Crying in H Mart: A Memoir
by Michelle Zauner
Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York
Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Zauner
As far as I know, we don’t yet have the ability to shift into reverse, deny the years we’ve lived, what we’ve done or haven’t, discount why we did or didn’t. So I can’t really know whether I would have truly appreciated “Crying in H Mart” before I helped Jim attempt every possible cure for his brain tumor — the surgery, radiation, brown rice, the shyster nutritionist, the gradual loss of memory. Or before I took Sheila for her biopsy, her surgery, to chemo, to her shysters, before I told her the cancer had spread and she had to say goodbye. Or before I finally realized, after breast cancer, uterine cancer, and a multitude of chemos, that my mother had decided to pretend to us that her cancer hadn’t found new places to occupy.
I knew so little of South Korea, or Korean-Americans. I had never heard of H Marts. And so, even though Michelle Zauner began a story I hadn’t heard before, I quickly recognized parts of my story in hers. Before I knew it, I too, was crying.
Here’s her deceptively simple but powerful first line: “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.”
“My grief comes in waves and is usually triggered by something arbitrary. I can tell you with a straight face what it was like watching my mom’s hair fall out in the bathtub, or about the five weeks I spent sleeping in hospitals, but catch me at H Mart when some kid runs up double-fisting plastic sleeves of ppeongtwigi and I’ll just lose it. Those little rice-cake Frisbees were my childhood, a happier time when Mom was there and we’d crunch away on the Styrofoam-like disks after school… [Emphasis added]
She explains: “H Mart is a supermarket chain that specializes in Asian food. The H stands for han ah reum, a Korean phrase that roughly translates to ‘one arm full of groceries.’ H Mart is where parachute kids flock to find the brand of instant noodles that reminds them of home … you’ll likely find me crying by the banchan refrigerators, remembering the taste of my mom’s soy-sauce eggs and cold radish soup. Or in the freezer section, holding a stack of dumpling skins, thinking of all the hours that Mom and I spent at the kitchen table folding minced pork and chives into the thin dough. Sobbing near the dry goods, asking myself, ‘Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?’”
Early on, I learned that Michelle Zauner is a singer/songwriter also know Japanese Breakfast, and I often listened to her music as I read. It’s idiosyncratic, brave, ethereal, haunting, and risky. Emerging from my intense COVID seeing-less-of-folks, I again reveled in the remarkable power of art to take personal experience and render them shared, transcending, and cathartic. “Crying in H Mart” and Zauner’s music, for me, was a treat multiplied many times.
“Crying in H Mart” offers an entire world so well worth your time. I’ll scratch the surface in hopes you go get yourself a copy.
“Growing up in America with a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, I relied on my mom for access to our Korean heritage. While she never actually taught me how to cook (Korean people tend to disavow measurements and supply only cryptic instructions along the lines of ‘add sesame oil until it tastes like Mom’s’), she did raise me with a distinctly Korean appetite. This meant a reverence for good food and a predisposition to emotional eating.”
“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. I can hardly speak Korean, but in H Mart it feels like I’m fluent. I fondle the produce and say the words aloud — chamoe melon, danmuji. I fill my shopping cart with every snack that has glossy packaging decorated with a familiar cartoon … I remember the snacks Mom told me she ate when she was a kid and how I tried to imagine her at my age. I wanted to like all the things she did, to embody her completely.”
These days, we are inundated with guidebooks. And workshops. A million different ways to be happy. Despite the manifestations of the dark side that inevitably emerge — increasing suicide rates of 15–24 year olds, murders of darker-skinned civilians by those sworn to protect and serve, the daily slaughter of the innocent on city streets or in local schools by the crazed with their guns, the invasion of our Capitol by an enraged mob willing to maim and kill the forces of law and order they swore they loved — still we double-down on pushing the bad stuff away. Meanwhile, we’re increasingly addicted, anxious, and depressed.
So, it’s not easy to shine a light on one’s childhood, on the understandable, very human failures of our parents, or to acknowledge the very understandable, very human ways we drove our parents nuts. This is made more difficult, in Zauner’s case, by the barriers of language, distance, race, and the appreciable differences in culture.
“I didn’t have the tools then to question the beginnings of my complicated desire for whiteness. In Eugene, I was one of just a few mixed-race kids at my school and most people thought of me as Asian. I felt awkward and undesirable, and no one ever complimented my appearance. In Seoul, most Koreans assumed I was Caucasian, until my mother stood beside me and they could see the half of her fused to me, and I made sense. Suddenly, my ‘exotic’ look was something to be celebrated.”
