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'All You Can Ever Know' is a sensitive examination of transracial adoption

Nicole Chung’s personal odyssey toward self-understanding and acceptance will speak to all readers with questions about their personal history.

All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir By Nicole Chung Catapult 240 pp. Review by Terry Hong [Quoted page numbers correspond to finished copy.]

Here’s a memoir by a transracial adoptee about being a transracial adoptee – and unless you're a transracial adoptee yourself, you're probably thinking, “eh, I'll pass.” And that would surely be a mistake. Because beyond the specifics here – as unique, affecting, heartstring-pulling as this debut is – Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know will resonate with any sensitive, thoughtful reader who has “[found] the courage to question what [they’ve] been told” – about family, history, their very selves.

Born 10 weeks premature in May 1981 to an ethnic Korean couple, Chung was adopted by her white parents after spending her first two-and-a-half months in Seattle Children’s Hospital. “The story my mother told me about [my birthparents] was always the same”: her precarious health, their immigrant struggles, their supreme sacrifice in choosing adoption because it was “the best thing” for baby Chung. “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.” That Chung’s was a closed adoption meant further details were unlikely: “This may be all you can ever know.”

Her parents called her their “gift from God,” but for Chung, the reality of a Korean child in a white family in Oregon meant she always felt like “the much-adored but still obvious alien in the family.” She admired her parents’ “nonchalance” about her adoption: her father answered “especially nosy questions by saying, If you put a Pole and a Hungarian together, you get a Korean!”; her mother dismissed invasive curiosity with “little more than a hard, eloquent look.”

As a child, Chung had no such arsenal against cruel classmates: “‘You’re so ugly, your own parents didn’t even want you!’” She had no rebuke for spiteful schoolgirls who asked if she had a “sideways vagina” because an older brother insisted “‘Asian girls have those.’” The racism – both directed and casual, sometimes even from her extended family – taught her that “normal” was white, and that white meant that you belonged.

That “insidious desire” to be white dissipated gradually, enabled by growing up and leaving her Oregon town (where she had “kept a secret running tally of every single Asian person [she] had ever seen in public”). By her early-20s, she began to question the “‘race-blind’ view of [her] adoption”: even if race “didn’t matter” to adoptive parents, it would matter to others in ways the parent nor child could ever control.

And then, in 2007, Chung became pregnant. While her Irish Lebanese husband could trace some 500 years of family history, she “couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that [her] baby was destined to inherit a half-empty family tree.” She instinctively understood that her parents “didn’t want [her] to want to search” for her birth parents. “I was enough for them, and they wanted to be enough for me.” Impending motherhood, however, made her need to know more. Laws had changed, even for closed adoptions, and Chung hired a “search angel”: waiting for her own child to come into the world, she admitted she wanted to find her birthparents, and she “wanted to know everything they were willing to tell [her].”

What she learns, who she meets, what new bonds she creates, which connections she lets go, will change her story forever. While she realizes “as adopters and adoptee, [her] parents and [she] will always view my adoption in vastly different ways,” she remains unwaveringly certain of her parentage: “I am my adoptive parents’ daughter. No matter what, no matter our differences, they will always be my parents, the ones who wanted me when no on one else did.”

Raw, open, forthright, Chung’s personal odyssey is an intimate journey toward self-understanding and acceptance. “[T]o be adopted is to know only the rewritten story,” but with persistence and courage, she pushes against the limits of what she once thought was "all she can ever know" into so much more, modifying, adapting,  transforming her “messy family history and shifting Korean and American identities.”

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