grief isn’t just a short time. It’s something you carry with you forever once you’ve greeted it once. It may fade to background noise some days, but other days it will be loud and screaming at you, causing you to seek shelter in a place within your mind or let it all go in the form of tears.
And yet, in all the grief I’ve felt, the hardest I’ve ever encountered was the loss of meeting a person I will never get to meet. In March 2019, I miscarried a pregnancy. This isn’t something I speak about often. It was something that broke me open until it felt as though there was nothing left. It was singularly one of the hardest moments of my life. My husband was so supportive but didn’t know how to navigate what he was feeling either. My pregnancy had been a surprise, but a welcome one and in the face of that loss, I wasn’t sure I would ever climb back out of what I felt. And a thousand fears confronted me. Would I ever have the opportunity to hold a child of our own? The struggle so many women face to have a child is still so suppressed within our society, and yet it is something so many women experience. Most often on their own. I was lucky to have the support of my family and close friends at that time. I grieved and cried. I read books that made me happy. Anne of Green Gables was a series that helped me more than I could ever say. I picked those books up, books I’d had from my childhood but never finished, and just devoured them. And in the beauty and tragedies of Anne’s life, I started to heal a little bit. Books have always given me the maps I need to walk through life. They are beacons for me that help guide me when everything else feels lost.
And for a few months, I felt what Michelle described. There were women embracing motherhood and there were women who weren’t, and I was on the side that wasn’t. Then six months later, I found out I was pregnant again. I was overjoyed and yet those first 12 weeks of my pregnancy felt like holding a breath. Would it happen again? Would I have to experience that pain again?
I didn’t. I was lucky enough to give birth to my son nine months later, amidst the chaos of a global pandemic, one which set me on edge and made me worried constantly.
And now I’m on this other side of parenthood. Crying in H Mart made me think about myself as a parent, about the memories I’d like my son to carry of me and it’s such an enormous well of thoughts that I can’t quite unpack it here, but I hope that I can be a mom he is proud of, and at the end of day I am certain that I express my love to him every day. And maybe that’s all I can do. Maybe that’s all it takes. We show love and care in different ways. Michelle Zauer said her mother never let her forget that she loved her more than anyone else would, and I think that will resonate with me for a long time.
This review, which seems to have taken on a much longer ramble is about experiences in my life that have challenged everything I thought I knew. It’s hard to put into words how much this book meant to me, how much it made me think of and reflect on. I’ve digressed so much into my own experiences, but I think that’s what made this book so wonderful. It gave me a ledge to stand on and consider my own life and experiences with grief. I highly recommend reading this memoir, and I hope that if you find yourself diving into its pages, that it gives you a map to hold onto to guide you through the grief you’ve felt in life too.
This was such a beautiful review. I’m so sorry for what happened, but I’m also so glad you could find some solace and healing through books. These lines really struck me: “Books have always given me the maps I need to walk through life. They are beacons for me that help guide me when everything else feels lost.” Sending you hugs! ❤