Origin Story: Nicole Chung on “All You Can Ever Know”

Nicole Chung’s first book, All You Can Ever Know, is an intimate reflection on adoption and family, a gorgeously-wrought personal story with universal reverberations. Born to Korean parents in Seattle, adopted by a white couple who viewed her as a blessing from God, Chung grew up in a very white town in Southern Oregon. As a child she internalized whiteness as the default and saw herself as the anomaly. Her parents couldn’t conceive of the confusion and difficulty this gap created for her, both internally and in the parochial school she and the same 25 children attended from kindergarten through sixth grade.

The memoir’s title flows from Chung’s conversations with her adoptive mom in which she was (often subtly) discouraged from inquiring about her origins, about the people who gave birth to her but chose not to raise her as their own. For years her questions were usually tentative, her searches halting. Once she was pregnant with her own child, though, she needed to know about the family of her physical origins.

Very quickly, she found them. Chung was exhilarated by her affinity with the sister she’d never known she had, shaken by what she learned about her biological mother, fascinated by all she shared with her biological father but also puzzled and hurt by her interactions with him. Her conversations with her adoptive parents shifted and deepened, too, as the people who’d given her life became flesh-and-blood individuals to them rather than a divinely-ordained mechanism by which the Lord delivered a baby to a couple who’d prayed for one. As Chung reflected on what her biological family might mean about her own ability to be a parent, she found herself turning to her adoptive mother for insight.

As a longtime reader of Chung’s work online, who followed her earlier writings about adoption as I became an aunt to three wonderful kids adopted out of foster care, I awaited her memoir eagerly. Shortly before her book was published, she made time to talk with me on the phone about the emotional and intellectual context for All You Can Ever Know. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. –Maud Newton

Maud Newton: I first started devouring your work online several years ago. One of the things that has struck me most is your writing about growing up in a place where nearly everyone but you was white, growing up as the child of parents who adopted you, who loved you, but didn’t understand the consequences of raising you in a place where whiteness was the default.

Nicole Chung: It was the default of my childhood, obviously within my white adoptive family, but also the schools I went to and the communities that we were a part of. Not only did I grow up in a fairly white town, but I went to a very small parochial school for elementary school. This was the same 25 white kids in my class, year after year, kindergarten through sixth grade. So I sometimes went so long without seeing anybody who looked like me.

It’s strange for me now when I go home, being back in that super-homogenous environment. I find that I don’t know how to get used to it again, because that hasn’t been my reality for so long. But I’d grown up for years when it was, and after a while I just stopped noticing, or I stopped questioning anyway, being in these all-white rooms and these all-white spaces. And it really took until my twenties to start thinking harder about that, and ways in which it might have been harmful. It would have been much harder for me, growing up there, if I thought about it constantly — I had to both notice it and internalize it and get used to it.

Part of it, of course, is that [my parents are] white and really were conditioned to believe that ignoring my race was the best possible thing to do. This is what they were told by experts, like social workers and the judge who finalized my adoption. But there were also things I directly hid from them, and that’s kind of on me. I remember not really sharing with them the extent of what was happening at school with bullying or being called slurs.

I wouldn’t have known the words for what was happening at school, because I had been taught that racism was in the past, and it was also always very violent, and what was happening to me wasn’t threatening my physical safety. So I wouldn’t have even had the language to describe it to them. But also, I remember feeling very ashamed and wanting to protect them from hearing about that, even at a very young age, like 8 or 9.

MN:   You were still very young when your family visited Seattle, where your birth parents had lived. In the city’s international district, you realized whiteness wasn’t the default everywhere.

NC:   There, my white parents were in the minority, because most of the people we saw were Asian. The main thing I remember is looking out and wondering “could any of these people be related to me?” or “is it possible that any of them know my birth family?” I didn’t think about that possibility before we went there, and then once we were there, I thought about it constantly. I remember just staring at the Asian people who passed us on the street, and wondering, thinking “if there was some distant connection even, would I be able to sense it somehow?” That was the first time I’d ever been anywhere where that would have been a remote possibility.

After that trip, too, I remember thinking: Whiteness is definitely the default where I live, and here I don’t really know hardly anybody like me. But my life doesn’t have to stay that way forever. There are places I can go in my own country where I wouldn’t be as much in the minority. I didn’t have the words for this yet. But where I could maybe find something like a community. That thought gave me a lot of hope, and I held on to it for years.

MN: I know there were many reasons that you decided to try to figure out who your birth parents were, and you write about this so beautifully. Can you talk about when you decided to take the plunge and search in earnest?

