In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.
As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band–and meeting the man who would become her husband–her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.
Maangchi and Me
Whenever Mom had a dream about shit, she would buy a scratch card.
In the morning, on the drive to school, she’d pull wordlessly into the 7-Eleven parking lot and tell me to wait while she kept the car running.
“What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, grabbing her purse from the back seat.
“What are you going to buy at the 7-Eleven?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
Then she’d come back with a handful of scratch cards. We’d drive the last few blocks to school, and she’d scrub off the gummy film with a coin on the dashboard.
“You had a poop dream, didn’t you?”
“Umma won ten dollars!” she’d say. “I couldn’t tell you because then it doesn’t work!”
Dreams about pigs, the president, or shaking hands with a celebrity were all good-luck
dreams—but it was shit in particular, especially if you touched it, that was license to gamble.
Every time I had a dream about shit, I couldn’t wait to ask my mom to buy me a scratch card. I’d wake up from a dream about accidentally shitting my pants or walking into a public bathroom to find some extraordinarily long, winding shit, and when it was time to drive to school I’d sit quietly in the passenger seat, hardly able to contain myself until we were a block away from the
7-Eleven on Willamette Street.
“Mom, pull over,” I’d say. “I’ll tell you why later.”
Shortly after we returned to the States, I started having recurring dreams about my mother. I’d suffered one such episode before, when I was a paranoid kid, morbidly obsessed with my parents’ deaths. My father is driving us across Ferry Street Bridge and to skirt traffic up ahead, he maneuvers the car onto the shoulder, weaving through a gap under construction and aiming to vault off the bridge onto a platform below. Eyes focused on the mark, he leans in close to the steering wheel and accelerates, but we miss the landing by several feet. The car plunges into the rushing current of the Willamette River and I wake up breathing heavily.
Later, when we were teenagers, Nicole told me a story she’d heard from her mother about a woman who suffered from recurring nightmares that all revolved around the same car accident. The dreams were so vivid and traumatic that she sought a therapist to help her overcome them. “What if, after the accident, you try to get somewhere,” the therapist suggested. “Maybe if you try to get yourself to a hospital or some kind of safe place, the dream will reach a natural conclusion.” So each night the woman began to will herself out of the car and crawl further and further along the side of the highway. But the dream kept coming back. One day the woman really did get into a car accident and was supposedly found dragging herself across the asphalt in an attempt to reach some nebulous location, unable to distinguish reality from her lucid dreaming.
The dreams about my mother had small variations, but ultimately they were always the same. My mother would appear, still alive but incapacitated, left behind someplace we had forgotten her.
In one I’m alone, sitting on a well-manicured lawn on a warm, sunny day. In the distance I can see a dark and ominous glass house. It looks modern, the exterior made up entirely of black glass windows connected by silver steel frames. The building is wide, mansion-like, and sectioned off in squares, like several monochromatic Rubik’s Cubes stacked next to and on top of one another. I leave my patch of grass, making my way toward the curious house. I open its heavy door. Inside, it is dark and sparse. I wander around, eventually making my way toward the basement. I run my hand along the side of the wall as I descend the staircase. It is clean and quiet. I find my mother lying in the center of the room. Her eyes are closed and she is resting on some kind of platform that’s not quite a table but not a bed either, a kind of low pedestal, like the one where Snow White sleeps off the poisoned apple. When I reach her, my mother opens her eyes and smiles, as if she’s been waiting for me to find her. She is frail and bald, still sick but alive. At first I feel guilty—that we gave up on her too soon, that she’d been here the whole time. How had we managed to get so confused? Then I’m flooded with relief.
“We thought you were dead!” I say.
“I’ve just been here all along,” she says back to me.
I lay my head on her chest and she rests her hand on my head. I can smell her and feel her and everything seems so real. Even
though I know she is sick and we will have to lose her again, I’m just so happy to discover that she is alive. I tell her to wait for me. I need to run and get Dad! Then, just as I begin to ascend the stairs to find him, I wake up.
In another dream, she arrives at a rooftop dinner party and reveals she’s been living in the house next door all along. In another, I am walking around my parents’ property. I amble down a hill, skidding on the thick clay toward the man-made pond. In the field below, I discover my mother lying alone in a nightgown surrounded by lush grass and wildflowers. Relief again. How silly we were to think you were gone! How on earth did we manage to make such a monumental error? When you’re here you’re here you’re here!
Always she is bald and chapped and weak and I must carry her to bring her back into the house and show her to my father, but as soon as I bend down to scoop her into my arms, I wake up devastated. I shut my eyes immediately and try to crawl my way back to her. Drift back to sleep and return to the dream, savor just a bit more time in her presence. But I’m stuck wide awake or I fall into another dream entirely.