Here’s a bit of her history. In 1983, her father traveled to South Korea to join a training program selling used cars to American soldiers. Her mother worked the front desk at the hotel he was staying in. After three months of dating, his program ended, and they married. “The two of them made their way through three countries during the mid-’80s, living in Misawa, Heidelberg, and Seoul again, where I was born. A year later, my father’s older brother Ron offered him a job at his truck brokerage company. The position afforded stability and an end to my family’s biannual intercontinental uprooting, and so we immigrated when I was just a year old.”
They moved to Eugene, Oregon, a small college town. When she was 10, they moved to the country, with five acres of woods, a man-made lake, and no one nearby. “I loved our new home but I also came to resent it. There were no neighborhood children to play with, no convenience stores or parks within biking distance. I was stranded and lonely, an only child with no one to talk to or turn to but my mother.”
Hers was a childhood “rich with flavor — blood sausage, fish intestines, caviar,” but lacking the traditional markers of culture. “Neither one of my parents graduated from college. I was not raised in a household with many books or records … My parents wouldn’t have known the names of authors I should read or foreign directors I should watch. I was not given an old edition of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ as a preteen, copies of Rolling Stones records on vinyl.” And yet, they “were worldly in their own ways. They had seen much of the world and had tasted what it had to offer. What they lacked in high culture, they made up for by spending their hard-earned money on the finest of delicacies.”
In today’s world, where white kids of money are deemed inherently special and precious, assumed to be better than the other kids, Zauner offers a portrait of parenting that, here in the Southern Berkshires, might occasion a call to Social Services.
“Left with her in the woods, I was overwhelmed by her time and attention, a devotion that I learned could both be an auspicious privilege and have smothering consequences … Making a home had been her livelihood since I was born, and while she was vigilant and protective, she wasn’t what you would call coddling. She was not what I’d refer to as a ‘Mommy-Mom,’ which was what I envied most of my friends for having. A Mommy-Mom is someone who takes an interest in everything her child has to say even when there is no actual way she gives a shit, who whisks you away to the doctor when you complain of the slightest ailment, who tells you ‘they’re just jealous’ if someone makes fun of you, or ‘you always look beautiful to me’ even if you don’t, or ‘I love this!’ when you give them a piece of crap for Christmas. [Emphasis added]
“But 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.’” [Emphasis added]
“In place of the English idioms my mother never learned, she coined a few of her own. ‘Mommy is the only one who will tell you the truth, because Mommy is the only one who ever truly love you.’ Some of the earliest memories I can recall are of my mother instructing me to always ‘save 10 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.
Zauner’s childhood was marked by a continuous up and down: “Her perfection was infuriating, her meticulousness a complete enigma … 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.”
And yet, there’s the other side of the parenting equation: “From day one, I’m told, nothing about me was easy. By the time I was three, Nami Emo had dubbed me the ‘Famous Bad Girl.’ Running into things headfirst was my specialty. Wooden swings, door frames, chair legs, metal bleachers on the Fourth of July. I still have a dent in the center of my skull from the first time I ran headfirst into the corner of our glass-top kitchen table. If there was a kid at the party who was crying, it was guaranteed to be me.
“For many years, I suspected my parents might have been exaggerating or that they were ill prepared for the realities of a child’s temperament, but I have slowly come to accept, based on the unanimous recollection of multiple relatives, that I was a pretty rotten kid…”
There’s America, and there’s South Korea: “Every other summer, while my father stayed behind to work in Oregon, my mother and I would travel to Seoul and spend six weeks with her family … I loved visiting Korea. I loved being in a big city and living in an apartment. I loved the humidity and the smell of the city, even when my mother told me it was just garbage and pollution. I loved walking through the park across from my grandmother’s apartment building … Halmoni’s apartment was in Gangnam, a bustling neighborhood on the south bank of the Han River. Just through the park there was a small complex with a stationery shop, a toy store, a bakery, and a supermarket I could walk to unaccompanied.”
Zauner often searched for ways to please her mother, to more firmly belong to her Korean family: “I waited desperately for other such opportunities to shine and in my search for favorable proving grounds discovered that our shared appreciation of Korean food served not only as a form of mother-daughter bonding but also offered a pure and abiding source of her approval.
“Noryangjin is a wholesale market where you can choose live fish and seafood from the tanks of different vendors and have them sent up to be prepared in a number of cooking styles at restaurants upstairs. My mother and I were with her two sisters, Nami and Eunmi, and they had picked out pounds of abalone, scallops, sea cucumber, amberjack, octopus, and king crab to eat raw and boiled in spicy soups.