NC: At the root of it all was this burning curiosity that I’ve always had, and didn’t always know how to express. As I wrote in the book, it could be a difficult feeling to put words to. I felt a great deal of pressure to not talk about my birth family and not think about them as much as I probably did. It wasn’t pressure exerted in a cruel way. It was just nobody else in my life seemed that curious about it—my family and I guess my close friends. It was a settled fact. But what was a settled fact to everybody was my origin story, and it was such a mystery. I had all these questions about who they were, and the people I came from, and why this had happened.

But in addition to that, there were definitely practical reasons. As I write in the book, I really took the plunge and started searching while I was pregnant with my first child. I remember sitting there at my first pre-natal appointment, and I was being asked all these questions about my family medical history, and my birth mother’s pregnancy with me, and why she delivered so early—and I didn’t have any answers. Suddenly, that was really scary. I remember thinking, “What if this happens to me? What if I have a higher-risk pregnancy? What if there’s some hereditary thing that I don’t know about, that I should know about?” Not just related to pregnancy or birth either–I had no idea what medical conditions ran in the family.

It was definitely easier to explain to people, “I am searching in part because I do want this social-medical history.” It was something everyone, even my adoptive parents, kind of understood intrinsically. “Oh yeah, that’s a good pragmatic thing, I guess.”

But I still think at the heart of it, the main reason was this curiosity. I’d thought about it for years. I had done a lot of research into the process, but it really took my pregnancy for me to feel that final push.

MN: I was so moved by one conversation you had with your mom in the book. You’d found out some things about your birth mother that made you worried about yourself, about what kind of mother you’d be. I want to let the reader experience that conversation, but I ended up weeping. I closed the book for a while to sit with that moment.

NC:   I started learning things about my birth family, and of course, people are complicated, and it’s never as straightforward as you think it’s going to be. My adopted mom was the only person I wanted to talk to in that particular moment.

I love that conversation now, because I think it shows not just the strength of our relationship, even though we are very different, even though we don’t always agree, and frequently disagree, about important things. She was the person I wanted to call and talk to in that moment, because she just knows me very well. I also knew she wouldn’t lie to me. I feel that conversation shows my mother for who she is. She’s extremely straightforward. She doesn’t mince words. My mother has very little filter, and usually gives it to me straight.

Knowing that I could share these things, that we could talk about things I was learning, good and bad — it was very affirming. It made me feel like whatever else happened, I always had my husband who was in my corner, and I knew my adoptive parents were going to support me regardless of what I found out, or how I decided to proceed. That felt at the time very affirming and very generous on their part, and it still does.

It’s so interesting, too, because they were really happy when I reconnected with my sister, and they’ve now gotten to meet her, too. I wouldn’t say we’re a completely blended, new family. But I’ve started to see, even in recent years, sort of steps toward that. It’s like nothing I would have expected, and it’s really wonderful to get to share my families with each other.

That conversation was so helpful for me at the time. I was in a really vulnerable place. It was really good to write about it in the book.

MN:   It was good to read about it, too. I’m imagining it now as a scene in a movie based on the book, and people warning friends to bring a box of tissues.

The relationship that has developed between you and your sister, in some ways feels like–not the heart of the book, but the heart of the positive expansion that has come from your search. She was a surprise in the narrative for me. You make the thrill of initially corresponding with her so palpable, and your excitement and anxiety when she and her husband visited, how vulnerable you felt, are all so finely and suspensefully drawn.

NC:   Cindy was a surprise to me, too, in real life. She was not what I expected. I am so thankful every day for our relationship. We still talk about that. We don’t get tired of talking about our story, which is weird—it’s been ten years. But just the other day, we were talking about this book, and also I was just thanking her again for all of her support while I was writing it, for letting me share it. Because I did want to ask her and make sure she was ok with everything that I included about her in the book. It’s really so much like OUR story, I feel, and I know she feels that way, too. I think it really kind of belongs to both of us.

I still enjoy telling her, “I’m really glad you’re in my life.” This is so much more than I would have expected when I went looking for biological connections and just information, to have this relationship—it’s so special, and I wouldn’t have even dreamed of hoping for it, really.

Then I was thinking, “Well, should I not talk about it as much in interviews because is it a spoiler?” But honestly, she’s so much a star of the book… Everybody’s been asking me about her. It makes complete sense. I really feel she’s just such an important person in my life, and obviously such an important person in the book.

MN: Your relationship ultimately seems so natural, ultimately almost effortless.

