All You Can Ever Know

Cover image for All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chungby Nicole Chung

ISBN 9781936787975

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

I never had a name for what was happening. I had never heard of or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence.”

Nicole Chung was prematurely born in 1980s Seattle to struggling Korean immigrant parents who already had two other daughters at home. Told that her biological parents were unable to afford the medical care she needed, or provide for a child who might be sick all her life, they placed her for adoption. She was raised in small town southern Oregon by white parents who touted a colour-blind philosophy, and were ill-equipped to help a lone Asian child navigate what her race meant in a town where almost no one else looked like her. But it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her own first child that Chung truly faced up to her desire to discover more about where she had come from, and reconnect with her biological family.

Writing clearly and eloquently about her own experiences, adoptee Nicole Chung describes the mythologizing of the adoption narrative, and how this comforting, pre-packaged story ultimately backfired as she struggled to find her identity. Despite the best of intentions, her religious adoptive parents’ emphasis on the idea that their family was fated, chosen, and meant to be made it difficult for Chung to ask the questions that she desperately needed answers to. A simplistic understanding of race and racism suffused the family dynamic, making it difficult if not impossible for Chung to find the words to explain to her adoptive family the racially motivated ostracism she began experiencing in elementary school. The simple story a divinely-ordained chosen family designed to make her feel special and loved proved drastically oversimplified when put to the test beyond the boundaries of their home.

But if the adoption narrative proved to be oversimplified, so too was the stereotypical reunion story of a biological family lost and then joyfully found. Reaching out to her biological relations proved to be just as complex as navigating the intricacies of interracial adoption. Instead of an intact family waiting to welcome her back into the fold, Chung found that her biological parents had divorced, and that her sisters had been divided by the separation. Finding her roots meant not just locating and contacting her biological family, but also figuring out what place she wanted to have within these complex dynamics that had played out over the decades of her absence. They had lives and histories to which she was a stranger, and their relationships had undercurrents she would have to learn when and how to navigate.

But happily, Chung does forge a deep bond with one of her new-found sisters, who had believed that the baby their mother had carried during that long-ago pregnancy had died in the hospital. The tentative flowering of the sibling relationship is one of the more joyful aspects of Chung’s memoir, and is explored alongside the two women’s own journeys into motherhood. Here Chung discovers that her adoption is a choice that comes with multi-generational consequences; her children will have three sets of grandparents, only some of which they will ever know, as well as their own struggles with the concept of their Korean identity, and their disconnection from the culture and language of their ancestors. In this exploration, Chung excels at taking the adoption narrative beyond “good” or “bad,” instead seeking to portray the institution that created her family in all the complexity that neat narratives seek to oversimplify. Her story refuses to be so constrained.

You might also like: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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