“The first dish to arrive was sannakji — live long-armed octopus. A plate full of gray-and-white tentacles wriggled before me, freshly severed from their head, every suction cup still pulsing. My mom took hold of one, dredged it through some gochujang and vinegar, placed it between her lips, and chewed. She looked at me and smiled, seeing my mouth agape.
“‘Try it,’ she said … Eager to please her and impress my aunts, I balanced the liveliest leg I could find between my chopsticks, dipped it into the sauce as my mother had, and slipped it into my mouth. It was briny, tart, and sweet with just a hint of spice from the sauce, and very, very chewy. I gnashed the tentacle between my teeth as many times as I could before swallowing, afraid it would suction itself to my tonsils on the way down.
“‘Good job, baby!’ ‘Aigo yeppeu!’ my aunts exclaimed. That’s our pretty girl!’ … something about that moment set me on a path. I came to realize that while I struggled to be good, I could excel at being courageous. I began to delight in surprising adults with my refined palate and disgusting my inexperienced peers with what I would discover to be some of nature’s greatest gifts.
“When my mother and I stayed in Seoul, Halmoni’s three-bedroom apartment was shared among six people. You couldn’t walk five feet without bumping into someone … At night my mother and I slept on a futon mattress in the living room … I hated sleeping alone and relished the opportunity to sleep so close to her without the need for an excuse. At three a.m. we tossed and turned, tortured by jet lag. Eventually, my mother would turn and whisper, ‘Let’s go see what’s in Halmoni’s refrigerator’ … We’d giggle and shush each other as we ate ganjang gejang with our fingers, sucking salty, rich, custardy raw crab from its shell … Between chews of a wilted perilla leaf, my mother would say, ‘This is how I know you’re a true Korean.’
“Most evenings my mother would linger in Halmoni’s room. Every so often I’d observe them from the doorway as my mother lay beside her on a granite mattress on the floor, quietly watching Korean game shows as Halmoni chain-smoked cigarettes or peeled Asian pears with a large knife pulled toward her … It never occurred to me that she was trying to make up for all the years she’d spent away in America. It was difficult to even register that this woman was my mother’s mother, let alone that their relationship would be a model for the bond between my mother and me for the rest of my life…” [Emphasis added]
I was my mother’s first born, and she had survived a wretched childhood without a mother of her own, abandoned by a hapless father, then raised by a coterie of angry and vindictive nuns and overwhelmed foster families. She put enormous pressure on us both to be the very best mother/son and I understand that, as Zauner entered adolescence, so grew the need to flee.
“By the time I was in high school, the desire for independence trailing a convoy of insidious hormones had transformed me from a child who couldn’t bear to sleep without her mother into a teenager who couldn’t stand her touch … and my resentment and sensitivity grew and grew until they bubbled up and exploded and in an instant, uncontrollably, I’d rip my body away and scream, ‘Stop touching me!’ ‘Can’t you ever leave me alone?’
Not surprisingly, her mother had a terrible time dealing with her rebelliousness, then her increasing depression. Her father “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. My mother 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 … 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.”
Zauner finally convinces her mother to buy her a guitar and begins to take lessons. And it sets in motion a conflict that continues for years. “When I had written a few songs of my own, I decided to sign up for an open mic night at Cozmic Pizza, a restaurant downtown with café table seating and a small stage behind the front bar … The place was mostly empty, but still you could barely hear my Costco acoustic over the clanking of pint glasses … I was elated by my seven minutes of fame … [Soon] the open mic slots slowly transformed into my own sets, opening for small local artists. I took press pictures of myself in my bathroom with a self-timer, scanned them onto my dad’s computer, and used MS Paint to design promotional flyers … I made a Myspace and uploaded the songs I recorded on GarageBand … I played high school benefits and developed a small local following, mostly of friends and classmates I pressured into attendance, until finally I was ‘big enough’ to land a slot at the WOW Hall opening for Maria Taylor…”
The next day, at lunch with her mother at Seoul Cafe: “‘What’d you think of my show yesterday?’ I said, squirting gochujang into my bibimbap. ‘Honey, don’t put too much gochujang or it taste too salty,’ she said. She swatted my hand away from my bowl. I set down the red squeeze bottle with token obedience.
“‘Nick said he knows a studio where I could record my songs. I’m thinking since it’s just guitar and vocals, I could record like an album in two or three days. It’d only be like two hundred dollars for the studio time, and then I could burn the discs at home.”