Was this my mother’s way of visiting me? Was she trying to tell me something? I felt foolish indulging in mysticism and so I kept the dreams hidden, privately analyzing their possible meanings. If dreams were hidden wishes, why couldn’t I dream of my mother the way I wanted? Why was it that whenever she appeared she was still sick, as if I could not remember her the way she’d been before? I wondered if my memory was stunted, if my dreams were consigned to the epoch of trauma, the image of my mother stuck where we had left off. Had I forgotten her when she was beautiful?
After the honeymoon, Peter and I posted up at his parents’ place in Bucks County. During the day we updated our résumés, applied for jobs, and looked at apartments online. I attacked these tasks with abandon. I’d essentially spent the last year as an unpaid nurse and cleaner, and the five years before that failing to make it as a musician. I needed to commit myself to some kind of career as soon as possible.
I applied indiscriminately to what seemed like every available office job in New York City and messaged everyone I knew in search of potential leads. By the end of the first week I was hired as a sales assistant for an advertising company in Williamsburg. They had long-term leases on nearly a hundred walls around Brooklyn and Manhattan, and an in-house art department that hand-painted mural advertisements like they did in the fifties. My job was to assist the two main account reps, helping them sell walls to prospective clients. If we were going after a yoga clothing company, I created maps that pinpointed every Vinyasa studio and organic health food store within a five-block radius. If we were pitching to a skate shoe company, I charted skate parks and concert venues to determine which of our walls in Brooklyn men between eighteen and thirty were most likely to pass by. My salary was forty-five grand a year with benefits. I felt like a millionaire.
We rented a railroad apartment in Greenpoint from an old Polish woman who’d acquired half her husband’s real estate in their divorce. The kitchen was small, with little counter space, and the floor was peel-and-stick checkerboard vinyl. There was no sink in the bathroom, just a large farmhouse-style sink in the kitchen that pulled double duty.
For the most part, I felt very well adjusted. Everything was so unfamiliar—a new big city to live in, a real grown-up job. I tried my best not to dwell on what could not be changed and to throw myself into productivity, but every so often I was plagued by flashbacks. Painful loops would flare up, bringing every memory I had hoped to repress inescapably to the forefront of my mind.
Images of my mother’s white, milky tongue, the purple bedsores, her heavy head slipping from my hands, her eyes falling open. An internal scream, ricocheting off the walls of my chest cavity, ripping through my body without release.
I tried therapy. Once a week after work I took the L train to Union Square and attempted to explain what I was feeling, though generally I was unable to take my mind off the ticking clock until half an hour in, when time was already up. Then I’d take the train back to Bedford Avenue and walk the half hour back to our apartment. It was hardly therapeutic and seemed just to exhaust me even more. Nothing my therapist said was anything I hadn’t psychoanalyzed in myself a million times already anyway. I was paying a hundred-dollar copay per session, and I began to think it would be much more fulfilling to just take myself out for a fifty-dollar lunch twice a week. I canceled the rest of my sessions and committed myself to exploring alternative forms of self-care.
I decided to turn to a familiar friend—Maangchi, the YouTube vlogger who had taught me how to cook doenjang jjigae and jatjuk in my time of need. Each day after work, I prepared a new recipe from her catalog. Sometimes, I followed her step by step, carefully measuring, pausing, and rewinding to get it exactly right. Other times, I picked a dish, refamiliarized myself with the ingredients, and let the video play in the background as my hands and taste buds took over from memory.
Every dish I cooked exhumed a memory. Every scent and taste brought me back for a moment to an unravaged home. Knife-cut noodles in chicken broth took me back to lunch at Myeongdong Gyoja after an afternoon of shopping, the line so long it filled a flight of stairs, extended out the door, and wrapped around the building. The kalguksu so dense from the rich beef stock and starchy noodles it was nearly gelatinous. My mother ordering more and more refills of their famously garlic- heavy kimchi. My aunt scolding her for blowing her nose in public.
Crispy Korean fried chicken conjured bachelor nights with Eunmi. Licking oil from our fingers as we chewed on the crispy skin, cleansing our palates with draft beer and white radish cubes as she helped me with my Korean homework. Black- bean noodles summoned Halmoni slurping jjajangmyeon takeout, huddled around a low table in the living room with the rest of my Korean family.
I drained an entire bottle of oil into my Dutch oven and deep- fried pork cutlets dredged in flour, egg, and panko for tonkotsu, a Japanese dish my mother used to pack in my lunch boxes. I spent hours squeezing the water from boiled bean sprouts and tofu and spooning filling into soft, thin dumpling skins, pinching the tops closed, each one slightly closer to one of Maangchi’s perfectly uniform mandu.
Maangchi peeled the skin off an Asian pear with the giant knife pulled toward her, just like Mom did when she cut Fuji apples for me after school on a little red cutting board, before eating the left-over fruit from the core. Just like Mom, chopsticks in one hand, scissors in the other, cutting galbi and cold naengmyeon noodles with a specifically Korean ambidextrous precision. Skillfully stretching out the meat with her right hand and cutting it into bite-sized pieces with her left, using kitchen scissors like a warrior brandishes a weapon.
Excerpted from Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Zauner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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