All You Can Ever Know

Nicole Chung

With Asians on my mind this morning, I stumbled on this book when an essay in Time magazine titled “My adoption didn’t make me less Korean” got my attention. I can not locate a digital link for this (I will share some excerpts – her own words about being Asian at this fraught time – later in this blog). In my all things adoption group, there have been a number of Korean adoptees. The international adoption of Korean children by Americans was the result of a large number of orphaned mixed children from the Korean War after 1953. That is not Nicole’s story.

In looking for her book, I found a New Yorker review by Katy Waldman – Nicole Chung’s Adoption Memoir, “All You Can Ever Know,” Is an Ode to Sisterly Love. Like many adoptees, her parents believed she was a gift from God. Like many transracial adoptees, growing up among white, Catholic Oregonians in the eighties and nineties, students teased her for being adopted and for looking “different.” 

Her adoptive mother couldn’t tell her much about her original parents. They “had just moved here from Korea” and “thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.” This brief story, one of love and sadness and altruism, “may be all you can ever know,” her mother told her.

After a protracted and unglamorous process of filing paperwork and wrangling lawyers, she finally uncovered the reality of her original genetic family, the Chungs. She discovered an older sister, Cindy. Sadly, her sister had been physically abused by their natural mother. She learned that her parents are divorced and not speaking to one another. Her birth father had told Cindy that Nicole had died. 

Nicole explains why having a baby mattered to her so much, “I wouldn’t be alone anymore. There would be someone who was connected to me in a way no one else had ever been.” For her memoir, Chung wanted to explore “the quiet drama of the everyday adopted experience.” 

Remembering the fiction she scribbled down as a kid, Chung writes that she “found a measure of previously unknown power” in envisioning “places where someone like me could be happy, accepted, normal.” 

From Chung’s Time essay – What her adoptive parents struggled with was to fully and consistently see and understand her as a Korean American woman. She doesn’t blame them for this, she notes – “Acknowledging it flew in the face of everything ‘experts’ had told them when they adopted me in the early 1980s – the adoption agency, the social worker, the judge had all maintained that it wouldn’t, shouldn’t matter.” She shares the things they would say to be color-blind with her.

She also notes – “Often, people who’ve read my memoir will note my white family’s ‘color-blind’ approach and ask whether this led to me thinking of myself as white. My answer is always swift, unequivocal: no, I never thought I was white.” However, she goes on to say her adoptive parents did “assume that I’d be protected from racism because the world would see me as they did – their child, no more, no less – and as my race was irrelevant to them, they could not imagine anyone else caring about it either.”

She says, “While my adoptive family saw me as almost raceless and therefore safe from racists, I lived every day from the age of 7, when I heard my first slur from a classmate, understanding that my Korean face made me hypervisible where we lived – and that it could also make me a target.”

This startled me. I cannot imagine children that age knowing racial slurs. Then, I remember reading once that children learn racism in the family. I thought about WWII, the Korean War and more recently the Vietnam War. I could believe that some returning veterans, having done battle with Asians, might have brought bias home with them.

Chung describes how from the start of the pandemic and racial scapegoating, she has thought of other Asian American kids growing up in white families and white spaces, even as she knows their experiences are not interchangeable. She says, “I know it can feel like a unique burden when you witness or experience racism in a kind of isolation, unable to retreat and process your rage or sorrow with people who also know what it’s like to live in an Asian body.”

She speaks of the experiences of transracial adoptees – “asking, sometimes begging our adoptive relatives to acknowledge our experiences; to stand with us; to challenge the racism endemic in our society as well as our own families and communities.”

Her adoptive parents have died. She says, “I’ve had to accept that there are questions I’ll never get answers to, things we’ll never be able to settle. That my parents didn’t entirely understand or accept my racial reality will always be with me, part of my adoption story.”

In her final thoughts she says, “I know the last thing either of my parents would have wanted was for me to despair, or live my life in fear. And so, for their sake and my own, I won’t.”

2 thoughts on “All You Can Ever Know

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