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Our society is geared towards the ‘now’ – be the first to review something, talk about something, or speak on an issue first. I find it very exhausting to keep up partly because I am a one-person show here on my blog, and I don’t have big sponsors or funding for me. It is just me and my thoughts. Yet, there is something more to this exhaustion. I don’t like that it pushes people to have opinions about things before they have had proper time to digest them. Obviously, I am talking about book reviews here, but I feel like this sentiment extends across a lot of fields. How many times have you felt pressured to give an opinion on something that you’re just not sure of?
I read Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner a few months ago now. It has rightfully been a best seller, a book of the year by all the major news outlets and reviews, and a general literary success across the globe. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone is reading it. In terms of algorithmic (internet) success – I should have written my ‘exclusive’ thoughts on the book long ago. But I didn’t.
Zauner’s memoir essay collection is a topic that is very close to my own heart. It brought up a lot of pain and also helped heal some pain too. Zauner and I were one year apart in age when we lost a parent. For Zauner, it was her mother to pancreatic cancer, and for me, it was my father to bowel cancer. I distinctly remember my world splitting into two when my father was diagnosed with cancer in July 2010. I’d just come back from this amazing trip to the U.S.A, where I got to travel with dear friends, try root beer (which I am obsessed with), and have the summer and 23rd birthday I will never forget. When I got home, my Dad had been complaining about issues with his stomach – he and the doctors thought it was food poisoning. It wasn’t. Suddenly, in one world, all my friends were going out and partying, finishing their studies, finding jobs, dating horrible people, experimenting, and just being generally dumb 20-somethings. In the other world, I became one of my Dad’s full-time caregivers – every doctor’s appointment, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, every 3 am rush to the emergency, every operation, every complication, I bore witness with a cup of crushed ice for him to wet his lips.
In the opening chapter of the memoir, titled “Crying in H Mart”, Zauner writes:
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.p. 6
I’ve felt myself in the room that Zauner describes here, and just on the other side of those walls are the faint murmurs of life going on. Grief can feel like a lot of things. It is a room with no escape, a fire, an emptiness that eats you up, an endless ocean vast and blue, and oftentimes one of the loneliest feelings you can experience. Although, there is something about reading about people’s own experiences with grief that help me feel less alone.
This memoir is beautifully written, and Zauner has this way of dealing with heartbreak that seems almost impossible. It is not just a story about grief, cancer, or loss but also about life and living, relationships, culture, love, and beauty. Indeed these things often go together all enmeshed into one.
After chapter thirteen, I had to take a break from reading this book. Not because I wasn’t interested but because I couldn’t read through the tears. “A Heavy Hand” is about Zauner’s mother in the active stages of dying. For those who have not experienced death up close, the ‘active stage of dying’ refers to the last days of someone’s life, generally lasting a few days. It is a clinical term that feels strange – is the opposite of active dying ‘inactive dying’? And is that what everyone else is doing? I was with my father when he died, and it has stayed with me, a mark on my being I cannot explain or describe.
Crying in H Mart was written after Zauner’s mother died. In some ways, we are always looking at grief with new eyes each day. The culmination of her thoughts throughout the memoir seems to be summarised in the penultimate chapter, “Kimchi Fridge”.
I am a strong believer that poetry and beauty are in the everyday. I find the most profound moments of awe and joy in a chipped mug, a family recipe, or a hug. The same could be said for Zauner and a kimchi fridge she finds. After her mother’s death, Zauner struggles with what it all means and what to do next,
Now that she was gone, there was no one left to ask about these things. The knowledge left unrecorded died with her. What remained were documents and my memories, and now it was up to me to make sense of myself, aided by the signs she left behind.p.223
Even when we know that someone is dying, we can try to be present with them and ask them all the questions we want to ask them, and still, there are so many things left unsaid. Things that are too hard to ask or answer. Things that get stuck in your throat because the pain of losing the person is right in front of you. When someone dies, there is so much left unfinished, and you might think that it is where it ends, but in reality, the people left behind are left with the task of finishing things, of carrying on and trying to figure out things without that vital person to help guide them.
Zauner ponders what to call the process of fermentation and if it is a “controlled death.” She concludes that through the correct processes, fermentation stops a head of cabbage from simply moulding over and decomposing. Instead, when done correctly, fermentation “protects it [the cabbage] from spoiling”. Through fermentation, the cabbage “exists in time and transforms. So it is not quite controlled death, because it enjoys a new life altogether.”
Zauner talks about the memories of her mother, much like that of the kimchi fermentation process: “The memories I had stored, I could not let fester. Could not let trauma infiltrate and spread, to spoil and render them useless. They were moments to be tended.” In part, Zauner speaks not just of her love and grief for her mother but also of the intergenerational trauma that comes from immigration and cross-cultural identities. I understand Zauner’s kimchi story as saying we don’t have to let these painful, tragic, and deeply traumatic losses and memories become “rotten”. They can have a different life, “a new life altogether”. I like the idea of tending to these memories like one would check on kimchi. You don’t have to be with them every day – indeed, these memories, like a cabbage, need time away to process and ferment correctly.
It is okay to need time to understand things. It is okay to allow yourself time to process and understand everything you have experienced. It is okay to revisit those things when you need them and to allow them a different and new life, if you want. If you have experienced loss, you will never be the same. There will be a new version of who you are, and it takes a lot more time to ferment and process that new self than kimchi (sorry).
Going back to my opening statements, Zauner’s memoir is the permission for you to take time to form your own ideas, opinions, and beliefs. It is okay to need time to process things and understand them in your own time and way.
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I can truly recommend this book from the bottom of my heart. Zauner is an amazing author. You will not be disappointed, but go gently. As always, share the reading love.