I first saw All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung on NPR’s Best Books of 2018. It is a memoir of Chung’s life growing up in rural Oregon, and her quest to find herself. She was born prematurely from Korean immigrant parents, and adopted by a white couple. Part of what sparked my interest in this book is that it reminded me of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. These books are very different, but one story line involved the interracial adoption of a Chinese baby girl by a white couple. I was interested to read the perspective of the adoptee in an interracial adoption and wondered if the circumstances were similar to those in Little Fires Everywhere.
I liked this book. I was impressed by Chung’s writing to describe her many, conflicting feelings and fears when it came to growing up feeling so alone and then looking for her birth family. Chung was the only non-white person at her school and in her family. Her family created a loving home for her, but did not understand the isolation and racism she faced. Chung memorably describes her first visit to Seattle as a kid: she saw another Asian person for the first time and imagined that she might run into her birth family. She also mentions how meaningful it was for her to see Kristi Yamaguchi on television–a beautiful Asian woman winning a gold medal.
In college, Chung was able to be around other people of Korean descent, making her feel less like an outcast. For a long time she told herself that she wasn’t interested in finding out about her birth family, that her adoptive family was enough for her. This surely stemmed from her adoptive family’s fear–and subtle discouragement–of finding her birth family. But when Chung is pregnant with her first daughter, she begins to really miss the ties and knowledge that real family can provide. Partly, Chung wanted some medical history for her and her daughter, but she also wanted to know more about where she came from.
Chung begins the book with the family myth that is the story of her adoption. She was so premature, her birth family was afraid they wouldn’t be able to care for her, so they gave her up to a family that could give her a better life. What Chung finds is a long lost sister, and a much more complicated family story than she’d been prepared for.
In addition to how being adopted shaped her life, Chung discusses its impact on her daughters’ lives. She is happy that they can grow up with a loving biological aunt as well as her adopted family, but struggles to give them the Korean culture and language that she would have known had she grown up in her birth family.
This was a relatively quick, thoughtful read that I found interesting. I imagine those who were adopted or are even struggling to determine how they fit in any non-conventional family would find this book especially compelling.
I understand why Chung decided not to get to know her mother, but I felt very badly for her. Chung discovers that not only did her birth parents tell her siblings and the rest of the family that she had died, but that Chung’s birth mother had been abusive towards her older sister. Apparently, their mother’s father had also been abusive. But it was her birth mother who had sent a letter asking about her when Chung was young, and kept calling her trying to connect. Chung says that what her birth mother needed was therapy, but there was no money for it and it was too difficult to find one that spoke Korean. Maybe therapy could have separated Chung’s birth mother from her demons, but instead she is a never-seen character, avoided by Chung.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.