“My mother lifted up a long string of noodles, then let them drop back into the broth … [then] met my eyes across the table. ‘I’m just waiting for you to give this up,’ she said. My eyes fell into my rice. I broke my yolk with my spoon and pushed it around the stone bowl over the vegetables … ‘I should have never let you take guitar class,’ she said. ‘You should be thinking about the colleges, not doing this weird thing.’ I bobbed my left leg up and down nervously, trying not to explode. My mother grabbed my thigh under the table.
“‘Stop shaking your leg; you’ll shake the luck out.’ ‘What if I don’t want to go to college?’ I said brazenly, wrenching away from her grasp … My mother looked around the restaurant nervously, as if I had just pledged faith to a satanic commune. I watched her try to collect herself.
“‘I don’t care if you don’t want to go to college. You have to go to college.’ ‘You don’t know me at all,’ I said. ‘This weird thing — is the thing that I love.’
“You want to be a starving musician?’ she said. ‘Then go live like one.’”
The rift grew deeper: “My remaining months at home were scored by a fraught silence. My mother would drift from room to room rarely acknowledging my presence. When I opted not to attend senior prom, she offered little more than a passing remark, despite the fact we had picked out a dress together nearly a year beforehand.
“I yearned for my mother to speak to me but tried to appear stoic, knowing full well my constitution was much weaker than hers. She seemed unfazed by our distance right up until the day I packed to leave for Bryn Mawr, when at last the silence was broken. ‘When I was your age I would have died for a mom who bought me nice clothes,’ she said.
“I was sitting cross-legged on the carpet, folding a pair of overalls stitched entirely out of plaid patches I’d bought from Goodwill. I set the overalls inside my bag, alongside my ugly sweater collection and an oversized Daniel Johnston shirt I had cut into a muscle tee. ‘I always had to wear Nami’s leftovers and then watch Eunmi get new ones by the time they got to her,’ she said. ‘On the East Coast everyone is going to think you are a homeless person.’
“‘Well, I’m not like you,’ I said. ‘I have more important things to think about than the way that I look.’ In one fell swoop, my mother gripped me by the hip and spun me around to strike my backside with her palm. It was not the first time my mother had hit me, but as I grew older and bigger, the punishment seemed more and more unnatural. At that point, I weighed more than her, and the strike hardly hurt, aside from the embarrassment of feeling much too old for the practice.
“Hearing the commotion, my father made his way up the stairs and looked on from the hallway. ‘Hit her!’ my mother instructed. He stood still, watching dumbly. ‘Hit her!’ she screamed again. ‘If you hit me I’m going to call the police!’
“My father grabbed me by the arm and raised his hand, but before he could bring it down, I wriggled out of his grasp, ran to the phone, and dialed 911. My mother looked at me as if I were a worm, an unfamiliar speck eating away at all her efforts. This was not the girl who clung to her sleeves at the grocery store. This was not the girl who begged to sleep on the floor beside her bed. With the phone to my ear, I stared back at her defiantly, but when I heard a voice on the other end of the line I panicked and hung up. My mother took it as an opportunity to tackle me. She grabbed me by the forearms, and for the first time, we were locked together, wrestling to pin each other to the carpet. I tried to fight her off but discovered there was a physical place I would not go, a strength I knew I had to overtake her but could not access. I let her pin my wrists and climb on top of my stomach.
“‘Why are you doing this to us? After everything we have given you, how can you treat us this way?’ she yelled, her tears and spit falling onto my face … ‘I had an abortion after you because you were such a terrible child!’ Her grip went slack and she shifted her weight off me to leave the room.
“There it was. It was almost comical how she could have withheld a secret so impressive my entire life, only to hurl it at such a moment. I knew there was no way I was truly to blame for the abortion. That she had said it just to hurt me as I had hurt her in so many monstrous configurations. More than anything, I was just shocked she had withheld something so monumental.
“I envied and feared my mother’s ability to keep matters private, as every secret I tried to hold close ate away at me. She possessed a rare talent for keeping secrets, even from us. She did not need anyone. She could surprise you with how little she needed you. All those years she instructed me to save 10 percent of myself like she did, I never knew it meant she had also been keeping a part of herself from me too.”
“Without my mother as an anchor, I strayed even further from the responsibilities we’d been arguing about over the past year … I skipped classes, missed assignments, became ashamed I had gotten so far behind, and then kept skipping because I didn’t want to be confronted by the teachers who cared about me. Many mornings I would just sit outside on campus, smoking cigarettes in the high school parking lot, unable to go inside. I fantasized about dying.
