In her debut memoir All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung challenges the traditional adoption narrative and sheds light on the complicated reality of being a transracial adoptee. How do you find community in a town where no one looks like you? What’s it like to embrace your birth culture years in adulthood? What do you tell your children when they ask about their heritage?
As an Asian American adopted by a white family myself, I related deeply to her experiences grappling with racial identity and heritage—of becoming the poster child for adoption, of feeling too Asian or not Asian enough, depending on the situation. All You Can Ever Know is yet another reminder of how important representation is, both as an exercise in empathy across cultural boundaries and as catharsis for those who have had undergone similar experiences.
With this in mind, I spoke on the phone with Nicole, formerly of The Toast and now the editor-in-chief of Catapult, about her experience growing up as a Korean adoptee and what it was like to write her life’s story.
What was the inspiration for All You Can Ever Know?
I knew I wanted to write this story—I started to publish essays about adoption several years ago. I get a lot of questions and follow-ups from readers, and I was surprised, first of all, that it was a topic of interest. A lot of people didn’t necessarily know a lot about it or had only heard the perspective of adopted parents or maybe adoption professionals, but hadn’t read a lot of work by adoptees on the subject. It started to occur to me that maybe there would be enough interest and enough material for a book. I thought in a book-length project that I’d have the space to tell the whole story and introduce the full cast of characters and talk about it and make room for all the complications and nuance in my story. It’s obviously just one adoption story—it doesn’t mean that it’s representative of all or even most adoptions, but I thought it really needed a lot of pages and a higher word count to get the full story across.
I was thinking so much as I was growing up that I didn’t really ever read adoption stories—and certainly not by adopted people. So again, it started to really strike me that this perspective needed more representation in the literary landscape. And I really wanted to tell the story. Obviously, it means a lot to me and I was hoping that maybe it would mean something to readers and teach some of them more about adoption.
You mention in your book that you grew up in a primarily white community in Oregon and didn’t know any other Koreans as a child. How do you think this has affected your relationship to your heritage and the greater Asian American community?
I really had no sense of a Korean or Asian American community when I was growing up. It was just not something that existed around me. I was young and then came of age when we just started to get internet access. So even in my early years, when I was online in middle school and high school, I didn’t necessarily know to look for a community there, in the sense of Korean Americans or fellow adoptees. I didn’t find that until much later. So I didn’t have a real sense of myself as Korean for many, many years. At least, I knew I was Korean, but didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t really have any models, I didn’t really become close to any fellow Koreans. It was definitely confusing, and I think as a result, I will probably always feel more distance than I wish I felt.
Later in life, how were you able to get more involved in those communities and become more aware of your Korean-American heritage and the adoption community? What was that journey like of finding it as an adult, and how has that affected your understanding of it now?
It’s definitely a work in progress. I don’t imagine that I have discovered or come to understand everything that I will in time. I think it also wasn’t any one event. I was always curious, but didn’t have a way to know or explore my heritage, since there were no other Koreans growing up. I did go to a college that had a large Asian American population, and I made some Korean American friends in college. It’s definitely been a process. It’s something I still feel really insecure about. I think as an adopted person I’ll always feel a little bit insecure in uncontrollable ways about how Korean I am. But I think it started when I made—not just Korean friends—friends with other Asian American and people of color in college.
Reuniting with my birth family was obviously huge. Getting to know my sister and become close with her and find some ways to share my life with her was very important. And doing my own research and trying to learn more. I think too what was huge for me in the Asian American community was eventually the internet and talking about some of these issues.
And also, I volunteer-edited for a publication called Hyphen. It’s a publication dedicated to telling the stories of Asians in America, and that was my first experience editing other writers. That’s where I discovered I really loved editing, and editing essays in particular. I got involved with Hyphen as a volunteer in part just to be a part of that community and as a way to serve it in a small way and get to know other Asian American writers and creators.
You mention in your book that it was constantly reinforced to you as a child that your adoption was “for the best.” How has getting in touch with your birth family affected your understanding of that narrative?
I think even before I got in touch with them, I started to interrogate that word, “best.” The thing I grew up hearing was, “They made this decision because they thought you’d have a better life.” I think the word “better” and “best” are really fraught. They’re loaded words and not words I thought to interrogate closely when I was growing up hearing them. I don’t think of my adoption as a tragedy. I think there were a lot of challenges within my birth family and my adopted family. Neither of my families is perfect—far from it because people aren’t perfect.
I remember one conversation I had with my adopted mother not long after I met my birth father and my sister. My adopted mom was asking if I thought it would’ve been better if they’d been able to keep me after all—if I hadn’t been adopted, basically. It was impossible to answer that question. It’s just a really tough one to answer. I think if anything what I’ve learned is that I don’t necessary think of adoption as mine or anyone else’s in terms of “better” or “best” or “right” or “wrong” or “good” or “bad.” There can be a lot of positives, and there can be a lot of complications too. I guess I don’t find it helpful anymore to think of my adoption or anyone else’s in such stark terms. Learning what I’ve learned, I don’t regret the fact that I was adopted or that I had the childhood I did. I think the book is an exercise in reconsidering that story—trying to look at it very honestly and talk about the things that were good and the things that were really challenging.
How has becoming a mother affected your understanding of your adoption?
I think becoming a mother has affected my understanding of everything. I think I tend to avoid strong absolute conclusions more than ever since becoming a parent, because it is an extremely humbling experience every day. Every single day. You learn a lot about yourself, you learn how little you know, and the work that goes into loving someone and being a family and being there for them unconditionally. It’s definitely affected my overall understanding of who I am.