NC:    I don’t know that it was effortless. Cindy is a very easy person to love and a really easy person to be with, but I feel like I’m a little bit too much sometimes. Maybe I’m too hard on myself, but it felt so high-stakes meeting her, because I knew I loved her and I really wanted to be part of her life in a meaningful way, and I wanted us to feel like real sisters—but you know, we didn’t meet until we were in our late twenties. She was I guess in her early thirties. I knew she’d gone through her life just fine without me. I was really nervous when she came out to visit. I didn’t think she’d be mean, and I knew enough about her to know she was very kind. But I wasn’t sure… Is she just like indulging me with all of this? Does she just kind of want to be pen pals? Does she really think of me as a real sister? So yeah, I that’s where a lot of my nerves came from.

I was so nervous the night we met, I walked into a doorframe and got this huge bruise on my nose. So the rest of the week together, in all the pictures, there’s this mark on my face. That’s how nervous I was. I get even more physically awkward when I’m anxious.

But it was a great first visit. Finally, toward the end I was able to work up my nerve and just tell her, “I really feel close to you and I want to be close to you; I want us to feel like sisters, and I want to be there for you if you ever need me—and is that something that you want, too?” It was such a vulnerable moment. But she did!

The wonderful thing, I think, is that our kids have never questioned it. We’ve been in reunion for their whole lives. So my kids have always known her as Auntie Cindy. We have children the same age. My second daughter was born just two months after Cindy’s first child. So we have kids the same age, and our kids know each other and love each other. It’s really great to me. As far as they’re concerned, we might as well have never been separated. Which is not to say we’re going to hide it from them; we’ve already started talking to them about it. I just mean, like, they don’t question that she’s part of our life, and that they know each other. It feels we’ve been able to put our families together in this really powerful way—a way that our kids don’t even question. It doesn’t seem remarkable to them. I really love that.

MN:   That’s great. I often think about how for kids, the narrative really begins with them and what they know.

NC:   Right.

MN:   It’s wonderful for your kids, that they will never know a time without her and without their cousins.

NC:   Yes — it’s a complicated legacy that we’re giving them. We’re starting to have conversations that are kind of hard, and will continue to be difficult, I think, and sometimes a little bit heartbreaking, honestly. But at the same time, they really only see the happy part where it ended up ok. I don’t want to oversimplify it for them. I know it’s complex. But I’m so glad that they’ve also seen the power of our relationship and of our reunion, and have gotten to reap the benefits of it.

MN: You also met your biological father and found out that you shared some really uncanny similarities with him. Another revelation I don’t want to spoil for the reader, but I got chills.

NC:   It’s so weird. My sister does it, too—and my kids, but they might do it because they’ve grown up watching me do it. I don’t know.

MN:   In your case, though, it’s clear that that wasn’t why!

NC:   Right.

MN:   I wonder how discovering these similarities has changed your relationship to thinking about what it means to come from someone in that physical way.

NC: Growing up adopted, one of the things I heard over and over: ‘Nurture over nature.’ No one ever really came out and said blood is not important. And I don’t think blood is everything. But it was always kind of minimized, the power of these connections and what is passed on from generation to generation.

Also, I think, as you’re well aware, we are so disconnected in some ways from the people who came before us, particularly between the first immigrant generations here in America and subsequent generations. The break with the old country is often permanent, and after a couple of generations there is no more contact. So there’s just a lot that we don’t know. There’s a lot to unearth when we go in search of it, and that’s interesting.

I always grew up thinking (and maybe I just had to think this, maybe it was comforting to think this), blood is not really that important; I’m probably not so much like my birth parents. It was very strange. And, like you said, I discovered these uncanny similarities, both big ones and little ones. It has made me wonder more about other people in the family who I don’t know, and might never know, in part because some of them don’t know about me still, and in part because my birth family is a family of immigrants as well. We do have relatives in Korea, and my sister knows many of them. But she hasn’t been back and she hasn’t seen them in a long time. My birth father goes back fairly regularly. I don’t know how much those connections are going to be carried forward, honestly, in the next generation, like my sister’s and mine and then our kids’.

So I do think about this a little bit differently now. It’s hard to think about it in terms of what we lose, because as an adopted person I guess I feel I’ve already lost a lot of that to begin with.

It was very strange to discover that my birth father loves to write. It’s not something that anybody else in my adoptive family does, so far as I know. But I always loved to write, and to find my birth family and realize this is something that my father and my sister also love and have also always done… I don’t know. It’s hard to look at that and not think, “Oh, probably genes do have something to do with that.”

MN:   Learning that the three of you are all writers was one of the most satisfying revelations of the book for me.