“When my midterm report card revealed I was failing all my classes and that my GPA had plummeted, my mother scheduled a meeting with the college counselor and begged for help. Frantically, she gathered the necessary documents, including the scrapped writing supplements, and sent them out to the colleges I had previously shown interest in. When I finally returned home, I began to see a therapist who prescribed medication for some ‘emotional breathing room’ and addressed a letter to accompany my college applications explaining that this shift in mood and performance had been indicative of a mental breakdown.
“It was somewhat of a miracle that I managed to get into college, having just barely graduated from high school … but somehow I managed to come out on the other side. Bryn Mawr was good for both of us, and I’d even graduated with honors, the first in my immediate family to obtain a college degree.
“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. Sweet honey-puffed rice, twenty-four packs of individually wrapped seasoned seaweed, microwavable rice, shrimp crackers, boxes of Pepero, and cups of Shin … The cowboy boots arrived in one of these packages after my parents had vacationed in Mexico. When I slipped them on I discovered they’d already been broken in. My mother had worn them around the house for a week, smoothing the hard edges in two pairs of socks for an hour every day, molding the flat sole with the bottom of her feet, wearing in the stiffness, breaking the tough leather to spare me all discomfort.
“I decided to stick around Philadelphia because it was easy and cheap and because I was convinced Little Big League might someday make it. But it had been four years now and the band had neither made it nor shown any real sign of spurning anonymity. A few months back I’d been fired from the Mexican fusion restaurant where I’d waitressed for a little over a year, the longest I’d managed to hold on to a job. 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.
“When I called my mom for a little sympathy, incredulous that the restaurant would fire such an industrious and charming worker as myself, she replied, ‘Well, Michelle, anyone can carry a tray.’ … 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.” [Emphasis added]
Been there. Done that. The life of an artist in America. Just one of the hard-earned, uncomfortable, yet revelatory truths Zauner is willing to share. Then, the moment when everything changes: “For my mother to see a doctor, something had to be fairly serious, but I never considered it could be something lethal. Eunmi had died of colon cancer just two years before. It seemed impossible that my mother could get cancer too, like lightning striking twice. Nevertheless, I began to suspect my parents were keeping a secret from me.
“I felt my phone buzz … Usually her voice trilled from the other end of the line, but now it sounded as if she spoke from a deadened room … ‘If something’s wrong I’d rather know now,’ I said. ‘It’s not fair to keep me in the dark.’ There was a long pause on the other end … ‘They found a tumor in my stomach,’ she said finally, the word falling like an anvil. ‘They say it’s cancerous, but they don’t know how bad it is yet. They have to run some more tests.’ …
“I stood silent and dumbfounded on the pavement and learned that my mother was now in grave danger of dying from an illness that had already killed someone I loved … Dr. Lee, an oncologist in Eugene, had diagnosed her with stage IV pancreatic cancer. There was a 3 percent chance of survival without surgery. With surgery, it would take months to recover, and even then, there was only a 20 percent chance of emerging cancer-free.
“‘I want to be there,’ I insisted. ‘Mom’s afraid you two will fight if you come,’ my father admitted later. ‘She knows she has to put all her focus into getting better.’ I assumed the seven years I’d lived away from home had healed the wounds between us, that the strain built up in my teenage years had been forgotten … Now we were closer than ever, but my father’s admission revealed there were memories of which my mother could not let go.”
Zauner insisted on returning to help. “This could be my chance, I thought, to make amends for everything. For all the burdens I’d imposed as a hyperactive child, for all the vitriol I’d spewed as a tortured teen. For hiding in department stores, throwing tantrums in public, destroying her favorite objects. For stealing the car, coming home on mushrooms, drunk driving into a ditch.
“I would radiate joy and positivity and it would cure her. I would wear whatever she wanted, complete every chore without protest. I would learn to cook for her — all the things she loved to eat, and I would singlehandedly keep her from withering away. I would repay her for all the debts I’d accrued. I would be everything she ever needed. I would make her sorry for ever not wanting me to be there. I would be the perfect daughter.
“I quit my three jobs, sublet my apartment, and put the band on hiatus. My plan was to spend the summer in Eugene and return to Philadelphia in August for our two-week tour … As I descended the escalator of the Eugene airport, I half expected my mother to be waiting for me like she used to … Instead, I found my father outside, parked by the baggage claim exit. ‘Hey, bud,’ he said. He gave me a hug and lifted my suitcase into the trunk. ‘How’s she doing?’ ‘She’s okay. She went in for the chemo yesterday. Says she just feels a little weak.’ …
“Per usual, my dad drove aggressively, weaving in and out of traffic at odds with the naturally slow pace of the small college town. It felt strange to be together without my mother. The two of us never spent much time alone. My father was happy as a provider. His mere existence in our lives was testament enough to how he’d transcended his own upbringing and overcome his addictions, and that counted for something.
