When I first picked up Michelle Zauner’s debut book and memoir “Crying in H Mart,” I was only intrigued by the familiar name of the local Korean market 10 minutes away from my house. But flipping through its pages was no different from flipping through an old photo album, smiling at familiar phrases and words that reminded me of old memories of my own. And I wanted to look at each and every photo, up close.
Zauner truly does have talent in bringing her audience along in her memoir, describing every little detail, providing all the background information one would need to vividly imagine themselves in her position.
In a novel that centers around the cultural importance of Korean dishes in her life, Zauner seems to understand the importance of specificity necessary to capture unfamiliar audiences. It is not difficult for anyone to drool with hunger after reading about “crisp yellow sprouts with scallion and sesame oil, and tart, juicy cucumber kimchi.” Not only does she incorporate all five senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste) when introducing culinary elements, she adds her own sixth sense: experience.
Despite being a struggling artist making up for lost times with a cancer-diagnosed mother, Zauner somehow makes her distinctly unique experiences relatable to her audience. One of the factors that help make this possible is food. No matter what culture, what age, what gender an audience identifies with, one thing that everyone can appreciate is food.
This universal relatability allows various readers to connect with Zauner’s own journey. Given the target audience of Korean Americans (which I am a part of), reading about Zauner’s life and relationship with her Korean culture was a very personal confrontation with my own view of cultural identity and experiences in Korea. While I struggled with wanting to connect with my Korean identity, I was also inspired by the way Michelle Zauner unfolded her own conflicts.
The way she described every ingredient, every food, every aspect of the culture I was told to think “exotic” with such beauty resonated with me until the very last chapter. Not only this but the similarities of our experiences, the mutual feeling of being torn apart by two cultures that seem to reject us just for being who we are, that understanding by itself was healing to me. Zauner shined a new light on my perspective of my own identity, and I am sure I can say the same for several other Korean Americans reading her memoir.
In other ways, this relatability of such a specific target audience can become a weakness. This memoir is obviously meant for a Korean, specifically a Korean American, audience. With such a small audience of 0.6% of the United States population in 2019, the story that Zauner wanted to tell would not be received by many.
It cannot be expected of many to be able to draw an accurate mental image of “doenjang jjigae with extra broth, and chonggak kimchi” or understand after a few seconds of translating “‘Masitge deuseyo.’”’ And even if a reader was reading this novel with their cursor blinking on a Google search bar beside them, the lack of instant recognition or the warmth of familiarity and memory does not translate the same message.
However, with cultural identity being the strong central theme of her memoir, such a specific target audience was an inevitable choice for Zauner and one that accidentally results in the sharing and spreading of a culture gathering curiosity from readers.
An avoidable aspect of the memoir that caused confusion could have been the organization of the timeline. Looking at the novel as a whole, there was no specific order in which Zauner organized the events of her life. The most effective way could have been progressing through the novel starting with her earliest memories with her mother until the moments of grieving.
However, in her memoir, Zauner mentions herself as a seven-year-old toddler while jumping to her adult self in the next and reverting back to a teenager in the following chapter. Although there was no major confusion of the order of events, the memoir could have given a more heartwarming/heart-wrenching effect if the readers got to experience her life in the order that she did. Despite this, the audience can observe the purpose in Zauner’s arrangement of chapters when she connects one paragraph to a detail mentioned in the previous chapter, sending a satisfying wave of realization among the readers.
When I flipped the last page of her memoir, I was left with the bittersweet feeling that every book leaves me with, but there was something else that I could not tell exactly. I felt thankful that this author, Michelle Zauner, was brave enough to share her story. I felt grateful that I was able to discover such a novel that made me feel understood for the first time in years.
And most of all, I felt inspired that there are people like Zauner who make mistakes but try again. Even when the world tells them it’s too late, they try again. Even when they feel lost, they try again and find a way. And there was one thing I was sure of as I slid “Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner into my bookshelf: I will try again.