Nicole Chung’s memoir, “All You Can Ever Know” is a story of adoption, self acceptance, and cultural sacrifice. Her memoir dives into the thoughts and feelings that she, and many transracial adoptees, share.
Chung was born to Korean parents who gave her up for adoption when she was a newborn, and she was then adopted and raised by white parents in rural Oregon. As an Asian American growing up in a mostly white town, she felt out of place. Often times, she would have to explain her adoption to people who were confused by why an Asian child would have white parents.
“Offering the story I’d learned so early was, I thought, one way to gain acceptance. It was both the excuse for how I looked, and a way of asking pardon for it.”
Like Chung, I was also adopted as a baby by white parents in a mostly homogenous town where nobody looked like me. My biological father was Egyptian, and as luck would have it, I inherited all of his dark features. I grew up with a sister who has blond hair and blue eyes. People would find it amusing that we were even related, let alone sisters!
I truly appreciated this book because I felt like Chung was expressing so many of the thoughts that I had growing up, in a very similar situation in Maine. For example, when she leaves the town she grew up in and goes off to college, she finally knows what it’s like to not be the only minority.
“Every day, I felt relieved to have found a life where I was no longer surrounded by white people who had no idea what to make of me.”
For me, going away to college was a huge turning point in my life. My whole childhood, being the “brown” kid was practically what defined me. People would look at me and ask what country I was from or why I didn’t have an accent. But when I went away and left rural Maine, I was no longer the only minority. Suddenly, what defined me was not the color of my skin, but the person that I was. This was something I found difficult expressing to my family. To them, race should not be a big deal. That it didn’t matter. Chung mentions that she received the same sort of response from her own family. And yet it does matter. It certainly matters to the person who gets treated like a foreigner in her own country, who is constantly asked where she “really” comes from.
“It feels like my duty as my white family’s de facto Asian ambassador to remind them that I am not white, that we do experience this country in different ways because of it, that many people still know oppression far more insidious and harmful than anything I’ve ever faced. Every time I do this, I am breaching the sacred pact of our family, our once-shared belief that my race is irrelevant in the presence of their love.”
The book continues on with Chung deciding to reach out to her biological family. This was not an easy decision for her, as I would assume it is not an easy decision for most adoptees. It certainly wasn’t for me. Finding a biological family seems like it would provide closure and would finally answer many questions. And yet it sometimes does neither.
“If there’s something that everyone should know about adoption, it’s that there is no end to this. There’s no closure.”
The thing I appreciate the most about this book is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the idea of adoption. When people hear other people’s adoption stories, the go-to phrase is always “you’re so lucky you were adopted.” And yes, they would be right! When someone is adopted, they are lucky to be placed in a loving home. But what we don’t think about is that there is always a sacrifice involved. I’m not talking about the sacrifice of the biological parents, but the sacrifice of the adopted child. Although that child is gaining a new family, he or she is also giving up his or her original identity, culture, and family history. For Chung, she gave up her Korean identity. She looks Korean and she will always be treated like a minority, but she doesn’t speak Korean or know the culture as she would if she had grown up with her biological family. Of course it is better that she was adopted, but her cultural sacrifice should not be ignored.
“All You Can Ever Know” illustrates the complexities of adoption that non-adoptees may not ever really understand. I am grateful to Nicole Chung for bravely writing about this experience and showing that adoption is not only about love, but finding self identity and acceptance in a complicated world.