“But for most of my childhood he was away at work or at the bar, and when he was home, most of his time was spent roaring into the phone, looking for a missing pallet of strawberries or trying to find out why a truckload of romaine was running three days behind. Over time our conversations became a lot like explaining a movie to someone who has walked in on the last thirty minutes.”
Back home: “‘Hello, my baby!’ she called back to me. I went to her, embracing her cautiously. I felt the hard plastic port between us. I ran my hand over her hair. ‘It looks so good,’ I said. ‘I love it.’ … I hugged my mother’s calves and leaned my head on her lap. I had expected our reunion to be emotional, but she seemed calm and unmoved.
“Each morning I washed and cut three organic tomatoes and blended them together with honey and ice as she’d instructed. Other meals proved more challenging … I asked her constantly if she could think of anything I could cook for her, but she had no cravings to chase and dismissed my suggestions listlessly.
“On the morning of the fourth day my mother became nauseous and threw up for the first time. I couldn’t help but selfishly envision all my hard work flushed down the drain. I tried to keep her hydrated, insisting she drink water throughout the day, but every hour she rushed back to the bathroom, unable to keep anything down … the next day was even worse. Depleted, she became too weak to leave her bed for the bathroom, and I’d have to rush to her bedside with the heart-shaped pink plastic bucket that held my bath toys when I was a child … By the sixth day, her condition began to feel abnormal. She was scheduled for a checkup with the oncologist in the afternoon and we decided to bring her in early.
“This was when we realized my mother had lost her mind. She couldn’t stand on her own. She couldn’t speak and only moaned softly, rocking back and forth as if she were hallucinating. Together, my father and I brought her to the car, wrapping her arms around our necks to support her weight … I watched her eyes roll back. It was as if her person had disappeared completely and she was entering another mental plane. In an effort to escape whatever hell she was enduring, she began to claw violently at the door to try to break free.
“That night, lying beside her, I remembered how when I was a child I would slip my cold feet between my mother’s thighs to warm them. How she’d shiver and whisper that she would always suffer to bring me comfort, that that was how you knew someone really loved you … Now, more than ever, I wished desperately for a way to transfer pain, wished I could prove to my mother just how much I loved her, that I could just crawl into her hospital cot and press my body close enough to absorb her burden … 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 returned home at noon one day, groggy and exhausted from another night spent on the hospital bench, to find [my father] seated at the kitchen table. The house smelled like burning. ‘This isn’t me,’ he muttered to himself. He was looking over his car insurance, shaking his head. He held the phone to his ear, waiting to settle the second fender bender he’d gotten into that week … In the trash can were two pieces of blackened toast; in the toaster another was beginning to smoke …
“It was nine o’clock and he had already polished off two bottles of wine and was sucking on one of the marijuana candies he’d bought from the dispensary for my mother. ‘She can’t even look at me,’ he said, beginning to blubber. ‘We can’t even look at each other without crying.’ His big body heaved up and down … It wasn’t rare to see my father cry. He was a sensitive guy, despite his grit. He did not know how to withhold any part of his truth. Unlike my mother, he saved no 10 percent. ‘You have to promise you’re going to be there for me,’ he said.
“He reached out for me and held on to my wrist, searching for my reassurance with his eyes half-open … I fought the urge to rip my arm away from him. I knew I should be feeling sympathy or empathy, camaraderie or compassion, but I only burned with resentment. He was an undesirable partner in a game with the highest of stakes and insurmountable odds. He was my father and I wanted him to soberly reassure me, not try to goad me into navigating this disheartening path alone …
“Two weeks later, my mother was finally able to return home. I set up a space heater in the bathroom and ran her a bath … She was feeble and walked as if she were relearning how. I pulled down her pajama pants and lifted her shirt like she did for me when I was a child. “Man seh,” I joked, something she used to say when undressing me, an instruction to raise my arms above my head.
“As the water drained, I noticed a black residue collecting along the sides of the white tub, ebbing with the surface of the water. When I looked back at my mother, her head was patchy. Large clumps of hair were missing from sections, revealing portions of her pale scalp. Torn between helping her stand and rushing to the tub to rinse away the evidence, I was too slow to keep my mother from catching a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror. I could feel her body go limp, sliding down onto the carpet and out of my arms like sand.
