Nicole Chung’s debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, confronts the difficulties Chung encountered growing up as an adopted Korean daughter in a predominantly white southern Oregon town. The book also chronicles her search as an adult for her biological family.
Chung resists the thought of the adoption story she grew up hearing being all she could ever know about her history. In an author talk with The Rumpus, she says she hopes her story will help readers consider “the sometimes lonely space between two cultures [and] about how powerful the truth can be.” Her memoir seeks out the events leading up to her adoption, grapples with her Korean American identity, and reflects on the role she plays in both her birth and adoptive families.
Chung reconstructs her adoptive mother’s voice using italics to begin her memoir. She offers the first version of her adoption story she was told as a young child. Like many adoptees, she was fed the line that she was a “gift from God.” Her adoptive mother told her, “Your birth parents had just moved here from Korea. They thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.” In Seattle, Chung was born premature, which, in the story her parents told, was the primary reason her biological parents gave her up. “Your birth parents were very sad they couldn’t keep you,” her mother continued, “but they thought adoption was the best thing for you.” This story came to hold a mythic force over Chung, shaping the way she thought about herself growing up. “Family lore,” she writes, can “form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world.”
This mythic story, however, did not insulate Chung while she was growing up in the eighties and nineties, and she addresses the ways in which the racism she faced from a young age caused her to feel isolated in her community. On the elementary school playground she was ostracized, openly mocked, and bullied by the other children. “ Me Chinee, me can’t see!” taunted one white boy who also happened to be in her carpool, pulling his eyelids into slits. On the ride home that same day, they were silent, not acknowledging his racist behavior only hours before. But her silence belies how wounding his words and actions were: “[I]nside of me,” Chung reflects, “something still and deep, something precious, had broken.” She goes on to say, “If I wasn’t safe with a boy who ’d known me for years, who knew where I lived, whose mother knew mine, then I couldn’t trust anyone.” She hid the hurt from her parents to protect them, and even though they loved her completely, Chung exposes how she was still, in many ways, alone growing up.
Faced with a lack of connection to her Korean heritage, Chung says, “I did not know what it meant to be a Korean completely sundered from her culture, or if I could call myself a Korean at all.” Her physical appearance even gave her a shock because she was so surrounded by whiteness that she felt white herself. When glimpsing her face in the mirror, she was “forced to catalog the hated differences” of being Asian, and she wondered what it would be like to see her own face and feel a sense of belonging instead. She acknowledges that she “was never going to grow out of being Korean in a white town.” Pushing against her origin story, then, became a way for Chung to find belonging and connection.
In her mid-twenties, motherhood motivated Chung to search for a more complete narrative of her adoption. Her nesting instinct drove her to begin the search process for her biological family. Through a “search angel,” Chung eventually learned she has sisters, Jessica and Cindy. She got in touch and forged a bond with her full sister, Cindy, who thought Chung died at birth because that’s the story their parents told her. Through Cindy, Chung discovered that she is the youngest of the three, and that her sisters were still living on the West Coast—Cindy, in fact, not far from where Chung was raised in Oregon.
Chung and Cindy began an initially cautious correspondence that quickly blossomed into a genuine friendship, which eventually turned into sisterhood. They worked together to untangle a narrative from the half-truths their parents had given them. Cindy told Chung about their biological mother, who had been so abusive that Cindy eventually moved in with her father after her parents divorced. More than likely, Cindy explained, their father first pushed for the adoption.
“I thought of all the times I had heard that phrase—for the best—or one like it,” Chung considers. “I was sure my sister believed it was true, and perhaps it was in my case.” Although living in a white household was sometimes challenging for Chung, she acknowledges the blessing her sister did not experience—growing up in a non-abusive, loving family.
After learning more about her history through guarded correspondence with her birth parents shortly after her pregnancy, Chung aligned her fantasies with the reality. “My birth parents’ memories seemed to be based on what each wished to believe, and I couldn’t quite reconcile their stories,” she notes. “The two of them seemed united in one belief only: what happened all those years ago when I was born was beyond their control; it had simply happened to them, an event ruled by unfeeling fate.” Chung rejects the narrative that these events were fated and outside of human control. Instead, she believes her biological and adoptive parents made intentional decisions that shaped their respective families. Chung demonstrates, by having children and by asking Cindy to be her sister, the intentional decisions she was able to make in order to create her own family.
Meeting Cindy and their father while her own daughter was still young taught Chung “there is no way to remake your history or your family in the image you want.” Although she did not get a shiny, straightforward narrative to clutch, reunion still gave her something to cherish: “I felt so happy that, for the rest of my life, these early days of motherhood would be inextricably linked with my first memories of Cindy,” she says, and “[w]e were sisters, at last, because we had decided we should be.” This sisterhood and the story it unravels gives them both something beautiful to share with their daughters—a complex narrative that goes beyond the often overly simplified adoption stories like the one Chung was originally told. Additionally, conversations with her biological father have enabled her to learn about and connect with her Korean ancestors, a link she can now extend to her own daughters.
Chung also felt compelled, as her “white family’s de facto Asian ambassador,” to challenge the dynamics of that relationship. By acknowledging her race, she writes, “I am breaching the sacred pact of our family, our once-shared belief that my race is irrelevant in the presence of their love.” But pretending her race does not matter was “no longer a choice” she could make. As All You Can Ever Know demonstrates, her race especially matters because it shapes the way in which she has always moved through the world. For her to ignore race is to ignore the history to which her biological family finally tethers her—yet she acknowledges her race not to hurt her adoptive family, but to draw them closer: “The fierce wish I still harbor for them to understand me for who I am, stand with me in love and full acceptance, persists because they chose me and they raised me: we are one another’s responsibility.”
Chung resists definitively saying whether she would have “fared better” being raised with her birth family or another. She no longer thinks of her adoption “in terms of good or bad, but realistic versus oversimplified.” Learning about her lineage is a gift for her children because discovering her origins has allowed her to position herself as Korean American, an essential part of her identity she was cut off from as a child. The story Nicole Chung once clung to, sitting on her adoptive mother’s lap and asking to hear it again and again, is eradicated by the imperfect but more genuine rewritten story she gathered through her search and reunion.
All You Can Ever Know. By Nicole Chung. New York: Catapult, 2018. 240 pp. $26.00.