One reason, as I write in the book, that I did end up searching for my birth family was because I was having a child. I wanted to have something more to tell her about our history, about our heritage. I thought the answers I had weren’t necessarily good enough for either of us. Until I found out I was pregnant and was looking squarely at motherhood for the time as a reality, not as a hypothetical, I hadn’t really had cause to consider the adoption for anyone in my family beyond me. I could see its effects on my parents and obviously on me, and I could think about what it had done or what it had felt like in my adopted family, but until there was another generation to consider—until I was pregnant myself and expecting a child—I couldn’t really think about, in concrete terms, what it would mean for my kids to be the children of an adoptee and what sort of questions they might have as a result or what kind of disconnect they might feel from their history or heritage as a result. It sounds obvious as I say it. Like, of course there was always going to be an impact on them, but until they were real—until my daughter was a real possibility—I never had to think about it that hard.
Certainly, becoming a parent changed my thoughts about adoption, in the sense that it wasn’t just me anymore. There was going to be somebody else in the picture—somebody who I was accountable to, somebody who would have her own questions about our history and about our family, and I really wanted to be able to answer those questions for her. At the same time, I really wanted to be honest about what I didn’t know and what I could only guess at. I wanted to be able to share as much as possible with her. It affected me in every way, but definitely profoundly affected how I thought about being an adoptee and the things that we pass on.
You said that, growing up, you didn’t have a lot of stories about race, but since becoming involved in the literary community, what stories have inspired to think more critically about adoption and race? What writers should people know about?
I remember reading The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka, which is still one of the only memoirs by transracial adoptees. I remember also reading A. M. Holmes’s The Mistress Daughter, and that was one of the first books by adoptees that I read. But neither of these stories is like mine, so I’m not trying to compare my story to theirs. Just seeing adoptees publish stories about these complex issues was definitely inspiring—I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it helped me feel more seen. It made me feel like some things were possible. A lot of writers that have personally inspired me, in terms of Asian American voices, are Alexander Chee, Min Jin Lee, and Celeste Ng. Last night I got to be in conversation with my friend, R. O. Kwon, who wrote The Incendiaries, which came out earlier this summer. Reese has been one of many, many amazing Asian American debut writers this year who I personally feel inspired by. Vanessa Hua, Crystal Hana Kim, Lillian Li—there are just so many this year, it’s really exciting. So I love being in that company.
And then in terms of what’s inspired me to tell adoption stories, part of it is just having the privilege of editing and publishing other adoptees. First at The Toast, now at Catapult, where I’m Editor-in-Chief. I’ve been so lucky to be able to solicit and then publish wonderful essays by adopted writers. Those websites have been so important to me, and they’ve taught me so much. There’s a lot of really good adoptee writing out there, and I hope that there will be more books. Certainly, I love being able to publish fellow adoptees. It’s one of the best parts of my job, and every time I have the chance to, I just feel very fortunate and very privileged. It reminds me of why I also write about this topic. It’s not the only thing I write about, but it’s really, deeply important to me. It’s my origin story. It put my life on this particular path. I really fought hard to recover some part of my history and some part of the truth that was lost. I think I’ll always find these topics sort of fascinating. I’m probably not going to write another book about it, [laughs] but definitely reading the work of other adoptees is really important.
If you could go back in time and give advice to your younger self, what would you tell her?
I spent so much time as a kid trying to pretend everything was okay when things were really not okay. There were a lot of different reasons for this. Some of it was that I really felt the urge to protect my adopted parents from knowing that this was going on. Some of it was confusion—or youth. I didn’t have the vocabulary, as I wrote in the book, for what was happening. Some of it too was just pride. I think I really felt like if I could present this outward face to the world, then everything would be okay. And the things people were saying to me, or the confused feelings that I had, or the questions I couldn’t answer—that wouldn’t matter. I thought I could really control my story and how other people interpreted it and how they saw me. I wish I’d let that burden go a lot sooner.
I think a lot of adoptees are far from the only ones to have pointed this out in writing that there’s a great deal of pressure sometimes to appear—and not that this is a lie—I felt a lot of pressure sometimes to be “the good adoptee.” You know—happy and grateful and well-adjusted. No issues, no problems. I’m not trying to say this is universal, and I’m not interested in speaking for all of us, but I felt that pressure a great deal and I wish I had let go of that sooner. It really took until my late twenties to even begin to come out of that and to think that maybe this isn’t a burden I should be carrying anymore. Maybe my feelings and my questions and my doubts—maybe these are more important than whatever face I showed to the world.
I should’ve also trusted that the people who loved me would be able to understand that, because they have been. I haven’t been disappointed since I started talking and writing more often and honestly about this. The people in my life care about me, including my parents. They haven’t always understood, but they’ve been supportive and they’ve tried to understand.
So I’d probably go back and tell myself to put down that burden a little bit earlier. It would be okay. And it’s okay to acknowledge that things are complicated. And it’s okay to acknowledge that you have questions. It doesn’t make you appear strange or ungrateful. It’s just human.
NONFICTION – MEMOIR
All You Can Ever Know
By Nicole Chung
October 2, 2018
Nicole Chung has written for The New York Times, GQ, Longreads, BuzzFeed, Hazlitt, and Shondaland, among other publications. She is the editor in chief of Catapult magazine and the former managing editor of The Toast. All You Can Ever Know is her first book. Follow her on Twitter at @nicole_soojung.