“In the mirror now there was someone unrecognizable and out of her control. Someone strange and undesirable. She started to cry. I crouched down beside her and wrapped my arms around her shaking body. I wanted to cry with her, at this image I too did not recognize, this giant physical manifestation of evil that had entered our lives. But instead I felt my body stiffen, my heart harden, my feelings freeze over. An internal voice commanded, ‘Do not break down. If you cry, it’s acknowledging danger. If you cry, she will not stop.’ So instead, I swallowed and steadied my voice, not just to comfort her with a white lie but to truly force myself into believing it.
“It’s just hair, Umma,” I said. “It will grow back.”
In my experience, there are so often ups and downs in the battle with cancer, a battle without any reliable strategy, times you’re overcome with despair, times you can almost believe the battle’s been won. My mom beat cancer twice before she lost it for good. Zauner’s mother recovered enough for her to feel comfortable returning, for a brief moment, to her life:
“[My mother’s] biggest takeaway from Eunmi’s death was that you could go through chemotherapy twenty-four times and still die, and that was a trial she was unwilling to endure. When she first received her diagnosis, she committed herself to two treatments, and if they were unsuccessful, she told us she did not want to continue. If it weren’t for my father and me, I’m not sure if she would have gone through it at all.
“By the end of July, my mother was at the tail end of her second chemotherapy. Her side effects had dwindled, and in another two weeks the oncologist would determine whether or not the size of the tumor had shrunk. It was time for me to return to the East Coast. My band had a tour scheduled for the first week and a half of August.
“My mother reassured me that she wanted me to leave, but as she stood on the front porch with [her friend] Kye, waving while my father and I pulled away for the airport, I could see she was crying. 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. We just had to hope now, and wait. All I could do was know in my heart that she was happy I had come to her after all.
“Peter took a week and a half off work from the restaurant to play bass on tour with Ian, Kevin, and me … Our first show was at a small bar in Philadelphia aptly named The Fire, as it was next door to a fire station. From there we made our way down south through Richmond and Atlanta for a few dates in Florida, then snaked west to Birmingham and Nashville. It was sweltering everywhere. Most of the places we played were DIY spots and house shows without windows or air-conditioning. The four of us sweated through our clothes every night … In the face of life and death, the open road — once so full of grit and possibility, the strangers it harbored so creative and generous, the light of the lifestyle — I had once found so glamorous began to dim.
“My parents assured me I wasn’t missing much at home; she was getting her strength back and all there was to do was wait. Still, I felt guilty … After our show in Nashville, we drove thirteen hours straight to Philly … Peter was back behind the bar at the restaurant, making up for the shifts he’d missed on tour when I got the call.
“‘You should sit down,’ my father said … I held my breath. ‘It didn’t work,’ he croaked. I could hear him on the other end bursting into sobs, his breath heaving. ‘It didn’t shrink…at all?’ I asked.
“It felt like he’d pushed the length of his arm down my throat and was gripping my heart in his fist … How could it all have been for nothing? The black veins, the clumps of hair, the nights in the hospital, my mother’s suffering, what had it all been for?
“‘When they told us…We just sat in the car and looked at each other. All we could say was, I guess this is it.’ I could tell my father was not ready for my mother to give up on treatment. It felt like he was waiting for me to protest, for the two of us to band together and encourage her to continue. But it was hard not to feel like the chemo had already stolen the last shreds of my mother’s dignity, and that if there was more to take, it would find it … But I knew because of Eunmi that if two rounds of chemotherapy hadn’t made a dent in her cancer, it was her wish to discontinue treatment. It felt like a decision I had to honor.
“My mother took the phone from my father. In a voice that was soft but resolute, she told me she wanted us all to take a trip to Korea. Her condition felt stable, and though the doctor had advised them against it, it felt like a time to choose living over dying. She wanted the chance to say goodbye to her country and to her older sister. ‘There are small markets in Seoul you haven’t been to yet,’ she said. “I never took you to Gwangjang Market.’
“I closed my eyes and let my tears flow. I tried to envision us together again in Seoul. I tried to envision the mung bean batter sizzling in grease, meat patties and oysters sopped and dripping with egg, my mother explaining everything I needed to know before it was too late, showing me all the places we’d always assumed we’d have more time to see.”
As for me, my mother’s cancer was the most difficult. This last round the cancer had invaded so much of her, including her brain, transforming her from a brave, sensitive, and caring soul to a crazed, paranoid and angry woman, rude to the nurses who worked so hard. Only occasionally was she able to recover her prior personality. I’ve learned that sometimes fighting death is not really living.
Like my earliest encounters, Michelle Zauner’s interaction with cancer was compressed: my friends Jim and Sheila died with a year; for a while they were both members of the same cancer support group.