Reading and thinking about the younger you being surrounded by whiteness, accepting whiteness as the default, I kept thinking about how public white supremacists have become since the 2016 election. Of course racism was roiling under the surface all along – as I unfortunately know from my own family history — but we can’t deny it now, and it’s terrifying. You’ve tweeted a little bit about the political impasse between yourself and your parents. I wondered if you could talk about whether you’ve had any conversations with your mom, since she read the book, that seem like a window cracking open in any way.

NC:   A lot of our conversations about adoptions since my…not even since the election, but since my reconnection with my birth family, have been interesting. I still talk about my parents in the plural, even though, as you know, my father passed away in January.

MN: Yes, I’m so glad he got to read part of your book.

NC: But up until he passed away, I would say this held true for both of them. I think my parents will still always think of my adoption in the way that they told me about it when I was growing up, which is: Not only was it meant to be, but kind of divine intervention, and it was a blessing, and it was planned by God, and it was not something that any of us were supposed to question at all. I think in some sense that is always how they thought of it — how my mom will kind of always think of it.

However, at the same time, ever since I found my birth family and that became our new reality, we’ve had to talk more about what it meant that I grew up, not just with them, but where I did, and the effect that had on me. There were also a lot of things, as I mentioned, that I never really told them until I was an adult. So it’s hard to see how they could have helped me through things that I didn’t share with them.

One of the most meaningful conversations I had with my mother after all this happened was, you know, when she was asking me about my birth family. She was so curious about them, and curious about them as people in their own right, with their own problems and their own hopes and their own tragedies. She asked me if I thought my adoption was a good thing, or if I thought it would have been better to have grown up with them.

It was interesting, the fact that she could even give voice to that question. I don’t want to make it into a bigger moment than it was, but it did feel like a huge admission—like, she had made space in her mind for the possibility that maybe things could have worked out a different way, or maybe, even, what was really joyful for my parents was something of a regret or a tragedy for my birth family. That was really meaningful.

[The election] felt like a moment to me that demanded their solidarity or their understanding. And it did make me wish, looking back on my childhood and I guess my young-adulthood, too, that I had made a habit of sort of challenging or talking with them more about these things, as I drifted further and further Left and my family drifted further Right. I wish it had been easier to have these conversations.

But it’s always been a little bit fraught, to be honest, because they’re white and I’m not, and we don’t experience this country in the same way. I can tell them all I want about things I’ve experienced and what’s happened, but it doesn’t make it real to them. But also, I feel really strongly about the need to try to talk with them about all of this, to talk about the current political situation, to say what I feel is wrong and to tell them that I think they should also think it’s wrong. I want them to be part of my life. So that means we have to have these conversations. Because I am not willing to have this relationship where we aren’t honest and where we don’t talk about any of this. We’ve sort of done that, and I’m done with that.

MN: In your twenties a white couple contemplating a transracial adoption asked you if you thought it would be the right decision, if it would be okay. You evoke the pressure and awkwardness of being asked to be the spokesperson for all transracial adoptees, the advisor to two hopeful, well-intentioned people sitting there in the room with you seeking an answer. I imagine you’re still often asked for advice. Do you have any further thoughts that you’d like to pass on to parents like them who do adopt?

NC: There are definitely certain things I guess I’d say now that I might not have said 10-15 years ago. It’s really important, if you want to adopt transracially, to take a good, hard look at your community, and where you live and your social circle and the schools your kids would be districted for, and maybe the religious communities or other communities that you’re a part of, and think about: If I were a nonwhite child, a child of color in this environment, how would I feel? Would I see anybody else like me? Would I be the only one?

I hear a lot more these days about the importance of acknowledging and celebrating a child’s heritage and their culture, and I think that’s wonderful. I also think it’s sort of the easy part to focus on, and it is much harder to talk to kids about racism and about prejudice. My kids go to a majority minority school, and I also hear stories when they come home that make me really sad and that we have to talk about. So diversity also is not some kind of cure-all for racism.

But I think it’s really important to be able to have these hard conversations, and not always wait for the kids to bring them up. It’s definitely challenging. It’s just really hard to put yourself in the shoes of another person if their experience is, by definition, not your experience. But it’s so important. Part of being a parent of a child of any kind of background at all is really trying to put yourself in their position, and putting their needs before yours.

I do hear from a lot of adoptive parents, and many of them have thanked me for writing about some of these topics. It’s always lovely. It’s nice to know that some adoptive parents are reading the work of adoptees, not necessarily mine, and are thinking about these topics. I do think there’s been a shift in adoption, and I am hearing from more parents who are thinking and talking about this openly. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean you always know exactly what to say. But in general, I do think people are thinking and talking much more about issues of race and identity and adoption than they were when I was growing up. It’s been very good to hear that from people.