In the majority-white Oregon town where Nicole Chung grew up, she was treated – subtly and blatantly – as an outsider, a curiosity, as different. Born to Korean parents and adopted by white ones, the childhood she describes in All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir (Catapult, 2018) is full of questioning:
Why did I have to look the way I did – like a foreigner; like my birth parents, two people I would never even meet? Why hadn’t my adoption transformed me into the person I felt I was?
The person Nicole wanted to be was ‘normal;’ was white. The fact that this little girl, who in many ways is loved and wanted, deeply wants to look like her adoptive parents is one of the most heartbreaking parts not only of this particular story, but of the white supremacist society that makes those feelings inevitable.
All You Can Ever Know opens with an adult Nicole meeting with a white couple, friends of a friend, who are hoping to adopt. They want to know if her experience was a ‘good’ one, as a transracial adoptee. Nicole is tasked with the job of reassuring them that transracial adoption is no big deal, that in fact if you love the adopted child enough, they will always feel at home, and racial differences will not matter.
It’s a story she learned from her adoptive parents, and one she worked hard to believe for a large part of her life. But of course, it’s not that simple. Nothing is ever that neat, especially not when it comes to race in a world where white supremacy is systemic.
Nicole’s story is one of relentless questioning, searching – for herself, her birth family, for meaning, for connection. As the narrative moves from her own childhood to her first pregnancy, which spurs her to find her birth family in earnest, and the surprising, often troubling discoveries she makes about them, the reader is taken on what feels at once like an internal process and an epic tale. In that sense, this book is exciting. It’s a family drama, a meditation on identity, and most importantly, is an own voices perspective that mainstream literature rarely (never?) sees.
As a reader, I was drawn to the honesty of Nicole Chung’s voice, and found her story extremely compelling. As a sister, I was totally engrossed in the relationship Nicole develops with her birth sister. As a queer human whose instincts and priorities lie far away from marriage and children, I was a little bored by the ‘motherhood is magical’ aspect. As someone whose literary preferences lean heavily toward poetic, bordering on flowery, prose, I felt bogged down in the exposition of this book. It read like a long essay. Which is great! I just love imagery, like, a lot, and look for it in memoirs and fiction.
Overall, this is a very worthwhile read, and I would recommend it to everyone. It challenged me to think more deeply about the lived experience of transracial adoptees, about the dynamics of families, and about what bonds people together.