“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 identity 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.”
Zauner offers another admission that some might find embarrassing and inappropriate but mirrors my own experience: “My mother died on October 18, 2014, a date I’m always forgetting. I don’t know why exactly, if it’s because I don’t want to remember or if the actual date seems so unimportant in the grand scheme of what we endured. She was fifty-six years old. I was twenty-five, an age my mother had assured me for years would be special. It was the same age my mother had been when she met my father. The year they got married, the year she left her home country, her mother, and two sisters and embarked on a pivotal chapter of her adult life. The year she began the family that would come to define her. For me, it was the year things were supposed to fall into place. It was the year her life ended and mine fell apart.
“My father is obsessed with dates. Some sort of internal clock whirs without fail around every impending birthday, death day, anniversary, and holiday. His psyche intuitively darkens the week before and soon enough he’ll inundate me with Facebook messages about how unfair it all is and how I’ll never know what it’s like to lose your best friend. Then he’ll go back to riding his motorcycle around Phuket, where he retired a year after she died, filling the void with warm beaches and street-vended seafood and young girls who can’t spell the word problem.
“What I never seem to forget is what my mother ate. She was a woman of many ‘usuals.’ Half a patty melt on rye with a side of steak fries to share at the Terrace Cafe after a day of shopping. An unsweetened iced tea with half a packet of Splenda, which she would insist she’d never use on anything else. Minestrone she’d order ‘steamy hot,’ not ‘steaming hot,’ with extra broth from the Olive Garden … She hated cilantro, avocados, and bell peppers. She was allergic to celery. She rarely ate sweets, with the exception of the occasional pint of strawberry Häagen-Dazs, a bag of tangerine jelly beans, one or two See’s chocolate truffles around Christmastime, and a blueberry cheesecake on her birthday. She rarely snacked or took breakfast. She had a salty hand.
“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.”
Perhaps you, too, have engaged in the battle to keep your dead as present as possible even as the days and months and years conspire to erase the memories that once were indelible.
“There are nights the dead come calling, so present, until I wake and have to once again accept they are gone. There are times for the life of me I can’t conjure them: “Sometimes my grief feels as though I’ve been left alone in a room with no doors. Every time I remember that my mother is dead, it feels like I’m colliding with a wall that won’t give. There’s no escape, just a hard surface that I keep ramming into over and over, a reminder of the immutable reality that I will never see her again… [Emphasis added]
It is at the H Mart where she attempts to reclaim her mother: “My local H Mart these days is in Elkins Park, a town northeast of Philadelphia. My routine is to drive in for lunch on the weekends, stock up on groceries for the week, and cook something for dinner with whatever fresh bounty inspires me … Upstairs, there is an array of stalls serving different kinds of food.”
“The food court is the perfect place to people-watch while sucking down salty, fatty jjajangmyeon. I think about my family who lived in Korea, before most of them died … If I’m being honest, there’s a lot of anger. I’m angry at this old Korean woman I don’t know, that she gets to live and my mother does not, like somehow this stranger’s survival is at all related to my loss … Why is she here slurping up spicy jjamppong noodles and my mom isn’t? Other people must feel this way. Life is unfair, and sometimes it helps to irrationally blame someone for it.
“I wonder how many people at H Mart miss their families …We don’t talk about it. There’s never so much as a knowing look. We sit here in silence, eating our lunch. 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 …”
I’ll leave it to you to read about the trip she and Peter took to visit her South Korean family and the successful tour of her band. And end with a portion of the lyrics of “Kokomo, IL” from her “Jubilee” album.
If ever you come back
Wherever you find your way to
And though it may not last
Just know that I’ll be here longing
If ever you come back
Wherever you find your way to
And though it may not last
You know that I’ll be here always
This is what she has said about this song: “This is my favorite song off of the album. It’s sung from the perspective of a character I made up who’s this teenage boy in Kokomo, Indiana, and he’s saying goodbye to his high school sweetheart who is leaving … It’s about knowing that you’re too young for this to be it, and that people aren’t meant to be kept by you. I was thinking back to how I felt when I was 18, when things were just so all-important. I personally was not that wise; I would’ve told someone to stay behind. So I guess this song is what I wish I would’ve said.”
But allow me a great presumptuousness, born of my own experience as a filmmaker and writer. So often artists function on a level that is more and less than fully conscious. Inspiration is mysterious and magical, often exceeding our intention. It seems to me we are all saying goodbye in Kokomo, Indiana. And right now, I’m saying goodbye to our mothers. And while I’m not in H Mart, I’m once again wiping the tears from my eyes.