This beloved memoir "is an extraordinary, honest, nuanced and compassionate look at adoption, race in America and families in general" (Jasmine Guillory, Code Switch, NPR)
What does it means to lose your roots—within your culture, within your family—and what happens when you find them?
Nicole Chung was born severely premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of giving her a better life, that forever feeling slightly out of place was her fate as a transracial adoptee. But as Nicole grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.
With warmth, candor, and startling insight, Nicole Chung tells of her search for the people who gave her up, which coincided with the birth of her own child. All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets—vital reading for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out where they belong.
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The story my mother told me about them was always the same.
Your birth parents had just moved here from Korea. They thought they wouldn’t be able to give you the life you deserved.
It’s the first story I can recall, one that would shape a hundred others once I was old enough, brave enough, to go looking.
When I was very youngthree or four, I’ve been toldI would crawl into my mother’s lap before asking to hear it once more. Her arms would have encircled me, solid and strong where I was slight, pale, and freckled against my light-brown skin. Sometimes, in these half-imagined memories, I picture her in the dress she wore in our only family portrait from this era, lilac with flutter sleevesan oddly delicate choice for my solid and sensible mother. At that age, a shiny black bowl cut and bangs would have framed my face, a stark contrast to the reddish-brown perm my mother had when I was young; I was no doubt growing out of toddler cuteness by then. But my mom thought I was beautiful. When you think of someone as your gift from God, maybe you can never see them as anything else.
How could they give me up?
I must have asked her this question a hundred times, and my mother never wavered in her response. Years later, I would wonder if someone told her how to comfort meif she read the advice in a book, or heard it from the adoption agencyor if, as my parent, she simply knew what she ought to say. What I wanted to hear.
The doctors told them you would struggle all your life. Your birth parents were very sad they couldn’t keep you, but they thought adoption was the best thing for you.
Even as a child, I knew my line, too.
They were right, Mom.
By the time I was five or six years old, I had heard the tale of my loving, selfless birth parents so many times I could recite it myself. I collected every fact I could, hoarding the sparse and faded glimpses into my past like bright, favorite toys. This may be all you can ever know, I was told. It wasn’t a joyful story through and through, but it was their story, and mine, too. The only thing we had ever shared. And as my adoptive parents saw it, the story could have ended no other way.
So when people asked about my family, my features, the fate I’d been dealt, maybe it isn’t surprising how I answeredfirst in a childish, cheerful chirrup, later in the lecturing tone of one obliged to educate. I strove to be calm and direct, never giving anything away in my voice, never changing the details. 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.
Looking back, of course I can make out the gapsthe places where my mother and father must have made their own guesses, the pauses where harder questions could have followed: Why didn’t they ask for help? What if they had changed their minds? Would you have adopted me if you’d been able to have a child of your own?
Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.
They thought adoption was the best thing for you.
Above all, it was a legend formed and told and told again because my parents wanted me to believe that my birth family had loved me from the start, that my parents, in turn, were meant to adopt me, and that the story unfolded as it should have. This was the foundation on which they built our family, and as I grew, I too staked my identity on it. That story, a lifeline cast when I was too young for deeper questions, continued to bring me comfort. Years later, grown up and expecting a child of my own, I would search for my birth family still wanting to believe in it.