Crying in H Mart

I came to Crying in H Mart with questions I’ve been asking my entire race- and ethnicity-conscious life. Questions of place and perception, where I fit and how others see me. Questions of whether people like me, my siblings, and Michelle Zauner will ever find ourselves in a world where we don’t have to explain ourselves as 한국사람 하고 미국사람, a biracial Korean and white person. Or, more to the point:

우리 엄마 한국사람, 아빠 미국사람.

My mom is Korean and my dad is white.

Zauner processes these same questions during a span of years where her 할머니 (grandmother), 이모 (aunt), and finally her 어머니 (mother) all die of cancer, leaving her to ask what it means to be Korean when her blood ties have all passed on.

Within five years, I lost both my aunt and my mother to cancer. So, when I go to H Mart, I’m not just on the hunt for cuttlefish and three bunches of scallions for a buck; I’m searching for memories. I’m collecting the evidence that the Korean half of my identify didn’t die when they did. H Mart is the bridge that guides me away from the memories that haunt me, of chemo head and skeletal bodies and logging milligrams of hydrocodone. It reminds me of who they were before, beautiful and full of life, wiggling Chang Gu honey-cracker rings on all ten of their fingers, showing me how to suck a Korean grape from its skin and spit out the seeds.

Crying in H Mart, pages 10–11

This is also—as the title suggests—a book about food, for food is the universal and accessible medium of cultural understanding. Unlike the unique challenge of learning new languages, food graciously grants fluency in exchange for an adventurous will to try. For a foreigner to communicate wonder with their eyes wide open as their mouth busily works to understand what they’ve just bitten into instantly makes them one with the table and those around it, even if just for a moment. Zauner discovered this powerful language of love to be a bridge between herself and her mother, one that could transcend cultural divide and the many ways Zauner’s mother showed love in seemingly less than loving ways.

It would be easy for an outsider to dismiss this disconnect between what a parent gives and what their child receives as typical familial misunderstanding. Perhaps those with some sensitivity might also perceive the complexities of immigrant parents relating to their children raised in the United States. But the tension of biraciality is finding identity not only in the collision of two historically separate worlds but also in the new, rare thing that is distinct from and more than the sum of its parts. Being biracial is as much a both-and of the parent cultures as it is neither-nor, marked by a struggle to navigate two worlds that are our inheritance but have no box to put us in.

I had spent my adolescense trying to blend in with my peers in suburban America, and had come of age feeling like my belonging was something to prove. Something that was always in the hands of other people to be given and never my own to take, to decide which side I was on, whom I was allowed to align with. I could never be of both worlds, only half in and half out, waiting to be ejected at will by someone with greater claim than me. Someone full. Someone whole.

Crying in H Mart, page 107

With age comes wisdom and suffering. I don’t know which of the two proceeds from the other, or if together they form an ouroboros, locked in a never-ending cycle. Zauner experiences a great deal of both in the painful decline and death of her mother, a loss that took away more than just the love and stability of a parent. Earlier in the memoir, Zauner describes visiting a Korean bathhouse with her mother, father, and boyfriend. The spectacle in this scene are her white father and boyfriend stripping nude in the men’s partition—not Zauner’s identity. Next to her mother, Zauner makes sense. No one looks at her twice or asks her if she’s lost. But years later, without her mother to implicitly justify her, Zauner is forced to explain herself in that familiar and humiliating admittance of other-ness.

[An ajumma] looked into my face as if searching for something. I knew what she was looking for. It was the same way the kids at school would look at me before they asked me what I was, but from the opposite angle. 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.

…It was ironic that I, who once longed to resemble my white peers and desperately hoped my Koreanness would go unnoticed, was now absolutely terrified that this stranger in the bathhouse could not see it.

Crying in H Mart, pages 225–226

Like Zauner, I have a Korean mother and a white father. She and I both excitedly rushed off to examine our eyes in the mirror after our mothers taught us about the double eyelid envied by Koreans. We’ve found some shred of Korean belonging in knowledge of its cuisine, perhaps especially when we share it with our white spouses. We’ve lost our elders to time and asked ourselves what hope for belonging we lost with them, even if we carry them with us in our middle names. We’ve tried to explain what being half-Korean feels like to our loving full-Korean mothers, only for them to tell us in a moment of blindsiding misunderstanding that we’re American, not Korean. And in all this, we’ve come to learn that there are no clean answers to questions of half-white biraciality in a nation that has barely even begun its reckoning with its oppression of single-race minorities.

Even still, it’s nice to not be alone.

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Info

Type
Book (Nonfiction)
Release Date
April 20, 2021
Joshua J. Daymude
Joshua J. Daymude
Assistant Professor, Computer Science

I am a Christian and assistant professor in computer science studying collective emergent behavior and programmable matter through the lens of distributed computing, stochastic processes, and bio-inspired algorithms. I also love gaming and playing music.