Growing up with her adoptive white parents in a very white town in southern Oregon, Nicole Chung “kept a secret running tally of every single Asian person I had ever seen in public.” There were so few, and her isolation so internalized, that even as a bookish little girl the stories she wrote didn’t include Asian characters. “Even when I was at my freest and most imaginative, peering beyond the limits of my own lived reality, I couldn’t picture someone like me at the center of the story,” Chung writes. “To be a hero, I thought, you have to be beautiful and adored. To be beautiful and adored, you had to be white.”
The honesty with which Chung grapples with this kind of racial erasure is a hallmark of her stunning debut memoir, a book that confronts enormous pain with precision, clarity, and grace. Chung was born in Seattle in 1981, two months premature, with an uncertain prognosis. Her birth parents were Korean immigrants already raising two girls, struggling both financially and in their marriage. Her adoptive parents saw her as a gift from God, the happy answer to the difficult questions posed by their infertility. Her adoption became a family story in which the right thing had happened; Nicole’s identity as a person of color in an all-white setting was an unimportant detail; and God had worked in mysterious ways. “The story, a lifeline cast when I was too young for deeper questions, continued to bring me comfort,” Chung writes.
As she grew, so did the questions. Chung first heard slurs in early grade school, the white boys who would pull the corners of their eyelids to mock her appearance, the white girls who asked demeaning questions. Her parents advised her to ignore the bullies, downplaying both the cruelty with which classmates mocked her for being adopted and the wounding force of the racism hurled at her. “I never had a name for what was happening,” Chung notes. “My parents and I had certainly never discussed the possibility that I might encounter bigots within my school, our neighborhood, our family.” Their inability or unwillingness to talk about race and racism was and remains common among white parents, even the most well-meaning, but it left Chung disconnected from her own identity, so much so that she was sometimes shocked to pass a mirror and see herself as Asian, not the white girl she was raised to be. “Why did I have to look the way I did — like a foreigner; like my birth parents, two people I would never even meet? Why hadn’t my adoption transformed me into the person I felt I was?”
It wasn’t until she graduated from college that Chung began to understand her own experience as part of a larger story. “After a lifetime of feeling isolated by my adoption,” she writes, “I began to think of myself as part of a broader culture of people affected by it.” Understanding that narrative — and the complex issues of race and identity that were so little explored in her own childhood — gained urgency as Chung prepared to become a mother herself. After a lifetime of feeling her difference from her parents and larger community, she writes, “I still had trouble thinking of myself as anyone’s biological anything.”
Deciding to search for her birth family wasn’t easy for Chung. She knew, despite their pledge of support, that her parents weren’t thrilled. “I was enough for them,” she writes, “and they wanted to be enough for me.” But she persisted, enlisting a kind of go-between who helps adoptees reunite with their families of origin. The process was halting, and at times fraught; there’s a particular emotional weight as Chung chronicles her growing pregnancy alongside each new development. Step by step, she learned about the family she was born into, the beginning of “a web of connections too delicate to be seen or touched, too strong to be completely severed.”
Chung is aware of the stereotypical successful adoptee-reunion stories — everyone wants “a heartwarming happy ending,” she writes, another variation on the fable of the blissful adoption. After the initial contact, she writes that she felt “a strange hope, a wild and new kind of happiness,” but she remained wary of any narrative that promises an uncomplicated success. It would spoil too much of the book to detail what unfolded after Chung made contact with her birth family — in addition to being deeply thoughtful and moving, the book is a fiercely compelling page-turner.
In the end, Chung writes, “[r]eunion had given me many truths, some of them difficult to bear.” But what shines through this beautiful book is her clear-eyed compassion for all her relations, her powerful desire for connection, her bold pursuit of her own identity, and the sheer creative energy it took to build her own family tree, to “discover and tell another kind of story.”
ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW By Nicole Chung
Catapult, 225 pp., $26
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Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at email@example.com.